The Meaning of Armistice Day


By GENERAL CHARLES P. SUMMERALL, President of The Citadel the Military College of South Carolina, at the Armistice Eve Banquet of the Union League Club of Chicago, November 10, 1939

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 115-117.

IT is with a sense of peculiar pride and appreciation that I find myself a guest of the Union League Club of Chicago on this significant occasion. To be so honored is to be admitted to the long list of our countrymen whose names have added luster to our history. Here, the great in all periods since 1879 have impressed their personalities, and by words and deeds have influenced the course of the Republic Presidents, rulers, statesmen, generals, admirals, capitalists, captains of industry, orators, and leaders in every art and profession have enriched the traditions that are so proudly cherished today. They and those who as courageous and articulate members have kept the faith of its noble tenets have imparted to the Club a spirit that is expressed by the words, Loyalty and Union. If what I may say should wound the sensibilities of any, I am encouraged to speak the truth because the Union League Club has prided itself on being a place where truth should not be suppressed. In the words of one of your great leaders, "This Club has the courage of its convictions. It was not organized to keep silence."

The Club took a leading part in supporting the war for the allies and in influencing public opinion and loyalty. One hundred and fourteen of its members entered the military service or engaged in war work.

The meaning of Armistice Day to those who made it possible is tribute, remembrance, and resolve.

In reverence, we pay homage to the men who twenty-two years ago went forth to battle in a cause that was not their own but which they espoused with sentiments of the loftiest idealism. The men who could not join the colors and the noble women of our land consecrated themselves to the tasks of sustaining the men under arms and preserving the vital activities of the population. Hardships and sacrifices were borne by all with equal fortitude. Many thousands gave their lives in the homeland and overseas with the same honor and fidelity. Many thousands more suffered wounds and broken health, and for them the war can end only with life itself. The high courage of our men in advancing to the assault and charging the enemy's lines was equalled by the Sublime resignation of the mothers and loved ones who suffered anxiety and bereavement. The spirit of exaltation of a people united by high resolve revealed the character of our race and united all classes in the pride of citizenship. Our soldiers drenched with their blood the battlefields of in alien land to save alien peoples. Their bodies marked the progress of our advancing lines and were the price of our victories. The forests of crosses in Europe and America testify to the magnitude of their sacrifice. The triumph of our arms must fill with pride the hearts of all who shared the stress of those days of glory and must strengthen the patriotism and the sense of duty of future generations.

These reflections bring surging in our minds a flood of memories. The road to war which led from our peaceful life to the battlefields of Europe was strange to the nation who traveled it and is but dimly comprehended now. In 1914, the public mind had been taught that wars could be no more. When the unbelievable outbreak of war occurred, there was no thought that it would involve us and nothing was done to give us the power to protect our neutrality. Soon, the sale of munitions and supplies to one group of belligerents inevitably caused the other group who were denied the seas to become hostile. Illegal acts were committed against our shipping. Atrocities stirred our indignation against the aggressors. Propaganda and emotion aroused a public demand to join the allies and the call to arms was sounded. We were without arms, equipment, transportation, or any of the elements of mobilization and our soldiers were pitifully few. Although some troops were sent overseas in the first few months, it was more than a year before an American army could make an attack. Practically all of our arms and munitions were obtained from the allies at exorbitant prices.

At the time of our entrance into the war, the allies were exhausted. They described themselves as bled white and war weary. Their sources of man power had dried up and their finances were at an end. Their morale had crumbled and their leaders feared a debacle. They had ceased to fight to win and only one tragic end could be contemplated. Missions were rushed to the United States to plead for loans of money and to urge the speedy dispatch of troops. We at once became their treasure house. Our entrance gave new hope and rekindled the morale of their armies and their peoples. On June 6, 1917, the allied military leaders agreed on a policy of wholly defensive action till the American army could give them superiority. This policy was not changed till July 24, 1918, when the American army at Soissons demonstrated its offensive value. In the meantime, the military and political leaders, fearing a German attack, and complete defeat, frantically demanded that our men be placed in their units to fight under their officers. When the enemy did attack as in March, May, and July of 1918, they fell back. Fortunately, a considerable force of American troops was available in each case to hold a portion of the line or to reinforce the broken sectors.

