Today the U.S. celebrates Veterans Day in honor of all the men and women who have served in the military. For years the holiday didn’t mean much more to me than a day off of school or work. I couldn’t remember the difference between it and Memorial Day. It’s easy to forget the sacrifices that so many others have made for our country when you’re a kid and you’ve lived a (thankfully) sheltered life. And it’s easy to overlook the importance of military personnel when you’re a proud American, but one who sees themselves more as a citizen of the world rather than of a single country, as well as, one who often questions our military involvement in distant parts of the world. As I’ve grown older, I’ve met a lot of American veterans and have been humbled by their service. I’ve developed a greater understanding and appreciation for the sacrifices that soldiers have made to countries across the globe, too, as I’ve traveled more and lived abroad longer. I now pay more attention to patriotic holidays, whether they are my country’s or another person’s.
This afternoon, I’ve been thinking about the historic battlefields, war memorials, monuments, cemeteries, and museums I’ve visited around the world. One in particular has been on my mind. I saw it during our visit to Akaroa, a tiny town situated comfortably in Banks Peninsula, which is a circular land mass that dangles off the South Island just below Christchurch. The town is cute and pretty. Sailboats dot the bright blue waters of Akaroa Bay and verdant, volcanic hills ring the area. French street signs serve as reminders of the immigrants who settled the area in the late 1840s and whose proud descendants remain. Maybe it was the way the morning sun light fell across it or maybe it was the chain link fence that surrounded it – I can’t really recall – but the town’s World War I (WWI) memorial caught my attention on the day we visited. As with most things that catch my eye while on vacation, I pointed to it and asked Iggy to snap a photo.
The fence, I learned, was erected after the 2011 earthquake (repairs to many structures and buildings in the area are ongoing), and the memorial is like the many others that were built in towns across New Zealand in the years that followed WWI. Later, as I paged through my Lonely Planet guidebook, I was shocked to read that 100,000 New Zealand soldiers went off to fight in the war, primarily on the Western Front in France. This is a huge number considering that the population of the country at the time was about one million.
I probably would have eventually forgotten these facts had it not been for recent episodes of Downton Abbey. Carson, the persnickety butler, is on the committee responsible for erecting the fictional Yorkshire town’s WWI memorial. The always flustered but mostly jovial cook, Mrs. Patmore, tries her best over several episodes to get her nephew’s name added to that memorial, much to the objection of Carson who claims the nephew was a deserter (cue symphonic swell and cut to commercial!). We won’t know until a future episode who gets their way, but the subplot made me remember that beautiful memorial in Akaroa, and I thought it would be a nice photo to post today in honor of Veterans Day. Better still was the history lesson that came from all of these coincidences: the memorial in New Zealand, the melodramatic TV show that has sucked me in along with the rest of America, and the federal holiday being observed back home.
It shames me to admit that I didn’t know the Veterans Day backstory. I choose to believe it’s because I’m an ignorant Millennial rather than think that I forgot a day’s history lesson from junior high. Still, though, I’m embarrassed to tell you that I didn’t realize that Veterans Day evolved out of Armistice Day – a day that is celebrated in many countries around the world. It was on this day in 1918 that fighting at the Western Front during WWI ended with the signing of the armistice between Allied nations and Germany. The holiday was first observed in Britain and the U.S. in 1919. Its original purpose was to honor and remember the millions of men and women who died serving their countries in WWI, but over the years grew to include all individuals who served in the military. In the U.S. the name changed in the 1950s and Armistice Day became Veterans Day. How did I not know this? I can feel the disdainful Lady Mary Crawley rolling her chestnut colored eyeballs at me. Rightfully so.