In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row by row That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fy Scarce heard amid the guns below.
-- In Flanders Fields, John McCrae
You may have had to recite Dr. McCrae’s famous poem from World War I in school.
First published anonymously in 1915 it remains to this day the single most recognizable vestige of the “Great War”, next to the very poppies the poem describes.
The First World War is now over a century past. The armistice ending the debacle is remembered as the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
It is the reason there is a Veterans Day here in the United States. It was the reason another, even more ghastly slaughter engulfed Europe in 1939, World War II
The battlefields of World War I turned into stalemated trench warfare and no-man’s landscapes of total desolation. When his timeless poem was published the Canadian field surgeon was a victim of the war himself, dying of pneumonia.
Maynard Dunham, Sabula, Iowa’s last World War I Marine, was 100 when I sat on the end of his hospital bed in Clinton and listened. He was a young Marine again, remembering the unforgettable, the sound of the German Maxim machine guns, trees cut to splinters, a leafless forest of trunks in the Battle of Belleau Woods in France.
In those three weeks of near constant combat 5,000 Americans died. The Jackson County combat veteran marveled at how he came back from the line alive. In the letters he wrote home to his parents Dunham was careful to convey what was likely to pass the censors and not the stark reality of total war including mustard gas. They were the first Americans, part of the AEF, American Expeditionary Force, to fight in Europe in a foreign country on behalf of another government.
When the long rumored armistice finally came it was ushered into being by the most intense artillery barrages of the war. In those final minutes before 5:45 a.m. November 11, 1918, and the war officially over deaths on the field of battle were especially tragic. The peace that followed was accompanied by near starvation, revolution, the collapse of fledgling democracies and the rise of totalitarianism in Europe.
Some few of us could remember where we were when news of the attack on Pearl Harbor came over the radio. More can remember where they were when Walter Cronkite announced President Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas. Most can remember watching the twin World Trade Towers disappear in a cloud of dense gray dust. In the years following World War I everyone felt the weight of obligation to observe the ending of the war that changed virtually everyone’s life.
Armistice Day quickly became the holiest of civic observances. The fledgling American Legion, formed in 1919 by AEF officers while still in France, became the observance’s unofficial custodians of the ritual.
That war is local became all too true, locally. Iowa’s Republican governor William Harding, no relation of President Warren G. Harding, but equally inept, struck out at Iowans of German descent with the “Babel Proclamation” on May 23, 1918. It banned all languages but English in public, in churches, schools, even telephone conversations.
In 1918, the largest single segment of Iowa’s population were citizens of German descent. It was estimated that fully half of Iowa’s farmers came from a German background.
In Andrew, Lutheran church services using any German language materials ended, they had been a last, cherished reminder of immigrant ties and now they were tainted somehow with treachery. Library collections were scoured for German language volumes.
The U-boat attack on the Lusitania and the loss of civilian lives only made it worse. Anti-German sentiment ran deep, so much so that when farm families of German background didn’t seem patriotic enough, if their sons were not among the first to enlist, they might wake to find yellow paint splashed on their barn, the side visible from the road.
In Clinton County Berlin Township became Grant Township. The German measles were renamed Liberty measles and sauerkraut became Liberty cabbage.
Governor Harding’s 1918 proclamation caused more harm than good. It drove people from public interaction. It also exposed Harding to unwanted scrutiny. Like Warren G. Harding’s dubious distinction as a contender for worst president ever.
Governor Harding is regarded now as among the worst to preside in Iowa. He pardoned a rapist and he left office under a cloud when it was disclosed money had been exchanged in connection with the pardon. And Harding had been swept into office carrying 98 of Iowa’s 99 counties.
What had begun with patriotic parades, long lines of young men waiting to enlist, strong bond sales would devolve into suspicion of immigrants, mass deportations, permanent estrangement of neighbors and something else, a movement to withdraw from the world even as we were becoming a major player in the world.
It was President Dwight Eisenhower, and his proclamation dated 1954, that changed this November observance into Veteran’s Day. The name Armistice died a slow death. I can remember calling the observance by its former name. Veterans from the Great War, the war to end all wars, have long since disappeared, the legacy of their sacrifice in France endures to this day.