Veterans Day: a long and honored history

Veterans Day on November 11, is a day of remembrance for the life-threatening dedication our troops have made serving in war and at home. But Veterans Day, previously Remembrance Day, which overlapped Armistice Day also on November 11, was the original day that those at home honored U.S. servicemen.

Armistice Day commemorated the armistice signed between the Allies of World War I and Germany at Compiegne, France, for the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front of World War I, which “took effect at eleven o’clock in the morning — the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918. While this official date marked the end of the war, it reflects only the ceasefire on the Western Front, hostilities continued in other regions.

The date was declared a national holiday in many allied nations, to commemorate those members of the Armed Forces who were killed during war.

Armistice Day was changed to Veterans Day after WWII.

Chesterfield County had been involved in relief work prior to Armistice Day. According to the pamphlet, written by Laura Martin Wheelright, “Chesterfield County in War Time: A Community History,” the Chesterfield War Relief Association raised $2,893.68 for the war effort just eight months before the armistice. The group used the funds to prepare 22,937 surgical dressings.

Students got involved too, raising $900 sent overseas in addition to many pounds of clothing. “War orphans were adopted by churches and groups of society workers,” Wheelright wrote, in the circa 1920 booklet.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy met at Chester High School, inviting all to attend. Wheelright wrote that they pledged themselves to prosecute faithfully all relief work. They adopted, on the spot, a French war orphan.

After the armistice, a patriotic gathering was held at the county courthouse. According to the booklet, two ministers gave thanks for an abundant harvest (remember Chesterfield was an agricultural community then) and the restoration of peace.

The county service flag in Chesterfield held 1,000 stars and was unfurled and placed in the courthouse. The stars represented the number of boys the county had in the fight. Most service flags bore the message “Don’t forget: Your boys are at war. Your boys are in harm’s way.” If a community lost a local soldier in the war, the white star was changed to yellow.

“Chester, which is known as the ‘little town with the big spirit,” responded to every pulse beat of the war, and immediate preparations were made, when peace was declared, to welcome the soldiers home,” Wheelright wrote. “A parade of the citizens, headed by the best band at Camp Lee, marched through the town to the high school where services were held and the school flag unfurled.”

The population of Chesterfield in 1920 was 20,496, which represented a continued increase over the previous census and those that followed. A county that was considered agricultural was changing and farmers couldn’t afford the $2 to $3 a day that farm hands were demanding. Farms closer to Richmond were being subdivided and homes were being built. Many of the returning soldiers did not return to the farm, but took up residence nearer to the city where work could be found.

“Many of our soldier boys have returned to us. They show a great unwillingness to talk of the war. They have melded into the life of the county as private citizens and seem to prefer to regard this ‘great adventure’ as a closed incident,” Wheelright wrote. “The memory of the deeds of the brave boys who made the supreme sacrifice will ever dwell in the hearts of their grateful fellow citizens and encourage and inspire them to ‘carry on.’”

November 11 was proclaimed a holiday by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954. Now Veterans Day memorializes all soldiers  who served their country in war or peacetime on the day that began as Armistice Day.


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