Our Soldier Unknown
(From a document dated 1937)
Over in peaceful Arlington, across the historic Potomac, he rests – our Soldier Unknown – his last fight fought, his last journey ended. Within hallowed stone his tired body sleeps, safe for all time, but his lofty spirit quickens with the years in the responsive hearts of all Americans, symbol of sacrifice and of service. There the Army laid him in our National Shrine overlooking the fair Capital of the Nation – unknown, yet known, the first soldier of them all, typifying the soul of that mighty host which fared to France, only such a little while ago, that civilization might survive and our own land continue on their apportioned destiny.
Our Quartermaster Corps selected him and he was brought back from the battle-scarred heart of our sister nation; now he is held close to our own country’s heart, amid scenes as freighted with events as portentous in history as any that even the blood-soaked soil of France has ever seen.
It is a simple, sweet story – the selection of on of our own Unknown Dead, thus to be brought home in glory. This war-wracked frame, so slender and so still – whose identity shall never be disclosed until the last trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised – this has been the very one selected as representative of the 77,000 American soldiers who made the highest and the last sacrifice, in a cause which the world knows to have been right and just.
The story begins in some battle, when some soldier fell. It ended in our beautiful National Cemetery at Arlington, near Washington, on the banks of that favored stream, the Potomac. Here, facing the noble amphitheater of pillared portico and marbled sweep of pediment and frieze, dedicated to the heroic dead, is the Shrine – the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Close at hand, in a quit sanctuary, are the many military decorations that he won; which grateful Allies sent to mark his grave and make remembrance of his sacrifice.
Across the length of line which marks the front in France lie four cemeteries, our Gods-acres in the zone of battle. We call them the cemeteries of Aisne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Somme, and St. Mihiel. Here the poppies blow, and the white crosses stand row on row. Here sleeps our battle dead. Most of the crosses bear a legend – the name and grade of him who sleeps beneath the sod. But on some of them is nothing but a pitiful number and the words “Here rests in Honored Glory an American Soldiers Known but to God” – here lies the unknown soldiers, who came to France as high in hope and as pulsing with the justice of their cause as any of the known who rest beside them. They, too, left those they loved behind. But the chance of battle was doubly against them. They were fated to die and lose even their names in addition to their lives. Their own cannot find them to bring them back home again.
So, the one has been brought; their representative.
Let us trace, step by step, his journey. Right here, someone may say, “Are we sure that he will never be known? Are not others identified from time to time?”
To be sure, this is indeed so. A ring here, the number on the works of a watch there, the fillings of the teeth, a scrawl on a bit of paper – all these or even less have served to make an identity know. But this body, and the ones from which it was selected, bore neither trace nor remembrance of whomsoever it might have been when its limbs thrilled with life.
As a start for the final selection, the American Graves Registration Service in France made a thorough search of all the burial forms of unknown soldiers in the four cemeteries at the front. From these were picked only the records of those soldiers who gave no clue to, nor evidence of identity. Then the original papers and books showing the interment of these bodies were gone over and from them four bodies were selected which represented the remains of soldiers of which there was absolutely not the slightest indication as to name, rank, organization or date of death. In other words, these bodies had been picked up from isolated graves, hastily dug on the battlefield, and afterwards buried in the permanent cemeteries. No recourse to any record could possibly solve the mystery of their identity.
To make absolute assurance, four other bodies were selected as alternates. This was in case the exhumation of any unknown might at the last moment reveal some evidence of his identity, at least a clue worth following up. Then the alternate could be substituted. But there was no need for such meticulous care.
On October 22, 1921, one body of an unknown was disinterred from each of the four cemeteries. Tenderly the four were convoyed under guard of honor by an officer to Chalons-sur-Marne, next day, were, at the Hotel De Ville, four catafalques were ready and a major of the Quartermaster Corps of the Army was waiting to receive them. As each officer in charge of a body turned it over to the major he also handed in the form pertaining to its burial. Another officer, in the presence of the receiving major, solemnly destroyed the papers by fire. In addition, at headquarters in Paris all other records pertaining to these four bodies were likewise destroyed, so that today we have no record on file either in Paris or Washington showing from whence they originally came or from what cemetery they were later exhumed from their journey to Chalons-sur-Marne. So came the dawn of October 24.
Early that morning the Quartermaster with some French and American soldiers, rearranged the caskets, placing them in different positions around the room. The bodies reposed now in different order than they had during the night, by this method there could be no opportunity for any one, even the employees of the American Graves Registration Service, to recognize through the order of arrangement which casket came from each cemetery.
