By David V. Wendell
Today marks the 94th anniversary of Armistice Day.
On April 6, 1917, after four years of unparalleled bloodshed overseas, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for and received a declaration of war against the Imperial Kaiser’s Germany. More than 5 million Americans were pressed into service, including 115,000 Iowans.
Cedar Rapids and Linn County responded immediately to the president’s speech, hosting parades and recruiting drives that swelled the numbers of area residents in the Army and Navy to exceed 1,000 volunteers.
The majority of these eager patriots were assigned to the U.S. 168th Infantry. Composed almost exclusively of Iowans, its complement of 3,560 men trained on the State Fairgrounds to the thunderous cheers of daily crowds. In early December, the regiment set sail for Europe and set up camp in Rimaucourt, a small hamlet of 1,100 citizens in northern France.
The winter of 1917 was to be the coldest and most brutal of recorded history in the region. The natives of Iowa, while accustomed to cold, were ill equipped, sleeping in tents, with no wood for fire and marching on burlap bags wrapped around their feet. Yet it was not nearly as much of a sacrifice as the villagers had suffered with the occupation of their homeland by the Kaiser’s Army. Many villagers had lost fathers and brothers to four years of war.
As Christmas approached, the Iowa soldiers saw the young children of the town impoverished and deprived of the joys of the holiday season. Pere Noel (Father Christmas) hadn’t been seen since the war began. Saddened by the sight of such dejection and loss, members of the 168th asked a local pastor if they could borrow the town church. All the unit’s soldiers then marched through the countryside, searching for new toys or finding wood, metal, or any other resource they could locate, to make a horn, doll or other plaything.
The musicians of the regimental band learned French hymns and fabric was woven, dyed, and stitched to make a Santa suit. Engineers from the Signal Corps of the regiment asked consent of a local Jewish widower to chop down a modest evergreen tree from her estate and then strung hundreds of sparkling lights upon it. The tree was placed next to the altar of the church, but remained dark so as not to attract the attention of German troops.
Finally, on Christmas Eve, villagers were invited to the church where the tree was lit, the band played French carols, and every child (more than 500 of them) jumped up into Santa’s lap and received a toy.
By the evening’s end, the village felt, for the first time in a long time, peace on Earth and goodwill toward men. The people of Iowa were praised by the people of Rimaucourt for saving Christmas and their lives.
Within the next 10 months, 468 of those soldiers, and 2,100 Iowans in total, died in the line of duty. All told, the war cost the lives of 116,000 American soldiers, sailors and airmen.
At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year 1918, a cease fire was called. That moment, known as Armistice Day, was celebrated until 1954, when it was officially redesignated by Congress as Veterans Day.
As we celebrate the 94th anniversary of this holiday, let us not forget those who sacrificed of themselves in that small village in northern France, as well as those who, today, in Afghanistan and other countries around the world, do the same.
In the words of the French preacher who saw his church become a Christmas miracle, “God bless you all.”
l David V. Wendell is a Marion historian. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org