Ninety-four years ago today at 11:00 a.m., in a railroad car in the forest of Compiegne, France and Germany signed the armistice ending World War 1. That was to be the war to end all wars. Sadly, not.
The Commonwealth celebrates Remembrance Sunday today, which will find me at that little faux acre of Anglia that is St. Thomas’s Church on 5th Avenue for evensong for the occasion.
Of course Armistice Day for us is Veterans Day. This commemoration hasn’t had much character in my lifetime. On the “secular” side there are no barbecues, and lots of Veterans Day sales. In recent years it has become a more "active" holiday, to really focus attention on the living veterans and their families, as opposed to Memorial Day which focuses on the dead. Some of that attention has been fueled by social media and and the internet, from the amazing Wounded Warrior Project to American Widow Project.
There is a parade in NY, and the VFW chapters throughout the country do hold ceremonies at town memorials. [And as our attention is Civil War focused by the film Lincoln, it's a reminder that VFW or Veteran of Foreign Wars was a distinction that had to be made at the time and never left. For now at least, all the homeland wars are still cultural.]
Today's Veterans Day parades and commemorations are greatly impacted by Sandy. Reuters headline: "New York Readies for Veterans Day as region struggles."
But there is little sustained, daily physical presence of WW1, unlike Britain and Europe, where every town and university has a public monument with the names inscribed of the townsmen and boys who died. There is a shared formality to the British sense of remembrance of those who serve that has no counterpart in America. Even after WWII, when nearly every American family was affected by death on the battlefield, communities did not respond to that grief with marble and stone statuary.
The tradition of “two minutes of silence” at 11:00 a.m. precisely is also distinctly British. It’s too hard to get Americans to stand still en masse for anything. But it’s so ingrained in the British soul that Dorothy L. Sayers used it as a plot device in the Lord Peter Whimsey novel, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. The murderer relies on the fact that no one is going to move for 2 minutes on Nov. 11.
World War I in New York City
The city of New York is not completely without public tributes to those who fought in the Great War.
Laura Canon has catalogued and photographed a good deal of them, from the very first WWI memorial in the U.S—the clock in the tower of Pier A in Battery Park, dedicated in 1919—to the Doughboy statues in Park Slope and in Chelsea (9th Ave. and 28th street) to the official Brooklyn memorial in Prospect Park of a solider and an angle. I see one every day on the way to work—an enormous piece with seven, larger-than-life figures on 5th Avenue and 67 street, a block away from the 7th Regiment’s armory. There is so much motion in the statue that it looks like the men are charging out of Park, ready to defeat anyone in their way.
There is a stained-glass memorial in the NY Athletic club; a carving/relief in St. Thomas, which commemorates the US entering the war and lists the name of the dead of the parish; Father Duffy in Times Square; and a stylized memorial to soldiers of the 77th Division—known as the "Lost Battalion"— killed on October 3, 1918, Argonne Forest, France, by Pablo Turner in the Woodhaven Boulevard/Queens subway station as part of the MTA Subway Arts project.
This past year New York has had a little more remembrance of World War I with War Horse at Vivian Beaumont, if you overlook the fact that that story of the war has no Americans. I wrote about that here in The Great War & Modern Memory: The Sublime Gash of War Horse.
Still, it is our generation’s responsibility to those who came before not to squander the life and liberty they bought for us with their blood. And to remember.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
(The Childe Hassam painting Allies Day, May 1917, captured a parade on 5th Avenue to celebrate the US entering the war in 1917.)