Ask your students, “What national holidays have Americans traditionally celebrated in November?” and most will likely respond, “Thanksgiving.” Some may also reply, “Veterans Day.” But I would venture to guess few students, if any, would answer, “Armistice Day.”
President Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice Day on November 11, 1919. This date commemorated the armistice, or ceasefire agreement, between the Allied nations and Germany that went into effect “on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.” The Armistice of 1918 ended World War I, then known as “the Great War,” although officially the war did not conclude until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919.
Following World War II, Americans recognized the holiday as a day of tribute to veterans of both world wars. Beginning in 1954, the United States designated November 11 as Veterans Day to honor veterans of all U.S. conflicts.
One outstanding primary source that provides a firsthand perspective on World War I is “I Did My Bit for Democracy,” an interview with Andrew Johnson, an African-American veteran who served in the Army during the Great War. Interviewed in 1938 by a Works Progress Administration (WPA) worker, Johnson describes some of his military experiences with both humor and candor. An excerpt is available in addition to the entire interview. While this primary source offers only one soldier’s perspective, it provides students with personal insight into a historical event.
Teachers can have students:
- Read the excerpt of this interview closely, identifying any unfamiliar terminology, historical references, and personal details provided by Johnson.
- Speculate about Johnson’s perspective on World War I; how might his experiences have differed from those of other veterans of this war?
- Demonstrate understanding after analysis of this source document by creating a found poem that retells Johnson’s story using select words and phrases from the text. For more teaching strategies using found poetry, visit Making Connections Through Poetry: Finding the Heart in History.
For more perspectives on the Great War, browse the special presentation World War I: The Great War of the Veterans History Project.
For background information on Armistice Day, read the entry for November 11 in Today in History.
How else might you use Johnson’s interview or one with another veteran to help students value the individuals behind the history of World War I and Armistice Day?