When Knoxville first celebrated Veterans Day, it was headline news. At 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918, Germany officially surrendered to the Allies, and the news was cabled around the world. Allied leaders famously arranged the signing of the armistice, in a train car in the Forest of Compiègne in France, to take effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
Thousands assembled on Gay Street, a jubilant crowd watching the tall iron sidewalk clock in front of Hope Brothers Jewelry. They cheered when the minute hand of the Hope Clock reached 12.
Kaiser Wilhelm was hanged in effigy on lampposts all around downtown. It’s said that Prince Street was renamed Market Street during the war because the German leader was a prince.
Veterans of previous wars, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War were never celebrated with special days. Memorial Day, which was originally a grave-decorating holiday called Decoration Day, honored the Union dead, and often involved Union veterans.
During the early years of Veterans Day, it was called Armistice Day, and it celebrated mainly the end of the war. Compared to other wars, the First World War was rather short, and many of these first veterans had served for only a few months or even weeks. However, some of them had seen some of the worst carnage ever witnessed in war. Upon their return to Knoxville, via train, they were welcomed with a major downtown festival, for which streets were closed to make room for long dining tables.
This region was home to America’s most famous veteran of World War I, Sgt. Alvin York (1887-1964). On Oct. 8, 1918, the Fentress County native led a small squad that killed or captured more than 150 German soldiers and seized 32 machine guns. He later won the Medal of Honor.
On the same day as York’s famous assault, Knoxvillian Sgt. J.E. “Buck” Karnes (1889-1966), with only one other soldier, overcame a German machine-gun position manned by 10 enemy soldiers. The Alcoa Highway bridge over the Tennessee River is named for Karnes.
Other Knoxville veterans of World War I included Gen. Lawrence Tyson, who led part of the offensive that broke the Germans’ formidable Hindenburg Line. Tyson’s son, Lt. McGhee Tyson, a Navy airman who died in a plane crash in the final weeks of the war, is the honoree of Knoxville’s airport. Tyson Park is named for the same family. Gen. Tyson (1861-1929) later became a U.S. senator.
In 1922, a charging “Doughboy Statue,” similar to others around the country, was erected in front of Knoxville High School, especially to commemorate the many KHS alumni who fought in the war. Although Knoxville High closed in 1951, the Doughboy Statue is still there, on Fifth Avenue near Central Street.
For more than a quarter century, Veterans’ Day was called Armistice Day, and was mainly considered a celebration of the victory in World War I. However, after 1945, a group of World War II veterans, supported by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, started celebrating Armistice Day as a holiday to honor all U.S. veterans. By an act of Congress, the name was changed to Veterans Day in 1954.
In Knoxville, Veterans Day is always celebrated with a parade on Gay Street. Soldiers and high-school bands parade in the same direction as recruits in 1917, who marched north toward the troop trains waiting at the Southern Railway station at Gay and Depot. Veterans Day is one of only two holidays each year celebrated with a large parade down Gay Street.
In the United Kingdom and most other English-speaking countries, the same day is celebrated as Remembrance Day. However, the emphasis is on those who died in battle. Although veterans always participate in ceremonies, other countries’ commemorations of Nov. 11 are more similar to America’s Memorial Day, in which the emphasis is on those who lost their lives in battle.
Local veterans’ cemeteries include the original National Cemetery on Tyson Street, established during the Civil War and one of the oldest national cemeteries in the nation.
A more recent veterans’ memorial is located at World’s Fair Park, near the L&N building.
Hosted as always by the American Legion, the veterans’ organization which has organized the parade since 1921, this year’s Veterans Day Parade will be held at 11 a.m. next Wednesday, exactly the same time and place as the first Armistice Day celebration 97 years ago.
Photo: A monument to the soldiers of the 117th Infantry Regiment of World War I still stands in front of the old Knoxville High School building on Fifth Avenue. Courtesy of the Calvin M. McClung Collection.