Ninety years ago today, my father’s father was an American infantryman in France, and I wonder if he actually heard the sound: for four years, the artillery of both sides had belched shells non-stop, battering away at the siege lines dug into the mud of Europe. They and the machine guns had been the teeth of a meat-grinder that had consumed much of a generation of men from West, East and around the world. But at 11 a.m. on the 11th of November of 1918, the last salvos of the First World War blasted across No Man’s Land in Belgium and France. In synchrony, the guns stopped — and he and millions of other surviving soldiers realized that they might just see home again.
Not that home would ever really be the same. In the war’s fire, the last great medieval holdovers had melted away, taking with them czars, emperors and the petty nobility of dozens of states. The 19th century had died as well, with Victorian hypocrisies and the myth of European supremacy alike drowning in blood in the trenches. In the postwar scramble, whole countries disappeared and economies turned on their heads, creating the fear and uncertainty on which both communism and rabid nationalism fed. Throughout Asia and Africa, eyes saw meanwhile that white Europeans were far from invincible.
Even the U.S. was transformed, though no battles had been fought on its soil — after the war and the economic changes it wrought, the traditionally isolationist country was firmly established as a first-rate world power, hard as its politicians might try to retreat from that reality. Society was changing as well: the census of 1920 found more Americans living in cities than in small towns for the first time in our history, drawn there by war-industry jobs or driven by postwar restlessness. Over the next decade, Urban America embraced a new material affluence and with it a new freedom in dress, behavior, art and music: modernity had reared its head.
By the 11th of November, 1918, the broad outlines of the 20th Century were set, though it would take a worldwide economic depression, a second world war, the collapse of colonial empires and a generation of Cold War for them become clear. But on that day, the soldiers would have cared about one thing only: that whatever would come, they would live to see it. We celebrate the Veterans’ Day holiday on November 11th because of the Armistice of 1918: the day the guns stopped.