As many of us find ourselves enjoying time off from work this Monday on account of the Veteran’s Day holiday, working collaboratively with Library Assistant Michel Potop, I thought we might explore the history and meaning of the holiday using images from the Wolfsonian collection. The Veteran’s Day holiday actually began with American President Woodrow Wilson’s proclamation of a holiday on November 11, 1919, marking the one year anniversary of the Armistice that on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 ended the Great War.


Other European countries whose losses in the Great War (1914-1918) far exceeded those of America (whose soldiers entered the war in 1917) continue to commemorate the date with Armistice and Remembrance Day holidays. (The date was important enough to museum founder Mitchell Wolfson, Jr., that our own institution first opened to the public on that hour, day, and month in 1995).





In 1926, the U.S. Congress urged President Calvin Coolidge to observe the anniversary with appropriate ceremonies, and in 1938 an act of Congress formally recognized November 11th as Armistice Day, a holiday “dedicated to the cause of world peace.” In the wake of the Second World War, a WWII veteran petitioned to have Armistice Day changed to celebrate all veterans, rather than just those who had died in the earlier conflict.

As we rapidly approach the hundred year anniversary of the outbreak of the war, there are no longer any veterans of the Great War still alive. Consequently, those of us today who “remember” the conflict, do so not from personal experience, or from the stories of participants, but only through history books and novels, documentary and popular films, war memorials and museum exhibitions, and other such retrospective and imaginative journeys into the past.


The curators of our own museum are also preparing a Great War centennial exhibition next year, and the Wolfsonian library also possesses an important collection of rare books, periodicals, and printed materials that will be exhibited in our library foyer, concentrating on children’s propaganda books and ephemera. Today’s blog post, a collaboration between myself and library assistant Michel Potop, looks more closely at the Armistice, as well as the unhappy consequences of the Peace signed in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles that most certainly ensured a sequel to what Wilson called the “war to end all wars.”


After the commencement of hostilities, American President Woodrow Wilson kept the nation on a neutral standing and resisted pressures to enter the bloody “European conflict,” despite revelations (and exaggerations) of atrocities in Belgium and France, the sinking of the British liner, the Lusitania, and the promotion of a strong anti-German propaganda campaign in the states.




Declaring the country too proud to fight, Wilson ran for re-election in 1916 on the platform “He kept us out of war.” In response to the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans in 1917, in February President Wilson severed diplomatic relations with Germany and Congress declared war on April 6th.





Wilson appointed muck-raking journalist and progressive crusader George Creel to head the U.S. Committee on Public Information, who used propaganda and censorship to sell the war as the best means of bringing the bloody stalemate in Europe to an end. American intervention proved to be decisive in the war, and President Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” speech delivered on January 8, 1918 explicitly established idealistic war aims, and was widely circulated even behind German lines to encourage the Central Powers to surrender in the expectation of fair treatment. In fact, in October 1918, German chancellor Prince Maximilian sent a note to Wilson requesting an armistice to be followed by peace negotiations on the basis of the Fourteen Points. The other Allied Powers, having endured so much blood and suffering, never signed on to Wilson’s idealistic notions of peace. With Wilson gravely ill, the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau advanced a radically different treaty at the Paris Peace Conference. The treaty signed in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles included a German a war guilt clause and severe punitive reparations that angered Austrians and Germans so much as to become a contributing cause in the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and his fanatical National Socialist followers. Caricatures of Wilson, postcards lamenting the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and picture books in the Wolfsonian collection attest to the strong feelings provoked by this perceived “betrayal” and “stab in the back.”




Back in the U.S., Wilsonian idealism, interventionism, and calls for collective security and a League of Nations lost out to political cynicism and isolationism in the post-war period. As America descended into the Great Depression, many disillusioned veterans were left wondering what they had fought for in a struggle which left so many survivors horribly disfigured and maimed.



Our own library assistant, Michel Potop is a native of France and adds the following perspective to the Armistice Day holiday:

November 11 is a French national holiday during which the nation commemorates the signing of the armistice that ended La Grande Guerre. The Austro-Hungarian surrender on November 4 was followed by the German capitulation on November 11, 1918.




