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Sunday, November 18, 2018

Armistice Day to Veterans Day: A Centennial

Journal Opinion, Nov. 7, 2018
SINGING THE BOYS HOME. In the aftermath of World War I, thousands of American troops returned from Europe. Along with parades and receptions, popular songs such as the one above celebrated their return.

ORFORD MEMORIAL. In 1920, Orford became the first local community to honor WW I veterans with a public monument. Originally located at the top of Bridge Street, the monument now stands next to the Orford Congregational Church. (Photo courtesy of Arthur Pease) 

TOMB OF THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER.  On Armistice Day, 1921, a national holiday was observed as the nation established the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery.  Built from Vermont marble, the shrine was the final resting place for an unknown American soldier brought home from France.

“To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the council of the nations…” Pres. Woodrow Wilson, Nov.1919

 World War I, the Great War, began in August 1914. The United States entered the conflict in April 1917 after Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare on American vessels. Among the  4.7 million American who joined the military service were over 650 local men and women. The war cost the United States 53,402 battle deaths with an additional 204,000 wounded. Over 63,000 other service members died, many from the influenza pandemic. At least 35 locals died while in service. 

While these locals  served in every branch of the military, many men served in the Yankee Division. As part of the American Expeditionary Force, this division served on the Western Front longer than any other American unit. The American involvement tipped the stalemate in favor of the Allies. The Yankee Division was involved in heavy fighting right up to the armistice that brought an end to the  fighting at 11 a.m. Nov. 11, 1918.

The war had a major impact on the local home front. In order to mobilize the nation, the national government was given significant new powers to control the economy, the transportation system and the media. Government declarations promoted the war effort and encourage the sale of war bonds. As the country was assisting its allies, there were shortages of food and fuel. Citizens of all ages joined in the effort to meet the nation’s quotas.      

The nation rejoiced on that November day with school closings, church services, factory whistles blowing and “spontaneous” parades.

Bradford celebrated as people gathered in the streets in front of what is now the Bliss Village Store and “sang songs of joy and praise and thanksgiving, under a great star-spangled banner flying overhead across the street.” In Haverhill and Woodsville, as in other towns, the bells rang all day.  It was reported that “there was a clear satisfaction and joy written on the faces of everyone.”

On April 4, 1919, the first ship load of returning soldiers landed in Boston. Welcoming boats crowded with officials, families and friends met them. Later that month, full-dress parades were held at Fort Devens in Massachusetts and in Boston to honor the returnees before they were discharged.

In many area towns, welcome home receptions, banquets and dances were held. On July 5, 1919, Barre hosted a parade for Orange and Washington County veterans, complete with a victory arch erected in the center of the business district. 

Nov. 11 became known as Armistice Day in the United States and France and Remembrance Day in Canada and Britain. In 1919, President Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice Day anniversary observance with the statement at the beginning of this column. On that day, residents of Newbury and Haverhill hosted a car parade “rivaling the 4th of July.” The custom of observing moments of silence at 11 a.m. in remembrance of the war dead became widespread.

In 1920, the newly established American Legion Post in Woodsville observed the anniversary with a dinner, concert and dance. There were also Legion Posts in Bradford, Rumney, Lyme and Newbury.  Veterans of Foreign Wars Posts were established in Wells River, North Haverhill, Groton, Fairlee and Bradford, some before and some after World War II. 

Among their civic activities, these veterans groups sold artificial poppies to raise funds for the needy children of France and for disabled veterans. Communities also used the observance to promote annual Red Cross drives.  

Many veterans came home with physical wounds. Others suffered from shell shock, now known as post-traumatic stress disorder. While it is now known that the horrendous conditions of the Western Front was a major cause of the disorder, it was often thought at the time to be caused by a “lack of moral fiber.”

Returning soldiers also suffered from acute unemployment as the nation experienced a sharp post-war recession in 1920-21.This was caused by the shift from wartime to a peace time economy and the attempt to absorb millions of veterans into the economy.

The America Legion worked to find employment for veterans. In Sept 1921, the Caledonian-Record ran the following Legion announcement: “Figures alone do not tell the plight of the American unemployed veterans, for the great part of the jobless ex-soldier and ex-sailor are not only out of work, but are engaged at this moment in a struggle for existence with their backs to the wall of circumstance.” 

In 1921, Armistice Day was declared a national holiday as America established the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery. Built of Vermont marble, the shrine became the final resting place for an unknown American soldier brought home from France.

The United Opinion reported the local observance. “Promptly at 12 o’clock noon today, church, school and fire bells will commence to toll…Vaneer mill and creamery whistles will boom out, and Bradford will bow in reverent silence to pay homage to American’s unknown hero.”     

 Local communities began to create monuments to honor those who served in the recent conflict. In 1920, Orford  created a monument complete with an honor roll. Originally placed at the top of Bridge Street, this monument now stands on the mall next to the Orford Congregational Church.  In 2003, that community dedicated a new monument to honor veterans of WW II.  It is located in front of the Town Offices.

