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Armistice Day: 100 Years Since the end of WWI

Four people in a crowd wearing uniforms. One man plays a concertina, while a woman in a Red Cross uniform holds two flags.

Paris. A “gob,” two “Tommys,” and a Red Cross girl went to make up this merry quartette in Paris on Armistice Day. Paris, Seine, France. November 11, 1918. Caption from Catalogue of Official A.E.F. photographs taken by the Signal Corps, U.S.A., 1919.  The two British soldiers (“Tommys”) are on the far right and far left. The man on the left plays a concertina. The woman in the Red Cross uniform holds an American flag and an unidentified flag. “Gob” was slang for a sailor and this sailor wears a United States Navy uniform of the day.  //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/anrc.00488a

November 11, 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the formal end of World War I. It seems appropriate to say something about what this new day meant and came to mean. Also, I want to provide some highlights of Folklife Today blogs that marked the 100th anniversary of World War I. These were a part of the American Folklife Center’s participation in the exhibition Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I (April 4, 2017–January 21, 2019) and events that further enhanced that presentation.

At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the war was formally declared to be over.  The first Armistice Day was a celebration of peace. The belief was that the World War was an war to end wars and so peace would be lasting. Armistice Day in subsequent years was seen as a time to reflect on the cost of the World War and on how to maintain peace. The responses of crowds hearing that the armistice documents had been signed were typically boisterous, with more solemn reflections following later. The photo of three unidentified servicemen and a woman in a Red Cross uniform captures a particularly nice example of the kind of spontaneous celebrating in the streets that occurred in Europe, as well as in the streets of many US cities.

The celebrating did not stop on November 11. Troops remained in Europe for a time, with various groups returning As servicemen returned home there were parades in their honor.  Some types of events common during the war, such as fundraisers for the Red Cross and for wounded soldiers, continued to be part of the calendar of events. Certain holidays, especially the 4th of July, became another day to celebrate the end of the war and to honor the veterans. 

Popular music added to the celebrations with songs such as “Everybody’s Happy Now,”  by Kendis, Brockman & Vincent (sheet music at the link). Scottish comedian, singer, and songwriter, Harry Lauder, who had come to the United States in 1917 to perform for troops preparing to go to war, returned with a new song, “Don’t let us sing anymore about war, just let us sing of love” (recording at the link).

In the years that followed World War I, the Armistice was marked in many different ways. Memorial Day, which had emerged after the Civil War as a day to clean and decorate the graves of soldiers, began to emerge as a day for visiting the graves of all those who died in military service. The day varied locally and it was some time before it became distinct from other spring traditions  of caring for family graves, but the features of what we call Memorial Day today began to develop. In France, Belgium, Britain and the Commonwealth, it was November 11th that became Remembrance Day for honoring the dead of the First World War. In the US, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was established in Arlington National Cemetery in March of 1921 for the burial of the remains of an unidentified soldier from World War I. On May 30, the same year, the remains of four unknown US soldiers were brought home from France and interred on the same site. 

Following World War II a new national day honoring all US war veterans was conceived.  Distinct from Memorial Day, it provided opportunities to pay tribute to living veterans, as had been a custom developed for Armistice Day. President Eisenhower established Veterans Day in 1954 on the day previously marked as Armistice Day.

Folklife Today blogs relating to World War I can be found at this link.  There you will find some blogs specifically related to the end of the war:

“World Overturned” by Rachel Telford, provides an introduction to the third part of the Veterans History Project’s companion site to the exhibit, World War I: Echoes of the Great War.  By the time the Veterans History Project began, very few veterans of World War I were still living. But in addition to the few precious interviews they were able to record, there are diaries, letters, and photographs that veterans left behind, often donated by their families that provide a wealth of first-hand stories of war experiences.

“World War I Homecomings,” is one of several blogs written by Junior Fellows working on the Veterans History Project, Irene Lule. She tells about some of the collections she worked on that tell of soldiers as they came home from the war.

“Over There,” by Rachel Telford, tells a bit about how some of those stories of the war were told.  Soldiers sometimes did not write down their stories in letters from the war, fearing how those truths would affect those at home, but felt more comfortable writing them down after the war ended. At armistice,  Francis Edward Mahoney wrote a letter home with “ I never told you about the front Ma, because I was afraid you would worry but now it is all over and safe I guess it is alright.” I was especially interested in the account of  Norvel Preston Clotfelter, included in this essay. His story includes one of the most frightening realities of the end of World War I, the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919. The “Spanish flu” was so named because of a false perception that the disease mainly affected Spain, because news blackouts of it were not in effect for Spain. It is now thought to have killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide and was likely the most deadly pandemic in recorded history. Its victims were mainly young healthy adults, so some soldiers who survived the war only to die of the flu. The transcription of Chotfelter’s war diary includes a day-by day record of his experience, and fortunately he recovered. 

Some other highlights of the ways Folklife Today marked the 100th anniversary of the US participation in the war show how examining oral history, fashion, and folklife provides a fuller picture of the war than is often found in the standard histories most of us were taught in school.

I enjoyed Irene Lule’s blog on “Postcards of World War I,” because it showed some examples of the picture postcards that soldiers were able to make themselves in that war.

“VHP WWI Nurses and Fashion Savvy Influence,” by Candace Milburn gives a glimpse of the lives of nurses.

For myself, I knew immediately what I wanted to write about for the 100th anniversary of the war, as I knew of two remarkable recordings of songs that were made during John and Alan Lomax’s recording trip in Louisiana in 1934. Few songs of African Americans who served in World War I survive today. Although I suspect there were many soldiers who made songs about their adventures, few were recorded. “’Trench Blues’: An African American Song of World War I” and “’When I First Got Ready For the War,’ a Song of World War I” present these two songs and what we know about the singer/composers.

But the most moving of all these moving stories of World War I relates to a diary acquired by the Veterans History Project in 2016. “New VHP Acquisition: Irving Greenwald’s WWI Diary,” by Megan Harris, tells about this diary and how it was received. Greenwald was one of the soldiers in the “lost battalion,” that became separated in the dense Argonne Forest in October 1918. He was wounded, and so this particular part of the story is not part of the diary, though his recovery from injuries is. In 2017 the story Greenwald told was brought to life by playwright and performer Douglas Taurel in the Library of Congress Coolidge Auditorium, and is now available as a webcast as the first hour of a Veterans Day presentation (also on Library of Congress YouTube).

So on this, the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, check out these and more Folklife Today blogs related to WWI, as well as the exhibitions and collection items they link to, and learn something about the Great War that you never knew before.

Resources

Reporting the Great War: World War I Online Newspaper Collections from the Library of Congress,” Headlines and Heroes: Newspapers, Comics, and More, November 6, 2018.

McKinley, Sharon. “Sheet Music Spotlight: Armistice Day, November 11, 1918,” In the Muse: Performing Arts Blog, November 9, 2018.

Moore, Ryan. “Mapping Armistice Day: 11 November 1918,” World Revealed: Geography and Maps at the Library of Congress, November 9, 2018.

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