The Unknown Soldier
Comes Home, 1921
The United States lost approximately 77,000 killed during the First World War. To commemorate the supreme sacrifice made by these individuals, it was decided to select one of the many unidentified bodies buried in the American military cemeteries in France for reburial in Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, DC.
The official records of the Army Graves Registration Service deposited in the National Archives describe the selection of America's first Unknown Soldier. Even the rather dry prose of this official document cannot conceal the poignancy of the moment.
"Four bodies of unknown soldiers from the cemeteries of Asine-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Somme and St. Mihiel were brought to Chalons on Sunday, October 23, and placed in a
chamber in the Hotel de Ville.
|French soldiers load the casket
onto a truck
after the selection
of the Unknown Soldier
Prior to the shipment of the remains of these four unknown soldiers to Chalons-sur-Marne for the final selection, this Service made a thorough search of all the Forms No. 16-A, for unknown soldiers in the cemeteries at Aisne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Somme and St. Mihiel. This search was for the purpose of locating bodies of unknown soldiers which gave no clues to, or evidence of, identity. Further, the original records showing the internment of these bodies were searched and the four bodies selected represented the remains of soldiers of which there was absolutely no indication as to name, rank, organization or date of death. In other words, these bodies were picked up in isolated spots and concentrated in the cemeteries enumerated above so that their identity could not be solved by any recourse to records.
These four bodies were exhumed from the four cemeteries on October 23, the bodies arrived from different directions at the Hotel de Ville."
Upon arrival at Hotel de Ville, the official forms regarding the transfer of each body were burned along with any other records remaining in the files describing the selection of the bodies. These actions assured the destruction of a paper trail that might reveal where in France these bodies came from. The caskets were removed from, and then placed on top of, their shipping cases and covered with American flags. The four draped caskets were then placed in a hall to await the selection ceremony the next day. Sergeant Edward Younger was chosen to make the final selection:
"At 9:30 a.m. on Monday the French troops assembled in front of the Hotel de Ville and at 10 o'clock the French and American officials entered the hall. The French
military band played "The death of Ase" from "Peer Gynt" as Sergeant Younger
slowly entered the mortuary room, carrying a spray of white roses which had been
donated by M. Brasseur Brulfer, a former member of the City Council. Sergeant
Younger passing between two lines formed by the officials, entered the chamber
in which the bodies of the four Unknown Soldiers lay, circled the caskets three
times, then silently placed the flowers on the third casket from the left. He
faced the body, stood at attention and saluted. General Duport stepped forward
at the other end of the casket and saluted in the name of the French people.
He was followed by the other officials present.
|The casket leaves the Capitol on its
journey to Arlington
Nov. 11, 1921
The casket was inscribed: 'An Unknown American who gave his life in the World War.' The coffin was sealed and then draped with the Stars and Stripes. The original spray of white roses was laid upon the new casket and, as the strains of Chopin's 'Funeral March' broke upon the silence, the pallbearers lifted the casket and bore it to the catafalque in a shrine erected in the center of the large hall facing the principal gate of the Hotel de Ville."
The casket lay in state until late afternoon when it
was loaded onto a special train and taken to Paris where it remained overnight.
On the morning of October 25, the train carried the Unknown Soldier to the port
of Le Havre where the casket was transferred to the American cruiser "Olympia"
for the final journey home:
"As the body was being transferred to the vessel, the band of the Olympia played the 'Marseillaise' and the 'Star Spangled Banner.' The American Marines were lined on the Quai d'Escale and presented arms as the pallbearers with the Unknown passed.
|Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Arlington National Cemetery
The casket was placed on the stern of the cruiser, which had been beautifully decorated with wreaths, flowers and flags. The school children of Le Havre went aboard and banked flowers around the casket. During the ceremonies, the two French destroyers, which had been acting as escorts to the American cruiser, were pulled out beyond the breakwater. Silently, the Olympia moved slowly from the pier and steamed out into the bay. She was met by a salute of 17 guns from the French destroyer in honor of America's Cherished hero, to which she promptly responded. The Nameless Warrior was leaving for his last resting place in the land of his birth."
The Unknown Dead, History of the A.G.R.S., QMC, in Europe.
How To Cite This Article:
"The Unknown Soldier Comes Home, 1921," EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2001).