Paris the First Armistice Day

Black and white photograph of a crowd celebrating the end of WWI in Paris.

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, in the year 1918, World War One, which had ravaged Europe for four years, officially stopped.  The Germans and their allies and the French and their allies finally opted for peace, though, out on the front, soldiers continued firing at one another with a peculiar intensity, as though ignorant of or indifferent to the momentous armistice that had taken effect that morning.  They were too numb, too habituated to fear and violence, to stop; and the thought that they would survive where so many had fallen was one they resisted with fury, with imperative force.  The prospect of living beyond their lost comrades filled them with dread and agony.  Only at night did the firing cease.  The exhausted warriors still unscathed sat around log fires (an unprecedented luxury), trying to absorb the fact of silence, to meditate on the implications of peace.

In Paris, crowds paused to stare up at photographers, their faces expressing many shades of emotion: jubilation, relief, fatigue, insouciance, confidence, diffidence, stoicism, distraction, perdurance, and the kind of camaraderie that victory spawns.  American troops, certain that their efforts had made all the difference, peppered the crowd with their innocent swagger.

A somber crowd in Paris on November 11, 1918, the end of WWI

On the margins of the celebration, grief and a kind of dazed stupor showed on many faces.  A woman veiled in mourning glided past a knot of blithely carefree young ladies. Four years’ combat had culled France’s population of 900 soldiers each day.  Most French citizens in this picture were likely to have lost one or several loved ones, for, of all the French forces that were mobilized, 18 percent of soldiers and 22 percent of all officers died.  At the Armistice, myriad French families remained filled with grief, pain, fear, and uncertainty.  Were their sons, brothers, lovers, husbands, and friends, who had been called to the front, still alive?  Whether the men still absent were dead, injured, missing, or alive might remain undetermined for an unbearably long time.  The unprecedented violence of this gruesome war inflicted grave wounds on European civilization.  Its poisonous consequences blighted the globe for decades, sowing grievances that outlived even World War Two.

The grief and anguish after Dallas

Preparing to mend Fort McHenry flag, Courtesy Library of Congress
What more is there to offer amid the voluble discourse of this sad week, when violence took the place of order and justice?  The United States: will the terrorism of Charleston and Orlando diminish them?  Will we descend to the habit of a shrug when children are murdered in our schools, when movie-goers are gunned down in a theater, when a cafeteria worker is shot to death in the middle of a routine traffic stop, when a sniper decides to channel his anger into killing police officers?

Sadly, we may grow indifferent if the spiral of unjustified violence continues much longer. We may shun the news for fear of having to look at the latest, outrageous use of quick-murdering guns. We may all cease to bat an eye at the latest victims, the latest place when guns were used to sort out human conflicts that deserved to be aired in the courts. And when that happens, we will have lost the semblance of unity that has kept us going until now. We will be just another war-torn country, with battle-lines too subtle to stay on the right side of.

Congress, endlessly preoccupied with the 2nd Amendment, has forgotten the larger purposes that, according to the Constitution, justify our federal government, particularly its charge to ‘insure domestic Tranquility’ and ‘promote the general Welfare.’  Will Congress act, in whatever ways it sees fit, to promote the internal peace and safety that Americans of all races crave, and that, by right, we are all entitled to expect?  Or will Congress forget its obligation to the nation, its members cravenly priding themselves on dedication to some lesser cause or party?

Changes in law are needed, but America also needs something more that’s harder.  Americans need to look into their hearts and examine whether they are living up to the potentialities of our civic culture, a culture that has allowed us to dwell with one another in a relatively open and unfettered way.  Americans need to recall the great civil tradition that has inspired generations to grow into a society where people who differ from one another nonetheless co-exist, enjoying ‘the blessings of Liberty’ and fitfully recognizing in one another our mutual humanity.  We have striven according to an Americanness that is deeper than either religion or skin.  This cultural effort will be imperfect always, but without it we will be condemned to grieve forever, anguishing over the most precious republican virtue lost.

Image: from this source.

A war with an end

Massive crowds gathered around a replica of the Statue of Liberty near Philadelphia's city hall to celebrate news of the Armistice, November 11, 1918.
On this day, many nations pause to remember their war dead, the soldiers who have served and fallen, especially those who served in World War One.

What the US celebrates as Veterans Day began as a peace celebration on November 11, 1918, with the end of the pitiless conflict known as World War One.  The announcement that the war had ended with the signing of a multinational peace agreement, or Armistice, triggered massive spontaneous jubilees in many places worldwide.  In Europe, the States, Canada, even New Zealand and Australia, vast crowds gathered in the ceremonial centers of cities to cheer the end of a struggle that had cost the warring nations many millions of lives.

This marvelous photograph shows Philadelphians celebrating the word of peace that day.  Horrible as the war was, the photograph conveys a feeling of pride, even as it commemorates a sort of war unfamiliar to us today.  For World War One had a definite beginning and end.  When the United States entered the war on 4 April 1917, it was with a formal declaration of war from Congress.  President Woodrow Wilson had struggled to maintain a stance of neutrality toward the war for the previous two-and-a-half years, during which time public sentiment in favor of the war had gradually built.

Once the US had entered the war, there was a draft.  Over a million men were mobilized.  By the end of the war, 18 months later, American forces had suffered some 320,000 casualties, the majority being wounded, with tens of thousands being lost to death and disease.  Being at war demanded something from all society, taxing the economy to its limits and requiring sacrifice on the part of civilians, as the signs around the Philadelphia square suggest.

Hence the massive outpouring of joy when the war reached a definite end, and the blessed condition known as peace was attained for a time.

Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.  Click on the image to go to the source.