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The Bittersweet History Behind Armistice Day

The final day of WWI has become an anniversary of respect and remembrance for fallen soldiers.

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  • Crowds gather in Philadelphia to celebrate the armistice on November 11, 1918.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Beginning on July 28th, 1914, the Great War was an unprecedented global conflict that dragged the world into destruction and devastation. As fighting spread across Europe, Africa, and parts of Asia, the death toll rose to the millions. Large swaths of Europe, the Russian Empire, the United States, and the Ottoman Empire were locked in what seemed like an endless battle, armed with technology that changed the very nature of warfare forever.

On November 11th, 1918, the turmoil all came to a halt. It was on this day that the Entente—France, the United Kingdom,  Russia, Italy, Japan, and the United States—signed an armistice with their last remaining opponent, Germany, to end the conflict. This armistice was signed at Le Francport near Compiègne, after president Woodrow Wilson declared his "Fourteen Points." It meant a victory for the Allies, and a move toward peace over chaos.

Every year since this momentous armistice, the aptly named Armistice Day has been celebrated around the world on November 11th.

The first celebration on the anniversary of Armistice Day took place at Buckingham Palace. King George V held a banquet honoring the French president on November 10th, 1919. On the morning of the 11th, several celebratory events were held on the Buckingham Palace grounds, including a two-minute silence to pay respect to the lives lost during the war.

Armistice Day is considered a national holiday for many Allied nations. While France and Belgium maintain the original name of Armistice Day, the name of the holiday has changed elsewhere. Member states of the Commonwealth of Nations have taken on the name of Remembrance Day for the holiday, while it has become Veterans Day in the United States. For some other countries, Armistice Day overlaps with other important holidays.

Along with varying names, different regions have their own traditions for the holiday which have developed over time. Starting in the late 1920s, South Africa has observed a toast to the soldiers lost in the war that includes not only a moment of silence, but a moment of darkness, in which the only illumination is from the "Light of Remembrance." 

Britain still maintains its two minutes of silence, but it was officially moved to the Sunday closest to the 11th as of 1939, so as not to interfere with wartime production if it fell on a weekday during WWII. This is referred to as Remembrance Sunday. On this day, London holds the National Service of Remembrance. Across the Commonwealth nations, Remembrance Day is formally celebrated. The United Kingdom and Canada wear poppies as a symbol of remembrance.

Veterans Day in the United States is an expansion of recognition, honoring all veterans who have served, whether in wartime or peacetime. The day of national remembrance for those killed in action is Memorial Day, which is a federal holiday observed on the last Monday in May.

As the Serbian forces suffered the greatest casualty rate in World War I, Armistice Day is a statutory holiday in Serbia. This change was declared in 2012. To honor the fallen soldiers, Serbians don Natalie's ramonda—a flowering purple plant.

For Poland, November 11th is National Independence Day, which celebrates the anniversary of the restoration of Poland's sovereignty in 1918, following 123 years of rule by the Russian and German Empires and Austria-Hungary. Kenya celebrates Armistice Day two weeks later than the rest of the world, as news of the armistice didn't reach the region until a fortnight later.

World War I changed the world in many ways. Destruction hobbled national economies. Advancements in war technology saw fresh and prolonged ways of suffering. Not to mention the impact of the sheer loss of life. But the end of the war marked a period of renewed hope. Armistice Day brings people together in grief and drives home the understanding of the true cost of war—a commitment not to be taken lightly.