The Beginnings of the Unknown Soldier
March 7, 2013 -
Ever wonder how the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier began?
Part I: At the conclusion of WWI, the collective U.S. grief was palpable. The idea of honoring the unknown dead originated in Europe. The first country to honor its unknown warriors from that war was Great Britain. That country’s Unknown Soldier was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey on Armistice Day, November 11, 1920, in an impressive ceremony. Inspired by both Britain and France honoring their unknown warriors, the U.S. Congress approved Public Resolution 67 in 1921 and the process of locating U.S. Unknown Soldier for burial in Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) began. The U.S. Secretary of War delegated to the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps the duty of selecting the Unknown Soldier. The Quartermaster Corps General directed the Chief of U.S. Graves Registration Service in Europe to select from among the burials of U.S. unknown dead, the bodies of four who fell in the combat area in order that one could be anonymously designated and buried with full military honors. Unknown soldiers were selected from the Aisne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Somme and St. Mihiel cemeteries, and transferred to Chalons where they were placed in the Hotel de Ville. The unknowns selected were assured to be those of U.S. troops lost in the war by determining the location of death, original burial, and uniforms. The utmost care was taken to see that there was no evidence of identification on the unknowns selected and no indication that their identity could ever be established. After the four unknowns were arranged in the Hotel de Ville, the next step was selecting the one to represent all of the unknown U.S. dead.
On the morning of October 24, 1921, in the presence of the Quartermaster General, the Commanding General of the U.S. Forces in Germany, the Mayor of Chalons-sur-Marne, high officers of the French Army, distinguished French citizens and eminent U.S. and French civilians, the selection was made. In view of his outstanding service, U.S. Sergeant Edward F. Younger, who was on duty with the AEF in Germany, was given the honor of making the final selection. This ceremony, though simple was most impressive. While a French military band played, Sergeant Younger slowly entered the room where the four caskets were placed. Passing between two lines formed by the officials he silently advanced to the caskets, circled them three times and placed a spray of white roses on the third casket from the left. He then faced the body, stood at attention, and saluted. He was immediately followed by officers of the French Army who saluted in the name of the French people.
The WWI Unknown lay in repose for several hours while watched by a guard of honor composed of French and U.S. troops, while the citizens of Chalons reverently paid their respects and left offerings of flowers and other tributes. After brief official ceremonies by the city of Chalons, the casket was placed on a U.S. flag-draped gun carriage and escorted by U.S. and French troops to the railroad station where it was placed aboard a special train for the journey to Le Harve. Upon arrival at Le Havre the train was met by French officials, troops and citizens of Le Havre who had gathered to pay homage to the WWI Unknown. Escorted by French and U.S. troops, the solemn procession of the WWI Unknown, adorned with floral tributes, moved through the city of Le Havre to the pier where the U.S. cruiser USS Olympia, Admiral George Dewey’s flagship during the battle of Manila Bay, awaited with her U.S. flags at half-mast to receive the precious cargo she was to return home to the U.S.
Here, with ceremonies befitting the solemn occasion, the casket was turned over to the U.S. Navy and placed on the flower decked stern of the USS Olympia for the long journey. Slowly and silently the cruiser moved from the pier, accompanied by a seventeen gun salute from the French destroyer, and began the journey home.
On November 9, 1921, the USS Olympia reached the U.S. Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. The U.S. flag-draped casket was solemnly transferred to the U.S. Army, represented by the Commanding General of the Military District of Washington, and escorted to the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Here, upon the same catafalque that had similarly held the remains of three slain U.S. Presidents, the body lay in state under a guard of honor. The next day thousands of people, including officials of the U.S. government, members of the Diplomatic Corps, and private citizens all passed before the casket to pay homage to the WWI Unknown and reflect upon his ultimate sacrifice.
In the Future, Part II: WWII Unknown
For more information visit, https://tombguard.org/tomb-of-the-unknown-soldier/wwi-unknown/