This year’s Veterans Day falls on the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. Below, a history professor describes the background of the holiday originally called Armistice Day, and emphasizes that “remembering the war’s millions can and should transcend both patriotism and politics.”
On Nov. 11, I am celebrating a Sunday Mass at St. Mary of the Angels Chapel on the campus of Siena College. It is a regularly scheduled Mass, but the historian in me could not help but notice that the Mass is set to begin exactly 100 years from the moment that an armistice ended the First World War — the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.
That armistice was the origin of memorial commemorations that, in the United States became Armistice Day — and eventually, Veterans Day. It is still a time of profound remembrance around the world, particularly in those nations that were directly transformed by the 1914-1918 horrors.
I recall being in Britain for Remembrance Day a number of years ago. For several weeks, almost everyone walked the streets wearing a commemorative “poppy” and, when the queen laid a wreath on the Cenotaph in London, there were two minutes of silence throughout the United Kingdom. As I was on a train at the time, I was moved and impressed that the passengers were all prepared for the moment, and when the time arrived, there was perfect silence throughout the train.
The War that raged from 1914 to 1918 held very little glamor about it and one only needs to travel the battlefields of Belgium and France, or view the photographs of that time, to realize how many men were torn apart, incinerated or lost in a sea of mud. I’ve been told, rightly or not, that at Verdun, human bones still sometimes emerge from the earth.
On top of that, the War to end all Wars proved to be anything but an end. One can speculate that, had there been no World War I, there might have been no World War II, no Russian Revolution, no Cold War, and few of the problems that still plague the Middle East. It certainly did not make the world safe for democracy and it probably worsened the effects of the worldwide pandemic that struck the planet in 1918 and 1919 taking more lives than the war itself.
The number of casualties was appalling — though soon to be topped by an even more lethal war. “The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I, was around 40 million. There were 20 million deaths and 21 million wounded. The total number of deaths includes 9.7 million military personnel and about 10 million civilians.” according to the a report from Reperes titled “Casualties of World War I.” Of course, many others lived but were horribly mutilated and/or psychologically devastated.
So why commemorate it at all? Why commemorate even the end of that war? It seems to me that Christians have a duty to remember. It is indeed a “Eucharistic” thing to do. It can serve as a reminder of the communion of Saints and of the fundamental connectedness of all humanity. For if we truly believe as the song goes:
In Christ there is no East or West,
In Him no South or North;
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth.
…then the bodies that were ripped apart, pulverized, gassed or incinerated were, and are, the very body of Christ; and all those soldiers, sailors, airmen, refugees and civilian casualties of the past hundred years are part of our body; part in so many cases of the body of Christ — the very body that some of those people received in Holy Communion just before their respective deaths.
Commemoration of the Armistice, and remembrance of war’s millions of victims, can and should transcend both patriotism and politics. By remembering each November 11, we can find a sense of oneness that is truly sacramental. We kindle in our selves an empathy that will serve us well in the 21st century.
Of course, in the United States, we have chosen this day to remember veterans, as opposed to the war dead that we recall on Memorial Day. Those who came home, from whatever army, to whatever nation; those who are still with us, are also part of God’s family and our prayers should bind us more firmly to them and to their families.
The hymn, written by Englishman C. Michael Hawn on the eve of the Great War, goes on to proclaim:
Join hands, then, members of the faith,
Whatever your race may be!
Who serves my Father as His child
Is surely kin to me.
In Christ now meet both East and West,
In Him meet North and South;
All Christly souls are one in Him
Throughout the whole wide earth.
I have always thought that a particularly tragic and senseless death was that of the soldiers and sailors who died at 10:00 or even at 10:59 a.m., on that morning 100 years ago. I will think of them and of all war’s victims at our Mass, and, when I receive the body and blood of Christ, I will remember that I am also receiving, into myself so many members, living and dead, of that one body. I will be receiving sacramentally the blood of so many persons made in God’s image and likeness whose blood is eternally one with the blood of Christ.
— Fr. Dan is stationed at Siena College, Loudonville, N.Y., where he is an associate professor of history. The previous reflection published in HNP Today, by John Maganzini, OFM, was titled “A Litany of Women Who Stood Up.”
Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic — a holiday, current event, holy day, or other seasonal themes – are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office at firstname.lastname@example.org. Additional reflections by friars can be found on the Spiritual Resources section of HNP.org.
- “Veterans Day: Honoring Those Who Serve” – Nov. 8, 2017, HNP Today
- “Serving as a General Visitor” – May 24, 2017, HNP Today
- “The Men and Women Who Serve” – Nov. 10, 2015, HNP Today
- “Siena Launches Franciscan Fridays” – Oct. 26, 2018, HNP Today