If you have been to the nation’s capital, you probably visited Arlington Cemetery to watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. That soldier was buried 100 years ago, Nov. 11, 1921. The story of his journey home from France remains powerful and moving all these years later.
The idea of burying an unidentified soldier in a place of honor came from Great Britain and France. Two-thirds of the casualties of World War I had no known grave, owing to the lethality of 20th century combat. Some were blown to bits by artillery, others buried alive, still others obliterated when shells destroyed temporary cemeteries. Then there were those who were found but could not be identified. A British chaplain, David Railton, worried about the families who had no body to bury. French politicians expressed similar concern.
In the months after the war, plans for the commemoration of an unknown soldier began to come together. On Nov. 11, 1920, Great Britain buried its Unknown Warrior in London’s Westminster Abbey, while his French counterpart was interred beneath the Arch of Triumph in Paris. Now every family of a missing soldier could come to these sites and grieve, knowing the man entombed there could be their son, husband, father or brother.
It seemed unlikely at first that the U.S. would honor an unknown, as top military leaders believed they would account for every missing American. But U.S. Rep Hamilton Fish III of New York, who had led the African-American “Harlem Hellfighters” in combat for nearly a year, knew better. In December 1920, Fish introduced legislation calling for the burial of an American unknown soldier.
By March 1921, Congress authorized this initiative and obtained President Woodrow Wilson’s signature. The ceremony would take place in Arlington Cemetery on Armistice Day, the third anniversary of the end of World War I, Nov. 11, 1921.
Now the selection of the unknown got underway. In cemeteries near the four key American battlefields in France, military personnel exhumed unidentified American casualties. After a thorough search for any identification, four bodies — one from each cemetery — were transported to the city hall in nearby Chalons-sur-Marne on Oct. 23. There a decorated Army veteran, Sgt. Edward Younger, would select the unknown to be honored. As he walked around the four coffins, Younger remembered feeling numb, unable to choose.
“Then something drew me to the coffin second on my right,” he wrote later. “I couldn’t take another step. It seemed as if God had raised my hand and guided me.”
Younger placed on that coffin a spray of white roses grown by a local city council member. Afterward, the unknown was placed aboard a train bound for the port city of Le Havre, where the U.S.S. Olympia was waiting to transport him home.
A routine voyage turned perilous when remnants of a Florida hurricane hit the Olympia in the north Atlantic. The ship nearly capsized. Finally, the crew was able to right it for a timely arrival at the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard on Nov. 9. An honor guard escorted the coffin to the U.S. Capitol, where the unknown would lie in state in the Rotunda. More than 90,000 visitors came to pay their respects.
On Nov. 11, Armistice Day, a horse-drawn caisson bore the unknown from the Capitol, through the streets of Washington, across the Potomac to Arlington. A distinguished group of mourners accompanied him, including President Warren Harding, former President Woodrow Wilson, Gen. John J. Pershing, Medal of Honor winners and Gold Star mothers. When the procession reached Arlington’s new Memorial Amphitheater, just outside the burial site, the bells of all Washington’s churches rang out.
A two-minute silence followed, after which President Harding addressed the invited guests. The president expressed the hope that every mother of a missing American soldier might take comfort in the possibility that “the nation bows in grief over the body of one she bore to live and die … for the Republic.”
The president then awarded the Unknown the Medal of Honor, followed by foreign military leaders with their nations’ highest honors. Crow Indian Chief Plenty Coups rendered a final salute, presenting his war bonnet and coup stick at the gravesite. After the ceremony, the coffin was lowered into the crypt, which contained soil from France, the country in whose defense the Unknown had given his life.
A hundred years later, the unknown lies in a stately white tomb high on the hill at Arlington. Two comrades, unidentified servicemen from World War II and Korea, have joined him. He has a dedicated, 24/7 honor guard comprised of elite soldiers from the Army’s Third Infantry, the “Old Guard.”
Yet it is the simplicity of the tomb’s inscription that impresses, a century on: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”