It’s Veterans Day. Or as it was first know, Armistice Day. In the eleventh month of 1918 the Great War ended on the eleventh day at the eleventh hour. It was actually the cease-fire, with the war formally ending seven months later when Germany and the Allied Powers signed the Treaty of Versailles. But the killing stopped on this day.
The following year, citizens and communities across America began commemorating this day. In 1938 Congress made Armistice Day a federal holiday. And in 1954 it changed the name to Veterans Day to acknowledge the enormous sacrifices in WWII and the Korean War.
Thinking today about the original Armistice Day, I’m also reminded of Peanuts. Snoopy first taught me about World War I. Long before I took college history courses, read veterans’ memoirs and novels, or marched in my town’s Memorial Day parades as a Cub Scout and then a Boy Scout, perhaps my first exposure to the Great War was in reading Charles M. Schulz’s comic strip Peanuts in my local newspaper and watching the Halloween TV special.
Earlier tonight I rewatched It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. I wanted to look at Snoopy’s fantasy identity as a “World War I Flying Ace.” Like Charlie Brown, as a kid I accepted his dog’s antics without question. But now I’m curious about how Schulz created this persona, and what it may reflect about his own experience with war.
First, the basics: Schulz introduced Snoopy’s fantasy aviator identity in the October 10, 1965 comic strip. Wearing a pilot’s scarf, leather flying helmet and goggles, Snoopy pretends his doghouse is a Sopwith Camel. He climbs to the roof and imagines that he’s in a dogfight with his nemesis, the Red Baron in a Fokker triplane.
Snoopy pretending he’s a WWI Flying Ace is a subplot of It’s the Great Pumpkin, which CBS first broadcast on October 27, 1966. While the gang goes trick-or-treating before attending a Halloween party (with Linus and Sally instead waiting for the Great Pumpkin), Snoopy imagines himself losing a dogfight and crash-landing his biplane.
As Charlie Brown narrates, “Here’s the World War I Flying Ace imagining he’s down behind enemy lines, making his way across the French countryside.” Schulz depicts Snoopy passing through empty fields, battlefield trenches, and sleeping on a haystack. He passes three road signs on his journey before swimming a river, and stopping at a battle-damaged farmhouse where he briefly joins the children at their Halloween party.
It’s clear that Schulz consulted a map, as he set Snoopy’s journey in eastern France near the German and Allied front lines. He even appears to have based the designs of the French signs on actual ones. According to the first road sign, he crashed about 70 kilometers from the city of Châlons-sur-Marne (today called Châlons-en-Champagne). As the battlefront was north of the city, this puts Snoopy near the Argonne Forest. The area witnessed extensive fighting during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive from September 1918 until the last day of the war. It was also the American Expeditionary Force’s largest operation of the war — and its deadliest.
The second sign Snoopy passes says that Pont-à-Mousson is three kilometers away, while the final sign points to the Moselle River four kilometers away. The location, the nearby sounds of combat, and the season puts Snoopy on the battlefront in the fall of 1918, and what became the Armistice Line in November when Germany surrendered.
Anyone curious how Schulz created Snoopy’s most famous fantasy persona has to look no further than a new exhibit at the Charles M. Schulz Museum. Snoopy and the Red Baron commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of Snoopy’s Flying Ace and also explains the character’s origins. Schulz credited his son Monte’s building of model airplanes as his chief inspiration, but also the fiftieth-anniversary commemorations of World War I at the time, and pop culture influences such as the film The Dawn Patrol (1938). As scenes in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown illustrate, Schulz sought to convey some of the danger, sadness, and nostalgia of war.
While Schulz does not appear to have WWI veterans in his family, he served in France and Germany during World War II. Schulz was drafted into the United States Army in 1942 at the age of twenty. After extensive stateside training as a machine gunner, Staff Sergeant Schulz arrived in France in February 1945 as a member of Company B of the 8th Armored Infantry Battalion in the 20th Armored Division.
His unit spent another month training at Buchy, France, before entering Germany through Belgium in April. From Langendernbach the 20th Division headed southeast into Bavaria, helped to capture Munich, and was approaching Salzburg when hostilities ceased the first week of May. While the 20th Division spent limited time in combat (eight days, according to the U.S. Army) Schulz certainly witnessed some of the horrors of modern warfare familiar to soldiers of both world wars.
As Schulz pulled from his own history to create his Peanuts comics, to have Snoopy play a WWI aviator was to have him stand in for military personnel who returned home from war with experiences they often found difficult or impossible to explain to those who were not there. Many chose to remain as mute as Snoopy. What to my younger self was merely a dog swept up in imaginary war re-enactments was to many Great War veterans a poignant recognition of a time they could not forget. As all veterans of the Great War have now passed on, it falls to us to remember their sacrifices.