Then came the moment for the solemn selection of the “The One Unknown.” There was no way to tell one from another. Each of the four caskets rested on a catafalque draped with an American flag. Palms and potted trees, and the intertwined colors of France and the United States made the mortuary a beautiful one for the simple ceremony to follow. Without a French guard of honor stood at the “Present.” One American soldier entered the chamber of death, alone, – he was Sergeant Edward F. Younger, Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 50th Infantry, a lad from Chicago, Illinois, who had fought through all of the war as private, corporal, sergeant, and who was wounded twice. A distinguished company awaited him there, in silence. In his hand he carried a spray of the roses of France, gift of M. Brasseur Bruffer, a former member of the city council of Chalons, who had lost two sons in the war. As outside the French band played a hymn, Sergeant Younger slowly walked around the caskets several times and finally paused in front of one of them – it was his selection. Gently he laid his roses on this casket, and then came smartly to attention, facing the body at the salute! He had made his choice; this then was “The Unknown.”
General Duport, commanding the 6th Army Corps of France, the prefect de la Marne, the mayor of Chalons, the town council, and a company of distinguished French generals and other officers, paid their homage in salute, as did the commissioned officers from the American forces in Germany, then stepped forward and carried the casket to another room where the selected one was tenderly transformed to a special coffin for homecoming. The other three caskets were replaced in shipping cases and immediately reconveyed to the Meuse-Argonne cemetery for reburial among comrades, there to rest for all time. Their graves are numbered 1, 2 and 3, Row 1, Block G.
The Unknown was now in solitude. Over his casket as American flag was draped and the spray of roses placed atop. Then followed brief ceremonies. General Duport delivered an address in French. Brief reply was made by the American Quartermaster General thanking him and all the French officials for their sympathetic attention to every detail of this solemn but inspiring occasion.
Now came the time for the public ceremonial. A catafalque had been erected in the shrine in the center of the large hall facing the principal entrance gate at the Hotel de Ville. On the new casket had been inscribed: “An Unknown American who gave his life in the World War.” Over it a guard of honor kept watch – six French soldiers, five non-commissioned officers from the American forces in Germany, and a representative from the American Legion. Flowers, wreaths and tokens in bronze, gifts from many places, surrounded the base of the catafalque. And there, in state, our Unknown lay covered with the flag for which he had died, while the people of Chalons passed by single file, reverently paying homage and leaving their offerings of flowers for our dead.
This took all of three hours and in the later afternoon the French and American officers, with bands of music and an escort of French Infantry and Cavalry, returned to the Hotel de Ville where the City of Chalons took official leave of the Unknown. At 5:00 P.M., when the early French night had begun to fall, the march to the station began. The officials in the hall stood at salute as the casket was carried out and laid on the flag-draped gun carriage. Boy Scouts of France gathered the flowers and tributes, forming in line in front of the Hotel de Ville to the railway station, along which the cortege passed with solemn tread.
The funeral train was waiting, together with a special car tended by the Government of Paris, resting at the Gare Batignolles under soldier guard. Next morning the train left for Le Harve, with a distinguished company of French and American Officers on board as escorts. This Tuesday, October 25. There was a brief stop at Rouen to take on Major General Duchesne, Commanding General of the 3rd French Army Corps as additional escort. Le Harve was reached at 1:00 P.M., where awaited a machine-gun company and a detachment of sailors, both French, as a new guard of honor.
Here another procession was formed. The American pallbearers carried the casket from the train, followed by the officials and 30 French soldiers carrying the floral offerings, and marched to the square at the railway station where a flag-draped caisson was waiting. As the band of the 5th Division, French Army, played the familiar strains of “Aux Champs,” the casket was placed upon the funeral vehicle of a soldier, a gun carriage. A veritable shower of flowers fell upon it-the tribute of the school children of Le Havre. It seemed as if the entire population of that seaport city lined the streets to pay their deep respect to America’s Unknown. Twenty deep they lined both sides of the route from the train to the Pier d’Escale, where out gallant cruiser Olympia, veteran sea-dog of Manila Bay and ’98, was waiting to receive the body with all steam up.
Leading the cortege were the drums and bugles of the 129th Infantry of France, and the band which played the funeral marches of Chopin and Mendelssohn on the way; the flag of the 129th; battalions of the Havrais Regiment; sailors from the crews of the Verdun and L’Epernay. Soldiers of the 129th regiment followed, bearing the palms, wreaths and bouquets. Then The Unknown, preceded by a detachment of this comrades, with eight American sergeants on each side of the coffin, and among them Younger. More troops marched behind with their arms reversed, and in the rear brought up the orphans belonging to the Fraternite France-Americaine, each little one bearing a flower.
The procession marched through the Boulevard de Strasbourg. A wreath tied with the French and Havre colors, was offered by the city of Le Havre, in front of the Hotel de Ville, where delegations of the fire brigade, customs officials and policemen had gathered. It was carried by two ushers of the Hotel de Ville, who, after walking around the coffin, took their places in front of the gun carriage.