XB1993.191_Jouirnal clipping

The armistice bringing an end to the military operations of the Great War was signed aboard Maréchal Foch’s railway carriage at the clearing at Rethondes in the forest of Compaiègne.


World War I remains an example of butchery in the collective memory. Sixty-five million soldiers fought in the war which resulted in the loss of 8.5 million lives, with more than 21 million mutilated, shell-shocked survivors.


While wounded soldiers returning from the front and soldiers on leave could tell of the horrors of war, the government censored photographs like the one above fearing it too accurately depicted the brutality of trench warfare and would be bad for morale.

The table below taken from the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) details the staggering level of the carnage that occurred during the Great War, including dead, and wounded (half of whom suffered loss of limb.

PBS- Great war table


The images of WWI soldiers living in trenches, surrounded by corpses and wounded comrades still haunts the thoughts of enlightened people who oppose wars today.



The commemoration of the armistice is important not as a day of glory or national pride, but rather one of profound contemplation of a war perceived as absurd and futile.

The memorializing of the armistice was originally advocated by the veterans. It was observed for the first time in France in 1920 at the tomb of the unknown soldier buried under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Years later, European diplomatic and military envoys returned to pay homage to Maréchal Joffre whose funeral procession stopped at the Arc de Triomphe to acknowledge the tomb of the unknown soldier.

XB1993.198_Funeral cortege of Marechal Joffre passing the Arc of Triump in 1931

XB1993.198_ 13 years later the Impact of WW1 is still present - please note the British diplomatic and military envoys presenting an ultime omage to Marechal Joffre

As mentioned before, when the Germans sued for peace, the Armistice of 1918 was signed in the railway car of Maréchal Foch; the signing was memorialized in vintage postcards now in the Wolfsonian library collection.

2013-11-09 11 49 55

NOVEMBER 11, 1918

XC1999.59.1_Souvenir du Wagon du Marechal Foch _The Marechal holds the signed Armisrice-just before his departure to Paris

NOVEMBER 11, 1918

XC1999.59.1Souvenir du Wagon du Marechal Foch _409_The Wagon of Marechal Foch in its enclosure, November 11, 1918

Between the wars, the train-wagon in which the armistice was signed was preserved and protected by an enclosure financed by an American friend of France, Arthur Fleming  from Pasadena, California.

The symbolism of the humiliating surrender was not lost on Adolf Hitler. When the French capitulated to the German invaders in 1940, the Führer had his revenge, arranging for the second armistice to be signed at Compiegne in the same train-wagon, with the roles of victor and vanquished reversed.

XB1990.1715_1940_ French_delegation_preparing to endure the Nazi humiliation

JUNE 22, 1940

XB1990.1715_1940_French and German delegations- one the left side of the table left one can see the Fuhrer

JUNE 22, 1940 (Hitler is seated on the left hand side)

Following the signing of the French terms of surrender, Hitler ordered the railway wagon preserved and sent to Germany. The enclosure, gardens and concrete slab describing the German capitulation were dynamited and destroyed.

XB1990.1715_1940_German delegation with train-wagon in background

 After the Second World War ended some of the looted sculpture and monuments were recovered and brought back to France. Though the original railway car had been destroyed, a replica replaced it in the 1950s.

XC1999.59.1Souvenir du Wagon du Marechal Foch _401- Monument Alsaciens-Lorrains


Following the lead of the former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, French President Francois Hollande recently took steps to rehabilitate the reputation of the French soldiers executed during the war on order of the Army High Command. The executions were intended to warn soldiers against questioning the orders of their senior officers, even if obeying them was virtual suicide. The men chosen for execution were often without personal fault and had been randomly selected and shot by execution squads to demonstrate the French military hierarchy’s absolute power. The court martial and execution of the soldiers was the subject of a 1957 film, Paths of Glory directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas. President Hollande formally introduced them to the Invalides, the  Military Museum of the France.

Below is an illustration by Louis Raemaekers (1869-1956) of a French “Poilu” or WWI soldier.


~ by "The Chief" on November 11, 2013.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: