On November 11, 1918, Harry Frieman, with the U.S. 313th Machine Gun Company, was flattened against the mud wall of a trench under steady fire from the Hun in their trenches only yards away. With his comrades, Harry was waiting for the order to attack, to climb up out of the safety of his trench directly into the fire of the enemy. Soldiers grimly and bravely referred to this suicidal action as “going over the top.”
For some reason, however, the order was delayed. Hearts pounding as they waited for the order to attack, Harry and his unit kept up a steady return fire with handguns, rifles, machine guns and mortars until an officer shouted hoarsely, “Cease fire.”
Awkwardly, they hesitated, looked at one another. Even the Germans had stopped firing.
On another battlefield in France, Sergeant First Class Al Kleinecke reported that on November 11, 1918, at precisely 11: 00 a.m., “…everything stopped and all was calm. The observer at the #1 sound post reported in by telephone that the Germans were getting on top of their trenches and throwing their caps in the air.”
It was over. At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, World War 1, “the war to end all wars,” ended.
Gradually, all across Western Europe, the numb, slowly comprehending survivors of one of the deadliest conflicts in human history came up out of their trenches and walked slowly toward one another. They stood and looked cautiously into one another’s faces. Slowly the tension eased from their shoulders. Some of the men’s eyes welled with tears. And then, as men will, they laughed. They stepped into one another’s arms. The killing was over. They had lived. They were shouting now. They were going home.
Between 1914 and 1918, over 100 countries from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia and Europe engaged in combat across Western and Eastern Europe with everything from knives and bayonets to grenades, machine guns, armored tanks and chemical weapons. Estimates are that when the war was over, casualties numbered 35 million.
In 1919, to honor the nearly 118,000 U.S. soldiers who lost their lives in France, the United States established Armistice Day to be observed every November 11 in commemoration of the armistice, or cessation of hostilities, that occurred on 11/11 at 11:00 a.m. in 1918, when for a moment, the world fell silent.
Unfortunately, the war to end all wars didn’t, so after two more major conflicts (WW11 and the Korean War) in a mere half century, the name of the observance was changed to “Veterans Day” to honor all U.S. veterans who have served their country honorably in peace or in war. (Memorial Day is dedicated to soldiers who have died, either in combat or as a result of injuries sustained in combat.)
Though they named their observances differently, the Allies in WW1, including Great Britain, Australia, France, Italy, Russia and Japan (yes, Japan was our ally in WW1), also commemorate their veterans on or near November 11 every year, and now nearly every country in the world has a “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.” The first of these national monuments were in England and France, where the idea to build them was first conceived after WW1. The U.S. built its Tomb of the Unknown Solder in 1921 in Arlington National Cemetery. Now known as “The Tomb of the Unknowns,” it contains the remains of unknown soldiers from both World Wars and Korea.
The tomb is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year by members of the 3rd United States Infantry. On it is inscribed:
In Honored Glory
An American Soldier
Known But To God”
Soldiers guard the tomb in Arlington, but it is up to all of us to guard the memory of those who continue to go “over the top” to preserve the land of the free and the home of the brave. Remember them on Veterans Day, November 11, 2013.