In June 1921, a World War I monument was dedicated at Haverhill Corner. In August 1921, Bradford dedicated a Memorial Park north of the Library. A granite monument was erected bearing bronze tablets with the names of the soldiers and sailors of the Civil War, the Spanish American War and World War I.

Fairlee’s Soldiers’ Monument was dedicated in August 1926. While there had been discussion of listing the names of those being honored, it was decided to have a simple inscription that read “To Those Who Gave Their Lives in the Service of Our Nation.” At the dedication, Congressman Ernest Gibson’s comment on the inscription was that it was “all that could be said.”    

In the 1920s and ‘30s, most states established Armistice Day as a legal holiday.  Because the establishing of legal holidays was a state prerogative, it was not until 1938 that the Federal government made it a legal national holiday.

Only occasionally did local reporters for The United Opinion mentioned Armistice Day observances by schools and veterans organizations. Elders with whom I spoke recall that Memorial Day was more often observed with programs in schools than Armistice Day.      

In November 1929, an editorial entitled “Armistice Day Thoughts,” praised the work of the American Legion in support of war veterans and their dependents. As it cited the Legion’s civic programs, it decried the lack of support for ex-service men by the general public. 

 In 1935, the Bradford Legion Post used the newly-dedicated Academy gym as a location for an Armistice Day dance featuring the Bar X Cowboys and caller George Bedell. By that time it had become an established tradition for stores to close for the holiday. This practice continued for some time, although by the 1950’s only some businesses closed for the entire day.    

World War II and the Korean War created millions of additional veterans and, in the early 1950s, interest in observing a day in their honor grew. In 1953, a special Armistice Day assembly was held at Bradford Academy at which the school was presented with the flag that covered the casket of the late General Herbert T. Johnson of Bradford, former Adjutant General of Vermont.  Orators spoke of the meaning of Armistice Day. On that same day, Loyalty Day was observed in the Fairlee Elementary School. 

In 1954, President Eisenhower signed legislation changing Armistice Day to Veterans Day. In keeping with the theme of honoring all service men and women who had served, special ceremonies were held locally. As it is a day honoring all veterans, Veterans Day is spelled without an apostrophe. 

In 1968, the Federal government, as part of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, moved Veterans Day to the fourth Monday in October. When the legislation took effect in 1971, some states began to move the observance back to November 11th. In 1978, with popular support, the Federal holiday observance reverted as well. 

For some years, the Legion Post in Woodsville has led other veterans groups for a ceremony  at the veterans monument on Woodsville’s Central Street. The ceremony draws up between 40 and 100 participants and spectators depending on the weather and the day of the week on which Veterans Day falls. The veterans groups also sell poppies.

Veteran Leonard Dobbins told me that Veterans Day ceremonies had been held in Bradford for decades. Scott Johnson, Bradford’s American Legion Commander, said that for some years a short Veterans Day observance were held at the Bradford Gazebo.

 In 2010, at a special Veterans Day assembly, Oxbow High School and River Bend Career Center dedicated an honor roll to the students, faculty and staff members who have served in America’s armed forces.  The plaque is located next to the flagpole on the front lawn. On November 8, 2018, the Bradford Historical Society met with the students and staff at the high school to honor veterans and commemorate the 100th anniversary of the armistice.   

On November 11, 2011, Bradford dedicated Veterans Honor Rolls for its veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. The ceremony, which took place in the auditorium of the Bradford Academy, was attended by about 150 local residents, including some 6th graders from the Bradford Elementary School. The attractive wooden panels with engraved name plates were crafted and donated by Copeland Furniture.  

In 2012, Piermont’s Veterans Memorial was moved from its location in front of the old town hall to become the center piece of the new Piermont Memorial Gardens in the South Lawn Cemetery.

In May 2016, the Veterans Memorial that had been placed on Bradford’s Memorial Field in 1965 was moved to a more prominent location on the front lawn of the Bradford Academy. The dedication of this new setting was part of Bradford’s 250th celebration. 

There are no living World War I veterans in America.  Frank Woodruff Buckles passed away in 2011 at age 110. He was “our last living link” to that Great War. The ranks of World War II veterans are rapidly being depleted and the obituaries of  Korean and Vietnam conflicts veterans are increasingly common.   

This year, as in other years, newspapers will include mentions of Veterans Day in columns and advertisements. Television programs will make note of the day and may mention the centennial observance. Some businesses will close and others will offer special deals to service personnel and veterans. Veterans’ groups will hold ceremonies. Concerts, parades and wreath-laying ceremonies will be held across the nation. Flags and poppies will appear. Some will raise a glass to departed comrades.     

In November, 1926, The United Opinion featured a retrospective editorial entitled “Back to Plowshares” heralding the return to normalcy in the general population. But it went on to say, normalcy came to “…all except the shattered shell-shocked bodies and the bereft minds and morale of the unfortunate heroes. To them, then, is due all deference and reverence on Armistice Day, the first to respond, yet the most futile to restore and recompense, for an imperishable service.” 

For Veterans Day, 2018, with a whole new group of veterans returned from conflict, this is a timely message.