At 11 a.m. Nov. 11, 1918, an armistice was signed that put an end to the “war to end all wars.”
That the conflict is now known as World War I due to the violent sequel that would envelop Europe and the world just 21 years later belies the darkly optimistic original name. And the 100 years elapsed have seen it largely slip from living memory.
A century later, two veterans and parishioners at a church in Westminster would like to recall the horrors of that war, remember those who were lost and try to salvage lessons for the future.
“It was the war to end all wars, which we know didn’t work,” said John Holbert, a member of the Church of the Ascension and a retired U.S. Army officer. “I think it’s a worthwhile thing for the community to know, that we haven’t forgotten.”
Just before 11 a.m. on Veterans Day this Sunday, the church will hold a short ceremony, culminating in ringing the church’s stone chapel bell 21 times.
“It’s the 21-gun salute tribute to fallen warriors,” Holbert said. “The church has been there since 1849, so it would be reasonable to assume that bell was rung to celebrate the end of the war in 1918. Here we are 100 years later.”
Called “Bells of Peace,” the ceremony is part of a national effort by the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the World War I Centennial Commission, Society of the Honor Guard of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the Pritzker Military Museum and Library to get bells ringing all across the country on Sunday, “as a solemn reminder of the sacrifice and service of veterans of the Great War, and all veterans.”
That’s according to The American Legion Magazine, where Holbert first read of the effort. He thought it was a good idea, so he took it to the church’s senior warden — the chief lay person in the congregation — and fellow veteran Roger Bair III.
“John and I are both former Army officers. He is a retired lieutenant colonel and I went through the ROTC program at Western Maryland [College], now McDaniel, and was commissioned back in ’79,” Bair said. “He and I, as many veterans do, share a kinship, an automatic connection.”
That fraternal connection aside, Bair immediately liked the idea of participating in the Bells of Peace ceremony, and in taking a moment to reflect on the once-vivid horrors of a conflict now past.
“Most people do not understand the number of military casualties, the number of nations that were involved, the number of civilian causalities,” he said. “It’s extremely appropriate for us as a nation and as a community of faith, to take a moment, take stock and pray for peace. Pray that we can get along somehow.”
But Holbert didn’t want to just remember the war — he wanted to remember those in his community that may have served.
“So I got our register of communicants from 1905 to 1939, and I looked at the years from 1915 to 1919,” he said. “They are big huge books; they are probably about 14 inches wide and 18 inches high.”
Poring through those tomes — and cross referencing with a book from the Historical Society of Carroll County, “Carroll County and the Great War for Civilization 1917-1919,” by Jay Graybeal — Holbert was able to find nine former congregants that served in WWI.
“Three of them served in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which was the major offense that the Americans contributed to that brought an end to the war,” Holbert said. “We will remember nine of them that came from right here in town, right here in Westminster. It’s our meager attempt to give them proper recognition for the sacrifice that they made 100 year ago.”
Sunday’s ceremony will include a reading of those names, along with a liturgy taken from the Anglican Church that was used in 1918 to mark the end of the war, according to Holbert.
“Everyone is welcome to attend. It will only be about a 10-minute service altogether with the reading of the names,” he said. “We’ll continue with the liturgy and be finished before the 11:15 service starts.”
And the Church of the Ascension may not be the only one. Holbert said he has heard that other area churches will also participate.
Pastor Melissa Helfer of Trinity Lutheran Church in Westminster confirmed in an email that her congregation will participate.
“Our second service begins at 11 a.m., so we will begin the service with the ringing of the bells,” she wrote.
Bair, a veteran and student of history, said there are certainly things in life he would willing fight, and die, for. But that he is “saddened by the frequency of humans to wage war on each other.”
“I don’t want to dwell on the past, but I want to learn from the past,” he said. “Humans are the same today as they have been. Can we be better by studying history? By taking a moment to remember, to recall the sacrifice that was made, the global sacrifice that was made in this case and saying we vote for peace?”