Armistice Day (which coincides with Remembrance Day and Veterans Day, public holidays) is commemorated every year on 11 November to mark the armistice signed between the Allies of World War I and Germany at Compiègne, 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 to mark the end of the war reflects the ceasefire on the Western Front, hostilities continued in other regions, especially across the former Russian Empire and in parts of the old Ottoman Empire.
The date was declared a national holiday in many allied nations, to commemorate those members of the armed forces who were killed during war. An exception is Italy, where the end of the war is commemorated on 4 November, the day of the Armistice of Villa Giusti. In the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway World War I is not commemorated as the three countries all remained neutral.
The Initial or Very First Armistice Day was held at Buckingham Palace commencing with King George V hosting a “Banquet in Honour of The President of the French Republic“ during the evening hours of November 10 1919.
The First Official Armistice Day was subsequently held on the Grounds of Buckingham Palace on the Morning of November 11th 1919. This would set the trend for a day of Remembrance for decades to come.
Most countries changed the name of the holiday just prior to or after World War II, to honor veterans of that and subsequent conflicts. Most member states of the Commonwealth of Nations, like United Kingdom and (as Canada in 1931), adopted the name Remembrance Day, while the United States chose All Veterans Day (later shortened to ‘Veterans Day’) to explicitly honor military veterans, including those participating in other conflicts. “Armistice Day” remains the name of the holiday in France, Belgium and New Zealand; and it has been a statutory holiday in Serbia since 2012.
In many parts of the world, people observe a one or more commonly a two minute moment of silence at 11:00 a.m. local time as a sign of respect in the first minute for the roughly 20 million people who died in the war, and in the second minute dedicated to the living left behind, generally understood to be wives, children and families left behind but deeply affected by the conflict. The two minute silence was proposed to Lord Milner by South African Sir Percy Fitzpatrick in 1919. This had been the practice in Cape Town from May 1918, although it had quickly spread through the Empire after a Reuters correspondent cabled a description of this daily ritual.
From the outset, many veterans in many countries have also used silence to pay homage to departed comrades. The toast of “Fallen” or “Absent Comrades” has always been honoured in silence at New Zealand veteran functions, while the news of a member’s death has similarly been observed in silence at meetings.
Similar ceremonies developed in other countries during the inter-war period. In South Africa, for example, the Memorable Order of Tin Hats had by the late 1920s developed a ceremony whereby the toast of “Fallen Comrades” was observed not only in silence but darkness, all except for the “Light of Remembrance”, with the ceremony ending with the Order’s anthem “Old Soldiers Never Die”. In Australia, meanwhile, the South Australian State Branch of the Returned Sailors & Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia similarly developed during the interwar period a simple ceremony of silence for departed comrades at 9 p.m., presumably to coincide with the traditional 11 a.m. time for Armistice ceremonies taking place in Europe (due to the ten-hour time difference between Eastern Australia and Europe).
In Britain, beginning in 1939, the two-minute silence was moved to the Sunday nearest to 11 November in order not to interfere with wartime production should 11 November fall on a weekday. After the end of World War II, most Armistice Day events were moved to the nearest Sunday and began to commemorate both World Wars. The change was made in many Commonwealth countries, as well as Britain, and the new commemoration was named Remembrance Sunday or Remembrance Day. Both Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday are now commemorated formally in Britain. In recent years Armistice Day has become increasingly recognised, and many people now attend the 11am ceremony at the Cenotaph in London – an event organised by The Western Front Association, a British charity dedicated to perpetuating the memory of those who served in the First World War.
In the U.S., the function of Veterans Day is subtly different from that of other 11 November holidays. Unlike the situation in other countries, where that calendar date is set aside specifically for honoring those who died in action, Veterans Day honors all American veterans, whether living or dead, killed in action or deceased from other causes. The official national remembrance of war dead is instead Memorial Day, originally called ‘Decoration Day’, from the practice of decorating the graves of soldiers, which originated in the years immediately following the American Civil War.