The cortege then continued through the rues de Paris, des Drapiers, du General Faidherbe and the Quai de Bostrom. A reverent and deeply-moved crowd lined the way, decorated with flags flying at half-mast. The ceremony had been admirably conducted by M. Artigues, special commissary, and Captain Chemin, chief constable. The procession reached the quay at half-past two. The cruiser Olympia, with the American flags at half-mast and the French flag hoisted half-way up the foremast, was anchored between her escorting ships. All steam was up; our gallant ship tugged at her chains as if impatient to bear her precious freight on its last journey. Admiral Chandler, with the officers of his ship and those of the destroyer Ruben James, stood on the wharf in front of the cruiser. Grouped behind them were the band and detachments of American Marines and sailors of the Olympic.
The French were ready to say farewell. It was officially spoken by Monsieur Meyer, the mayor of Havre. For America, Major General Henry T. Allen, then commanding forces in Germany made reply. As he said:
“We of far away America, thrilled by the amazing stand of our ancient ally against the terrific onslaught in the early years of the Great War, recognized that the tenets of our constitution – even the very foundations of our political institutions – were threatened. The ruthless treatment of Belgium with an imminent repetition of the same acts on the soil of our time honored friendly Republic and the barbarities at sea, brought forth such a wave of indignation throughout the United States as to produce an hitherto unknown solidarity of sentiment and action. The spirit of this sleeping comrade dominated from the Golden Gate to the Atlantic seaboard and from the lakes of the Great Gulf. It accompanied and inspired not only the flower of our youth, who saw with clear vision their duty on the agonizing battle fronts, but it made possible the super efforts of fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers, who did the impossible at home that their blood might be victorious abroad.
“To this spirit the world owes its freedom and mankind its liberty. The details of this struggle are so fresh in memory that we see, through dimly, the khaki and blue intermingled in the murky obscurity and mud of the deadly battle zones, and unending columns of trains passing, and repassing each other in the insatiable demands of supply and replacement; and through all this the calm demeanor of the gloried mortal.”
General Allen turned and faced the casket. All eyes instinctively followed his glance towards the heroic dead. Addressing his who lay there he said:
“The Great Republic, which is rendering you homage on this day, is likewise paying tribute to your comrade in blue who fell with you, and who lives in the hearts of his countrymen as you live enshrined in the loving memory of yours. Whoever you be, your gallant deeds are indelibly inscribed in the pages of history to the glory of your nation, and as long as these free states endure will you exploits be sung. In leaving hospitable France, who has so fondly cherished you, another voyage is prepared and further honors await you in the land of you birth.”
At this moment the sun of France, hidden as usual behind the sullen clouds, as the American doughboy well remembers, burst out in all its glory. Even the elements conspired to bid farewell to our Unknown.
Monsieur Maginot, Minister of Pensions, representing the French Government, addressed the dead:
“Unknown Soldier, valiant son of noble America, fallen on our soil in the cause of right and civilization, it is all of France that inclines before your casket,on which I have been ordered by the Government of the Republic to place the Cross of the Legion of Honor at the moment when your glorious remains, enveloped in the flag of your country, are leaving the land which your sacrifice has helped to save.
“It is the entire French nation which pays you this last and supreme honor. She cannot forget, she never will forget, what you have done for her in the hour of peril, France was menaced -the France who had sided with the newly-born America, the France whom in its turn the United States would not permit to lose her liberty. We do not know your name, just as we do not know the name of the ‘Poilu Francais Inconnu,’ who rests in Paris under the Arch de Triomphe, but our gratitude turns toward you as toward him, and when our steps lead us to the Temple of the Etoile, to that sacred slab where worships the patriotism of an entire nation, some of our most fervent thoughts will be found at the cemetery at Arlington, for our worship must associate in the same cult the two soldiers whose blood has be spilled together on our soil for our country and for humanity.
“You two, who have been the valiant workers in our common victory, your anonymity permits the symbolization of the hidden sacrifice, and we honor you, the two men of our nations united in the one ideal of peace and liberty. We can no more separate you than we can separate the two flags which the enemy brought together.:
The speaker ceased. The band began playing softly “Ouvrez le Ban,” and Minister Maginot walked over to the casket and decorated the Soldier Unknown with the Cross Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur. Then “Fermez le Ban” and the “Marseillaise” by the band -the ceremonies were at an end.
