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The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a French-American Symbol

The American Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, dedicated in Virginia in 1921, was directly inspired by the French monument under the Arc de Triomphe. Both sites commemorate the missing soldiers of World War I, which ended 104 years ago on November 11 this year.
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The American Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, at Arlington. © Philippa Rose-Tite

La Tombe du Soldat Inconnu

During the Great War, 300,000 French soldiers were reported missing in action. Their bodies were never found or could not be identified. The challenge was therefore to find a way to pay tribute to the nameless dead. In 1916, the idea of an unknown soldier to represent them was put forward. Three years later, the French National Assembly voted in favor of the proposition to bury a soldier “lost in death.”

The Panthéon in Paris is associated with “great men” and the former church was not sufficiently secular. It was therefore decided that the Unknown Soldier would be laid to rest below the Arc de Triomphe, which was built to honor the armies of the Revolution and the First Empire.

The choice of who to bury was given to a 19-year-old veteran, Auguste Thin. On November 10, 1920, in Verdun, accompanied by the minister André Maginot, the young soldier stood before eight coffins, each from a different combat zone: Artois, Champagne, Chemin des Dames, Flanders, Ile-de-France, Lorraine, the Somme, and Verdun. He laid a bouquet of red and white carnations on the sixth casket. (This ceremony was portrayed in Bertrand Tavernier’s movie Life and Nothing But.)

The remains were immediately transported to Paris aboard a special train and placed under the Arc de Triomphe the following day – the anniversary of the armistice. (The same day, the British Unknown Soldier was buried at Westminster.) The French Soldat inconnu was officially interred in 1921, and a “memorial flame” was lit on November 11, 1923.

The gesture inspired many similar initiatives, including in the United States, Canada, Germany, Gambia, and Malaysia.

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Paris. © Yves Damin
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Arlington. © Yves Damin

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

On January 28, 1921, the French Unknown Soldier was officially buried beneath the Arc de Triomphe. A month later, Congress approved a similar homage at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington D.C.

Edward Younger, a decorated and twice-wounded sergeant, was designated to choose the soldier. At the town hall of Châlons-en-Champagne, he placed a spray of white roses on one of the four caskets, which had been exhumed from the Aisne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, St. Mihiel, and Somme American Cemeteries.

Repatriated aboard the cruiser Olympia, the body was presented at the Capitol in Washington D.C. – 90,000 people came to pay their respects – before being buried at Arlington on November 11, 1921. General Pershing threw a handful of French dirt into the tomb, and the soldier posthumously received the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d’Honneur.

Three other tombs lie opposite the Colorado marble sarcophagus of the Unknown Soldier. Two contain the unidentified remains of soldiers from World War II and the Korean War. The third has been empty since 1998, as DNA technology was able to identify the Unknown Soldier of the Vietnam War, First Lieutenant Michael Blassie, and his body was returned to his family. (In France, the Unknown Soldiers of World War II, the Indochina War, and the Algerian War are buried at the National Necropolis of Notre Dame de Lorette, not far from Lille.)

The site is permanently patrolled by armed guards.

 

Article published in the November 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.

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