The Central Powers were collapsing and Germany sent peace feelers to President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson, an idealist, responded sternly with his "Fourteen Points", which all the European had problems with. (Britain, for instance, wasn't keen on that "every country has complete freedom of the seas" business.)
Still, Germany finally sued for peace when the army began to revolt. A cease fire was declared for 11 o'clock, November 11th, 1918. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. There wasn't much celebration since everyone was too tired.
The front grew quiet except in certain spots. One eyewitness tells of a German machine gun that would not stop firing until the exact hour of eleven. At that point, the German officer stood up, took off his helmet, bowed, and marched his gunners to the rear.
When I was a child, a few hundred years ago, November 11th was celebrated as Armistice Day. In 1954 the name was changed to Veterans Day. If Veterans Day happens to fall on a weekend, the celebration is now reserved for the preceding Friday. Each change has moved the holiday farther from its original meaning until now it's become just another "long weekend." I doubt many Americans know how it began.
Those last few days of war were costly. The poet Wilfred Owen died. But as war poems go -- as beliefs about war generally go -- A. E. Houseman may have expressed the conflicting sentiments best.
Here dead we lie Because we did not choose To live and shame the land From which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, Is nothing much to lose, But young men think it is, And we were young.
The first stanza gives us the patriotism that impels us to go to war in the first place. The second undermines the naivete that the first describes.
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