The military pallbearers lifted the casket and bore it towards the cruisers. There eight pallbearers from the Navy awaited them – six sailors and two marines. One by one the sea-faring men took the places of the soldiers and the casket changes hands, silently and swiftly, without being lowered to the ground. The Unknown was then in the Navy’s care, with Admiral Chandler in direct charge. So, the casket went aboard the ship while the Olympia’s band played soft and low the Funeral march of Chopin.
Aboard ship the stern is the place of honor. There The Unknown was borne by his comrades of the sea to rest amidst flags and flowers. As a last tribute 300 school children came on board and heaped the dead with blossoms.
The whistle blew its sonorous warning. Moorings were cast off. Two French destroyers pulled out beyond the breakwater. Eight other French torpedo boats left their places outside the piers to accompany the Olympia, now gathering way and slowly moving from her dock and out of the harbor. Seventeen guns boomed salute, to which she replied in kind. Her voyage began.
The Nameless Warrior was leaving for his last resting place in the land of his birth.
Safely the blue Atlantic bore him across its broad bosom and then the placid Potomac received him as the Olympia steamed up past Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, to the Nation’s Capital, which bears the name of the First Great American. There, under the white dome of the lofty Capitol, the chosen here lay in state while the people paid him silent homage until Armistice Day, November 11, 1921, the time set for the last ceremonies and farewells.
Meanwhile the Army and the Quartermaster Corps have made every arrangement for the imposing entombment of this sacred son. Eight new pallbearers have been chosen from among the enlisted personnel of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps – all men of the caliber of which heroes are made who had distinguished themselves in the war beyond the call of duty. The Chief Magistrate of the Nation, President Harding, offered himself as chief mourner and the Secretary of War served as Master of Ceremonies.
Armistice Day dawned clear and bright; the sun shone down on the Corpse as the medalled bearers placed it on the gun caisson for the very last of the journey, begun of a battlefield in France and drawing to its end down Pennsylvania Avenue Washington’s most historic thoroughfare.
First the fighting arms of the Service – infantry, cavalry, artillery, with shining bayonets, clanking sabers, and rumbling cannon, still tricked out in war’s camouflage. Following the gun carriage which bore the precious burden came such a company as never that historic Avenue had seen. The President of the United States, on foot, marching alone – then the Vice President; the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Associate Justices, marching four abreast; the members of the Cabinet with the Secretary of State at their head; the Governors of States and their staffs; the Senators, the members of the House Medal of Honor, men of many wars, representatives of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard; veterans and many patriotic organizations. General Pershing, who had led the American host to victory three short years before, headed the representatives of the Army.
Meanwhile a hushed and reverent company had gathered at the amphitheater in Arlington where the stone tomb had been made ready to receive its host. Nearly all of the friendly nations in the world had sent their ambassadors or ministers. The States of the Union were represented. So, too, came many relatives whose dead are recorded among the unknowns; and many gold star mothers.
The President took his place. The Marine band played the National Anthem. Chaplain Axton, of the Army, made invocation and then the trumpet call, “Attention,” thrice sounded. This was the signal for the entire company to rise, observing silence for two minutes. “America,” sung by the audience, next punctuated the stillness and provided fit introduction to the President of the United States, who stepped to the rostrum to speak. As the last memorable word fell from the lips so soon afterwards to be themselves stilled in death, a quartet sang the hymn “The Supreme Sacrifice.” The Mr. Harding stopped up to the casket and decorated the Warrior with the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross, the highest honors a fighting man can win at the hands of his country.
Then followed a little procession of distinguished soldiers and diplomats, each laying the highest decoration of his country for valor beside the decorations from the United States, already lying on the casket. Hymns, the Psalm and Scripture followed and then the remains were borne from the apse to the sarcophagus, proceeded by the clergy and followed by the President and his wife, the then Vice President and Mrs. Coolidge, foreign dignitaries, the Cabinet, General Pershing and others. Softly the band played “Lead Kindly Light,” and Chaplain Brent, head of the Chaplains in the American Expeditionary Forces, and later the Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in America, spoke the beautiful words of the committal service.
An American War mother place a wreath on the tomb in behalf of all American war mothers, followed by a British war mother in behalf of those sister-mothers across the seas. Chief Plenty Coos, head of the Crow Nation, representing the Indians of the United States, stepped out from the crowd, a dramatic, almost pagan note of color above the assemblage. Slowly and with native dignity he laid his war bonnet and coup stick on the sarcophagus.
The artillery burst forth in salvos and when the last reverberation had died away down the hills of Arlington, the plaintive notes of “Taps” – lights out! – rose upon the quiet air, farewell to the Soldier Dead.
Our Unknown had come home!
The artillery crashed out the National salute – 21 guns – in token that his country would keep watch and ward over him until al time shall end and he shall pass from his earthly recompense to even far greater Glory.
From the archives the the U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum, Fort Lee, VA