The American army adopted a policy of open warfare by attacking the enemy. The demonstration of the fighting qualities of the American soldier as Cantigny exercised an influence on friend and foe far beyond the magnitude of the operation. For the first time since 1914, territory occupied by the enemy on the French front was taken and held. At Soissons, on July 18, 1918, it was the 1st and 2nd American Divisions that carried out the assault with the 1st Moroccan Division sandwiched between them. Here, with an indomitable courage never excelled and sacrifices seldom equalled, they compelled the enemy to recross the Marne on the second and third days of the battle and begin that retreat which ended only with the armistice. The allies did nothing more than stand in reserve or follow up the movement. After the fourth day when all objectives had been taken, the allied Commander-in-Chief decided to change his defensive to an offensive policy. Ludendorf states that he had placed here one of his best divisions and hastened all of his disengaged troops to oppose the attack. English writers agree in calling it the turning point of the war and one of the great decisive battles of the world but ignore American participation.

The condition of the allies at this time was shown by the fact that when Marshal Foch on July 24th proposed to the allied commanders the reduction of the St. Mihiel salient

and other operations, the French commander replied that his army was "bled white" and "worn out" while the British commander objected on the ground that his army was "completely disorganized." An American army was then formed and carried out the operation with a brilliancy that could not have been excelled. The French only followed the movement as the enemy withdrew. At the same time, plans were made to operate against the enemy's vital line of communications and the mission was assigned to the American army. No allied commander would have accepted it. There followed the Meuse-Argonne, America's greatest battle and one of the greatest of all times. From September 26 to November 11, 1918, more than a million men were employed in the First Army on a front of twenty miles and over the most difficult terrain on the western front. The schedule of attacks was so arranged that the different allied armies should assume the offensive on successive days, following the initial assault by the Americans. The intention manifestly was for them to follow the retrograde movement of the enemy as he saw the Americans approaching what for four years had been his life line. On the first day, our troops penetrated six and one-half miles while the enemy held the rest of the western front. Here, the enemy rushed his best reserves. On the third day of the battle, Ludendorf presented his demand to Hindenburg for an armistice and it was the capture of this line on November 7 that terminated hostilities.

In the meantime, the 2nd American Corps had shared conspicuously in the operations of the British, and other American units had been used in the most critical and difficult places. The participation of the navy forms a history of its own.

The story of the valor of our soldiers and sailors cannot be told too often, for the patriotism and pride of race upon which our future depends must be inspired by the heroic example of our manhood in all periods. An unreasonable censorship deprived the American people of the knowledge of what their soldiers were doing when the nation hungered for news, and no writer has appeared to record their valor, their sacrifices, and their triumphs. Stirred by resentment at the efforts of the allies to belittle America's part, General Bullard has presented an outline in his book, "American Soldiers Also Fought," which all might read with much profit.

The result of our participation in the war was that the allies were overwhelmingly victorious instead of being disastrously defeated and, no doubt, permanently subjugated. In return, we have received little from them but criticism, abuse, contempt, and repudiation. Ill will in high places towards the Americans had been manifested from the beginning. It remained for their military and political leaders to write their books to reveal the extent of their hostility. Marshal Foch, who knew better than anyone else the significance and sacrifice of the American army, dismisses Cantigny with a mere reference. He characterizes Soissons as having "important results." Of the Meuse-Argonne, he says: "From September 26 to October 20, its (American army's) losses in battle were 54,158 men—in exchange for small gains on a narrow front." He gives all credit for victory to the allies but does not explain why these war-weary, worn-out, bled-white, disorganized, recruitless forces were suddenly transformed into invincible conquerors. Colonel Reppington explains when he says: "The real cause of the allied recovery was the arrival of over 2,000,000 fresh allied troops in France. Would the public and would history ever understand these elementary facts?"

It remained for Mr. Clemenceau to dip his pen in vitriol and record contempt, sarcasm, and hate that were superlative. He characterizes Major Stantons, "Lafayette, we arehere, as "a sword drawn in the sunshine with no intention to pay." He denounces the American army as appearing in the last battle to gain the appearance of victory. After copying Marshal Foch's strictures on the Meuse-Argonne, he sneers at this epic battle by calling it a "mere skirmish," "left undecided at France's expense." At the moment when the Americans were pouring out their blood for France and were reconstituting their forces for the final assault of November 1 and when, as a result, the enemy leaders were agreeing to request an armistice, he charges them with "marking time" while the allies were being sacrificed. After supplying France with billions of money and hundreds of millions in supplies and installations, he states in his open letter to President Coolidge: "America has broken us in the economic system for an indefinite time" and he charges America with ruining France in peace as the Germans ruined it in war.

If we turn to the British, we find the same failure to give America any credit beyond recognizing the participation of the two divisions which served with them. Of St. Mihiel, they speak flippantly as a relief of the Germans by the Americans. They attribute Soissons to the French or the British and the French and they leave no doubt that they regard the Meuse-Argonne as a failure. They appear never to have recovered from their resentment at not having the American troops incorporated in their units.

