Veteran’s Day: It took 17 million lives to start a holiday

National Park Service Soldiers from Company A marching to Calumet’s train station on June 30, 1917 on their way to war.

What began as an isolated incident based on the nationalistic views of a misguided 19-year-old Serb, escalated in a matter of months, into the most devastating war the world had seen up to that point, involving three continents. Before it ended four years later, it claimed 17 million lives, 8 million of whom were civilians.

It would come to be called “The War to End All Wars.”

More than 4.7 million men and women served in the U.S. Military during World War 1, with 2.8 million serving in Europe. Of those, 53,402 were killed in action, 63,114 died from disease and other causes, and approximately 205,000 were wounded. Of those American soldiers serving in the war, Michigan contributed more than 135,000 service men and women. More than 5,000 of them would become casualties, and of those, 70 soldiers from the Copper Country never came home.

On July 15, 1917, The National Guard of Michigan and Wisconsin was called into federal service, and the troops were designated to form the 32nd Division of the United States American Expeditionary Force. While training at Camp MacArthur, Waco, Texas, the Michigan and Wisconsin troops were drafted into federal service, and the units were divided into three brigades, the 57th, 63rd, and 64th Brigades. Division strength was approximately 3,500 when it prepared to embark for Europe on Jan. 2, 1918.

Once in France, the 32nd Division was assigned to I corps. Between May 20 and July 19, the 64th Infantry Brigade and the 107th Engineers were detached for service elsewhere, and the remainder of the division was attached to the French Army’s 9th Division north of the Rhone-Rhine Canal, in the La Chapelle Sector, while the 64th Brigade was attached to the French 10 Division south of the canal in Suarce Sector.

On July 30, 1918, the 32nd Division, together with the 28th Division began their involvement in the Aisne-Marne Operation, attacking north to occupy the the southwestern corner of the Bois de Cierges, and advanced through the eastern part of Bois de Grimpettes. From Sept. 26 through Nov. 11, the division participated in the Meuse-Argonne Campaign.

This campaign was a major component of the Allied Offensive that extended across the entire Western Front. The battle cost 28,000 German lives, 26,277 American lives, and it is not known the loss of French lives.

The Allied Offensive, which involved British, Canadian, Australian, Indian, French, American, and troops from other countries, brought the war to a close when the Armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918.

Exactly one year later, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson publicly reflected on the war that had scarred the world.

“To us in America,” he said in part, “the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service, and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of nations.”

On May 13, 1938, an Act of Congress made the 11th of November of each year a legal holiday, which was called Armistice Day. In Europe and Australia, it is called Remembrance Day.

However, Raymond Weeks, a Birmingham, Alabama, native who was a veteran of WWII, proposed expanding Armistice Day to remember all veterans killed in combat in all wars in which American Military personnel participate. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had commanded the Allies in WWII, signed the bill into law on May 26, 1954. It had been eight and a half years since Weeks held his first Armistice Day celebration for all veterans.

In 1882, three years before his death, Weeks received the Presidential Citizenship Medal for having been the force behind the holiday.

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