Thursday of this week is November 11th and for many of us that date brings back memories. For those perhaps a bit older, we might remember it as Armistice Day; though now it is officially Veterans’ Day. For most of the rest of the English-speaking world, it is known as Remembrance Day. What is the “Armistice” and what are we remembering?
Well, it marks the day that “the guns fell silent” all along the “Western Front” in 1918, the end of hostilities in what was then simply called “The Great War”; and now in light of the sad experience of subsequent years known as The First World War.
So long ago! I guess now there is no one now living who served in those vast and desperate armies? Is there now no one left of Pershing’s “Doughboys” to tell their tales?
I remember many years ago at a Veterans’ Day Parade in Oyster Bay when I was a newly-ordained priest in 1978 gazing with awe at what seemed to me then a very old man dressed in the khaki and round hat of a “WWI” American soldier. I also noticed tears streaming down his face during the patriotic speeches by civic officials and politicians. Those tears were signs of a human suffering that he still bore after so many decades; that I could not hope to comprehend.
For many of us, “WWI” evokes memories of “Kaisers”, “Tsars”, spiked helmets, bi-planes, zeppelins, “Doughboys”, and trenches; and (most trivially) “Snoopy” on his doghouse “Sopwith Camel” hunting for the “Red Baron” comes to mind.
In fact, it was the single greatest human-caused catastrophe known to man until that time. Untold millions of people lost their lives, their health, and their civilizations in the onslaught of mechanized mass-produced war and its social, political, and economic aftermath.
In fact, so horror-stricken were the societies at the terrible destruction and the hordes of the nameless unidentifiable dead that a wave of emotion swept the Western world whose visible effects remain to this day in the Tombs of Unknown Soldiers that exist in every major capital city of the victorious powers.
As Catholics, there is an added interest to this day.
By the time the war was winding down, and the Germans were at the end of their capacity to hold the Front, the Allies had placed a French general at the head of their combined forces. He was Ferdinand Foch (after whom they eventually named a boulevard in Queens.) Foch had risen to the supreme rank of “Marshal of France” despite the fact that he was “politically incorrect” as far as French political society in those days saw it: he was a practicing Catholic who attended Mass every day and received Communion frequently.
While not a saint, this was so unusual for a French general that his men called him “The Capuchin in boots.”
It was to his headquarters that the German request for an “Armistice” or “cease-fire” came in the second week of November 1918. It took time to arrange given the size and complexity of the area involved (from the Belgian coast to the Alps) but Foch set the cease-fire to begin on “the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day of the eleventh month“: that is at 11AM on November 11th.
Foch would have known very well from his daily Mass and his faith that the day was also the feast if Saint Martin of Tours, the 4th century soldier turned monk and eventually bishop who is the patron saint of French soldiers.
Merely a coincidence, as the French say, n’est-ce pas?
As the kids say today: NOT!
This weekend we remember all veterans of the Armed Forces of whatever war, era, or time. God bless them all; as the old song says, “the long and the short and the tall.”