J. Richardson Dilworth Professor of History Paul Kennedy remarks on WWI Armistice Centennial

Veterans Day ceremony
November 12, 2018

At exactly one hundred years ago yesterday, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, Yale soldiers, and Conneticut soldiers, stopped firing.  Yale airmen, based in Belgium and France, were ordered to cease firing.  The German government had requested, and been granted, an armistice in the fighting.  That armistice lasted.  The two sides, victors and defeated, then negotiated the terms of surrender and the terms of the peace that followed, in June 1919. 

The first World War, the great war, was over.

The end of the shooting, the armistice of one hundred years ago, has been marked all over Europe this week, in great cities and in small villages, in churches and on town greens; and no wonder.  Direct battlefield deaths in the first world war totaled over eight million men; indirect and related deaths, civilian deaths due to war, deaths by war diseases, were well over ten million souls.  Though many earlier conflicts had also been long and bloody, there had been nothing like it of that size.  I think I first was told of those totals, of 18 to 20 million deaths, when I studied European history in high school over fifty years ago.  They seemed incomprehensible then. It’s just as hard to comprehend today.

Although the United States came late into that conflict, the losses suffered by its armed forces were still considerable, about 59,000 in direct action, about 110,000 when later deaths, disease casualties and other causes are included.  Had the fighting gone on into 1919 it is clear that those figures would have been far larger, as America’s share along the western front in France surged.  As it was, two million American men and women [the nurses] had been sent overseas by the war’s end, and another two million were in training.  Is it any wonder that the newsreels and the press photos show the nation cheering, and in relief, at the November 11th news that the fighting was over?

The country then began to pay its tributes, to the veterans who returned, and to those who were lost in the war.  we came to memorialise them, to put up public monuments in their honor, to list their names.  Just a month ago, here in NewHaven, on the city green, there was a re-dedication ceremony of the war memorial built to recall this region’s airmen, soldiers and sailors, and those names were once again read out.  The monument is over there, just five hundred yards away from the front of this chapel.  And another five hundred yards away, in that complex of buildings wrapt around Beinecke plaza, is Yale’s own war memorial.  When we walk through that archway, with Commons on one side, and Woolsey hall on the other, we stride past those limestone walls etched with the names of Yale’s fallen, in this war, and in many others.

Only eighteen months had transpired between America’s entry into the war in April 1917, and this armistice.  In those months, the places just outside here were a whirlwind of activity.  The Old Campus, and the New Haven green, became the leading training ground in the country for the fast-growing U.S. artillery arm.  Yale students, 18-year-olds, were being processed through the newly-founded Yale R.O.T.C., science and engineering professors were at work for all branches of the U.S military.  so, too, were many members of the medical school, which pioneered the country’s first mobile hospital unit in France.  by 1919 Yale was a sort of giant gothic training camp, hardly a university at all.

In 1925 the official Yale study, a two-volume book entitled “Yale in the World War”, provided all the details.  A grand total of roughly 9,500 Yale graduates and students had served in the war, including in the Red Cross, YMCA, and other non-governmental bodies.  Yalies had served in every conceivable military unit, from the air service and medical corps to the signal corps, the motor transport corps, the engineers, the field nurses in France, the chemical warfare service, even the coast artillery.  Over 1,100 men were officers in the navy, 88 in the marine corps, 1,700 in the field artillery.   50 were chaplains, and 880 of them were in the various air services -  there was a huge rush to be a pilot, and this a mere fourteen years after the Wright brothers had taken to the air.  Quite a number of Yalies also fought in allied armies, some also in their air forces; 50 fought in the royal tank corps.  thirteen of them gained the British military cross [the highest award for gallantry], and three gained the distinguished flying cross.  A full 162 Yalies were awarded by the French government the Croix de Guerre for valor, which is a truly remarkable number.

Two hundred and twenty-seven Yalies died in this conflict.

The first world war was supposed to be “a war to end all wars”.   And for two whole decades, that hope held out in this country.  It held out, and got stronger, when the economy crumbled after 1929.  It held out after the Japanese attacks upon Manchuria and China, the Italian attacks upon Abyssinia, and Adolf Hitler’s attacks upon Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Netherlands, even the fall of France, even the battle of Britain.   but it was no good.  In December 1941 the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.  Four days later Adolf Hitler declared war on this country.   America would fight in a far greater conflict now, across the Atlantic, North Africa, Italy, France, and the whole pacific.  It would fight as part of a much broader alliance, and when the war was over it committed itself to leading a new world order.  It would lead the United Nations.  It would create the World Bank, the IMF and so many other structures of international cooperation.  It would establish the NATO alliance.  In all that diplomacy and creativity, many Yalies would again be centrally involved.

The United States would spread its naval bases around the world.  It would put its air bases all over Europe, Asia, the middle east.  It would have American soldiers, including, obviously, soldiers from New England and Connecticut, on the ground in so many foreign places. Local men, killed in action, would be brought home from Korea, from Vietnam, from Iraq, and Afghanistan.  They are still being brought home. It is difficult for this historian to imagine a circumstance when that will not be so.  Almost two and a half centuries after the American revolution, this republic is all over the world.  We have troops in fifty countries, perhaps more.

We all would like to return to that more peaceful condition of the years before 1917, or of the 1920s.  But many of us cannot see how pulling away from the rest of the world right now can be done, politically, practically, militarily, morally.   We are, ironically, the very victim of our own size, our greatness, our relative power across the globe.  Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright calls us ‘the indispensable nation’.   We pay a large price for that accolade.

We do not know what the future will bring, for this world, or this republic, for the armed services of America, and our service-men and –women, wherever they are.  There is much evil abroad in this world, and the calls to contest that evil are many.  This is a time when heavy, heavy responsibilities lie upon our leaders, and when we pray for them to show intelligence, care, and integrity.  We yearn, almost nostalgically, for the leadership the country witnessed at the time of Franklin Roosevelt, Marshall, Stimson, and Acheson.

Whatever the future brings to our nation, it is to memorialize the past that we come together today.  In 1917 and 1918 America stepped forward into a new role, and so indeed did Yale.  But the price in lives was a heavy one, and it is therefore very proper that we have stopped at this time, to mark their sacrifice.  As we walk away from our ceremony this afternoon, therefore, we should do so both in gratitude and humility.  As we also walk away, finally, in the hope that, one day, war may cease to ravage this earth.