By Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history
At exactly 11 o’clock on the morning of Nov. 11, 1918, the Great War of 1914 came to an end. By the time the Armistice was signed, more than 10 million had been killed. Most military scholars agree that 6.8 million men died in combat and another 3 million-plus from accidents, disease, or in POW camps.
During the war, there were two major fronts: the East, where the Russians and Germans fought, and the West, in Flanders and Northern France. Before the war destroyed the landscape, the fields looked like a van Gogh painting, filled with flowers, cows, and shafts of wheat mixed in with red poppies. In 1915, John McCrae published the most famous poem of the war: In Flanders Fields. In time, every school child memorized the poem that began:
In Flanders Fields the poppies grow
Between the crosses, row on row…
The British Legion chose the red poppies as the symbol of remembrance, fabricated out of wire and red paper. They were first worn at the first Armistice Day and ever since.
The first Armistice Day was commemorated Nov. 11, 1919, at 11 a.m. in all Allied capitals amid hushed crowds, bells ringing out the hour. In towns and cities, large and small groups of veterans and their fellow citizens gathered around make-shift memorials to mark the hour. Nearly all of the veterans wore their uniforms, their chests decorated with medals. In the United Kingdom and its possessions, they called it Remembrance Day. It was called Armistice Day in the United States until changed to Veterans Day in the 1950s to honor all who served in later conflicts.
The reality of the loss was everywhere to be seen: women in mourning dresses; fathers with black armbands mixing with veterans horribly deformed, many in wooden wheelchairs or on crutches with missing limbs some with faces so disfigured that they wore masks; those whose lungs had been poisoned by gas, still coughing.
The bodies of those who fell in battle were collected and many put in temporary grave sites near where the battles were fought. Families were given the option of having the remains sent home or buried in Europe. It was a painstaking task; often, the remains had to be exhumed. Of the 116,708 soldiers who died as part of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I, 30,921 are buried in Europe.
The bodies that were returned home were buried in local or military cemeteries. In the inter-war years, memorials were built and erected in many towns and cities. In 1921, Congress created a single memorial in Arlington National Cemetery on the property once owned by General Robert E. Lee. In France, the bodies of four unknown soldiers were exhumed and brought to a small chapel. A U.S. soldier was handed a bouquet of white roses and asked to place it on one of the four coffins. The one he selected was sent to Arlington and placed in an above-ground sarcophagus made of white marble: the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In 1931, a more elaborate tomb replaced the original and after World War II, several additional tombs were added, and today the memorial is known as the Tomb of the Unknowns. Each Nov. 11, a solemn ceremony is held, with the president placing a wreath on the tomb. It is our most sacred ground, guarded day and night by special service personnel.
Today, as we approach the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I not one service person remains. The last American, Frank Buckles, died in February 2011 and the last Brit, Harry Patch, just three years ago, victims of what Lincoln called “the silent artillery of time.”
On Nov. 11, the Keuka College community will gather at the World War II memorial that stands near Hegeman Hall. It was dedicated May 9, 2005, the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. It was a gift to the College and community from the students in the History/Political Science Club. On one face of the monument, all of the theaters of war are listed; on the other, a testament to the Keuka College nurses and the program created in the darkest days of World War II. Nursing graduates have served in all wars since the founding of the program. A few yards away is another small monument remembering the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. Rising above it is an oak tree, the symbol of the College.
On Nov. 11, the College will remember all who have served our nation and continue to serve. We will also remember the 124,913 Americans who are buried overseas. A formation of veterans from the local VFW will fire their rifles at the end of the commemoration just as veterans have since the first Armistice Day in 1919.
We must take time to remember and honor all of those who served and continue to serve on land, on the sea, and in the air. We also must remember those who are still in the line of fire— in Afghanistan and other regional conflicts. When our service personnel return home, many will return to civilian life as they knew it. Others will enter college and will be welcomed as students on our campus, the two World War II monuments reminding them that Keuka College has always been a welcoming community.
There is also one final nugget from our past, namely, the Field Period program, which was, in part, created in 1942 so some of our students could help bring in the harvest since “the boys” were overseas.