While the Germans were defeated on every front where Americans were engaged and failed ever to penetrate an American line, they clung to the delusion that the American soldier was incapable and poorly led. Yet, of Soissons, Ludendorff wrote: "How many hopes, cherished during the last few months, had probably collapsed at one blow! How many calculations had been scattered to the winds!" He declares elsewhere that without the help given by the United States, the allies would long before have suffered military defeat.

Soissons should have a nobler monument than Waterloo, for it meant more to the nations whom it saved, but the Battle Monuments Commission did not see fit to mark it. The only evidence for future generations is the simple column bearing the names of two thousand men of the First Division who, in four days, gave their lives on that fateful field.

The story of the debts is no less an exhibition of broken faith. The loans sustained them in war and rehabilitated them in the years that followed. They have left us burdened with a debt that can never be paid. There should be no more potent antidote for propaganda, hysteria, and international emotionalism than a perusal of the books by British and French political and military leaders about the war and the reports of the Secretary of the Treasury about the debts. It may be divine to serve and to sacrifice for others but it is human to resent injustice. Ingratitude poisons the spring of selflessness and is the bitterest cup man has to drink.

We did not end war nor make the world safe for democracy; nor did the allies adhere to Mr. Wilson's insistent demand that Germany be deprived of power to wage another war. Mr. Wilson truly said that the causes of the war were deep rooted in history. They sprung from age-old hates and racial, territorial, and political antagonisms of which we have no conception. We must not transplant them to our soil. While the results have disillusioned us, they may be worth the experience if they can be a guide and a warning for the future.

This leads us to the third meaning of Armistice Day which is resolve. When President Harding saw the thousands of flag-draped caskets at Hoboken, he exclaimed: "It must not be again!" Let that be our resolve. To make it effective, we need only obey the injunctions of Washington.

He warned us that in their dealings with one another, nations were actuated only by selfish motives. He admonished us to avoid all foreign entanglements. He foretold that we would be denied respect and national rights by a reputation of weakness and he enjoined us to maintain at all times a "respectable peace establishment." By ignoring all of these sound principles, we sacrificed hundreds of thousands of our men by death, wounds, and disease with millions to claim relief; while we burdened ourselves with a debt of more than twenty-two billions of dollars and a liability of untold billions over the future.

Let the American people resolve never again to engage in wars not made upon them. There can be no greater fallacy than to say we should save others from defeat. Their wars are of their own making and they need not be defeated. We cannot settle their quarrels nor maintain the balance of power in Europe. America must not bleed to death over there.

To the opprobrium of "Shylock" let us answer: "Sharper than a serpent's tooth is the sting of a thankless friend," and to the cry of "pas un sou" let us reply: "Not one cent; not one soldier."

Let us demand that laws be enacted in time of peace for making the man power of the country available for the armed forces or for labor and for drafting capital and property in war. Let the armed forces be made strong enough at all times to deter aggressors from challenging our sovereignty or threatening our territory or that of the western hemisphere. Let the resources of the country be made quickly available by constant orders to industrial plants or government arsenals which will enable them to expand to meet war-time needs. Let the people demand publicity as to the state of defense and satisfy themselves that all weapons and equipment are sufficient and equal to the developments of modern war. They cannot trust their safety to any hands but their own nor can they expect the government to act except upon the impulses from them. National defense is the people's business and should not be a military secret.

Let them demand that alien agents of foreign despots who have betrayed the privileges of citizenship under the constitution by fomenting revolution and trying to destroy our institutions of liberty and the native-born traitors who aid and abet them be treated as public enemies. Herein lies our greatest and most imminent danger.

Let them compel their government to remain strictly neutral towards all belligerents and to defend by arms the honor of our flag and the sacredness of our soil.

It must be remembered that war is a normal state for a government and that it comes suddenly and without warning. It involves not alone the armed forces but every individual and every resource. To be prepared, all elements and agencies required in war should be incorporated in the different executive departments of government in time of peace. They can no more be improvised in an emergency than the armed forces. Boards and commissions of inexperienced men, however able, cannot function in war to meet the needs of the armed forces and the population.

Let us no longer delude ourselves with the fetish that the oceans protect us. Unless we control them, they make us more vulnerable. Aggressor nations are driven to conquest by an overproduction of man power for their resources. The Americas must inevitably become their prey.

We should abandon the Monroe Doctrine or prepare to defend it. Otherwise, we may at any time find ourselves in a losing war. That is the teaching of history.

Let the youth be trained for military service and let the people be indoctrinated with the truth that no nation can expect long to endure unless it is prepared at all times to defend its life with superior strength to that which any enemy or coalition may bring to bear against it. It will be only when the mass of the people understand these principles that we may hope to avoid other armistice days which may not have the same significance as the one that we now celebrate."