On Nov. 11, 1918, the Allied nations and Germany signed an armistice ending the fighting in the Great War, which had killed more than 15 million people. A year later, King George V of England proclaimed that date Armistice Day, to be marked with two minutes of silence at 11 a.m., the hour the agreement had gone into effect.
“King Asks British to Pause Two Minutes on Armistice Day,” The New York Times wrote in a front-page headline on Nov. 7, 1919. Days later, the paper reported that Americans would be observing the day, too, with ceremonies around the country.
In a special message to the nation in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson noted the monumental changes that the fierce and bloody war had provoked. The European Allies fought for more than four years, and the Americans for more than a year and a half. None would ever be the same. The fighting had destroyed empires, transformed Europe’s borders, spurred advances in weaponry and manufacturing, and brought millions of women into the work force.
Wilson’s statement said:
With splendid forgetfulness of mere personal concerns we remodeled our industries, concentrated our financial resources, increased our agricultural output, and assembled a great army, so that at the last our power was a decisive factor in the victory. … Out of this victory there arose new possibilities of political freedom and economic concert. The war showed us the strength of great nations acting together for high purposes.
The Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended the war, had been signed earlier that year, on June 28, 1919.
In 1954, in response to calls for recognition of veterans of World War II and the Korean War, President Dwight D. Eisenhower changed the name of the holiday to Veterans Day. A 1968 law moved the observance of the holiday to the fourth Monday in October, but that was unpopular, and President Gerald Ford signed a law moving it back to Nov. 11 in 1978.
Memorial Day, on the other hand, is observed on the last Monday in May. Whereas Veterans Day honors all veterans, Memorial Day specifically honors those who gave their lives for the United States.
British Commonwealth nations and some other European countries also mark the anniversary of the armistice with ceremonies on or around Remembrance Sunday. In London, a National Service of Remembrance is held each year at the Cenotaph, a war memorial, and bright red paper poppies are worn as a symbol of support for the armed forces.
In the bombed-out countryside of Western Europe after World War I, Flanders poppies, which were resilient enough to grow amid the destruction, became potent symbols. A Canadian doctor, Lt. Col. John McCrae, described them in the poem “In Flanders Fields.”
The Royal British Legion, a charity founded in 1921 that supports the armed forces, adopted the poppy as its emblem and set up a warehouse to employ disabled ex-servicemen to produce poppies. The tradition has endured, and public figures who have declined to wear the poppy have faced criticism. (There are also white poppies for pacifists, purple ones for animal lovers and, this year, apparently false reports of rainbow ones for supporters of L.G.B.T. rights.)
The organization’s American corollary, the American Legion, also uses the red poppy as its official flower, and has promoted the Friday before Memorial Day as National Poppy Day.
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