Veterans Day is celebrated tomorrow in the United States. The holiday was first established by President Wilson as Armistice Day on November 11, 1919. The holiday originally celebrated the end of the “War to End All Wars” which formally ended at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918. To those of us generations removed from this war, it is difficult to realize its impact on the world. It is estimated that nearly 20 million people died globally as a result. At war’s end, four European empires disappeared: Russian, Ottoman, German, and Austro-Hungarian.
Tomorrow has additional significance in Poland because it is celebrated as Independence Day – at the end of the war in 1918, Poland re-appeared on the map of Europe and became a country again for the first time in 123 years. Józef Piłsudski became the leader of the new Poland.
I can only wonder how World War I affected my ancestors. As far as I know, none of my ancestors served in the military during the war, although my one Polish great-grandfather volunteered to fight for Poland in Haller’s Army. But all of my great-grandparents living in America had only immigrated ten or twenty years prior to the war – surely they had relatives and friends living near the battlefields in Europe. My German great-grandparents were not naturalized citizens, so they had to register with the U.S. government as “enemy aliens”. I am sure that there must have been ethnic tensions during the war where neighbors wondered about which “side” of the war German immigrants were on. Even though my great-grandfather had American sons that would go on to serve in the U.S. military, I wonder if he had conflicted feelings about the war – his own cousins and nephews were fighting in the German military. It would be interesting to know how he felt about the war’s end – the economic hardships that his former country was about to endure would set the stage for an even greater and tragic war.
For my three Polish great-grandfathers, there must have been great rejoicing after the war, for Poland was once again a country. Though they were Polish, neither they nor their fathers or grandfathers were born in Poland, but instead in Russian-occupied Poland. I’d like to wish a Happy Independence Day to all of my Polish friends tomorrow!
As we know, the Great War was not the war to end all wars. After World War II, Armistice Day was changed to Veterans Day and is a holiday to honor all veterans. Tomorrow I’ll have a special message for all of my family members and friends who are veterans.
Here are posts from genealogy blogs this past week that are related to World War I research: