Even for a Monday morning, this week’s is unusually somber. It’s Veterans Day. Just 101 years ago today, delegations representing the Allies and Germany, convening in the parked railway car of Marshal Foch of France, signed the armistice that ended the four years of muddy, bloody, trench warfare and suicidal infantry assaults of the First World War. Only a couple of days earlier, the Kaiser had abdicated and skedaddled (an Americanism that appeared during our Civil War) to Holland, where he lived out his days. The naval blockade of Germany remained in effect, and Germany was stripped of its arms.
It’s interesting to note the impetus to negotiate for peace came not so much from the German High Command, which had already informed Germany’s newly installed chancellor that their military situation was untenable and deteriorating, as it did from the rank and file. Sailors of the German navy had already mutinied, refusing to go to sea against the Allied blockade; soldiers who’d been falling back for months, and were now faced with another winter in the trenches, were beginning to desert and go home.
Here in America we tend, I think, to characterize the armistice as the end of a job well done. But it was only a blip — albeit a major one — in the history of 20th-century Europe. The United States had entered the Great War at a critical time. The leader of the American Expeditionary Force, General Pershing, paid a ceremonial visit to the grave of the Marquis de Lafayette, who had come to America to help the colonies in their revolution and is interred beneath soil dug from Bunker Hill. One of Pershing’s aides had given a brief encomium that ended, “Lafayette, we are here!” The Yanks had come; all would be well.
All was far from well. In the east, the Russian Revolution and the murder of the tsar and his family had cemented the hold of Leninism upon that vast nation. The Treaty of Versailles, the brainchild of an American professor-president, virtually guaranteed smoldering resentment among the defeated. The German Reichstag, weakened by events beyond its control, was ripe for the fascist revolution only a few years away. Britain and France had sacrificed much of a generation of their young men.
So, though the occasion of Veterans Day is, for me, an opportunity to appreciate the sacrifices of my Uncle Alvin in the Second World War (according to family lore, the first in line at the Albany induction center on Monday, Dec. 8) and his son, Cousin Ed, in the Vietnam War, I shrink from the slogans of wars to end all wars and the jingoism that so often attends these commemorations. As William Sloane Coffin Jr. wrote — it’s become the benediction in our Sunday services — “The world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.” Considering the current gathering storm in Washington, D.C. — grown men lying like naughty schoolboys and scuttling for cover like cockroaches in a lighted room — it’s hard to feel the work of armistice, let alone peace, is anywhere nearly done.
The pervading sense of gloom occasioned by our commemoration in the midst of what has become perpetual war is no doubt heightened by a glance out my office window, where the sky, gravid and gray, is about to fall. We’ve seen it coming. In the days of radio, we could hear of blizzards in Chicago and Buffalo and predict, “Here we go.” I’ve often likened New England’s situation to living at the business end of a bowling alley: We can see it coming, but can do nothing about it and have no idea whether it’ll be a strike, spare or gutter ball.
Saturday was a weather-breeder, clear and cold with a light breeze portending change. Sunday, Kiki and I walked through the park under lowering skies with our new friend, a local French teacher. The wind had shifted into the south, and I didn’t need a radio or the online weather map to know what was coming.
Now, late on Monday morning, as I contemplate the prospect of a large parade in New York City, brass bands and an address by a famously military-service-averse president, I can only shake my head in what could easily become despair and cynicism.
A former student of mine, from New Jersey, often shouted, to humorous effect, “How soon they forget!” This morning, that isn’t funny. We’ve quite forgotten the young men — Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, Thomas Hardy, Siegfried Sassoon — or more recent, Randall Jarrell — who wrote so poignantly of the brutality and futility of bashing each other with increasingly sophisticated weapons: updated bludgeons, really. This is a day to read their poems, perhaps to sing Eric Bogle’s “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” and recite John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields.” An old climbing pal of mine used to say, “It’s important to check often to see how you got to where you are and consider how you’re going to get back down.” We must remember what the blood-red poppies on our lapels commemorate.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to the Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.