Otto von Bismarck, the German statesman who masterminded the unification of Germany in 1871 and served until 1890 as its first Chancellor, once said “If a general war begins, it will be because of some damn fool thing in the Balkans”.
Bismarck got his damn fool thing on June 28, 1914 when a tubercular 19-year-old leveled a revolver in Sarajevo and murdered the heir-apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg.
What followed could have been a regional conflict at worst, a local squabble between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, as the two settled issues going beyond the scope of this essay. Instead, mutually entangling national alliances brought about mobilization timetables moving vast armies according to predetermined schedules. Deep and abiding mistrust ensured that none would be the first to blink.
The cataclysm of the next four years would destroy a generation, and lay waste to a continent.The catastrophe could have been averted as late as the last day of July. By the first of August, mutual distrust had gone past the point of no return. By the time it was over, 18 million were dead or vanished and presumed dead, another 23 million, maimed.
The United States entered the conflict on April 2, 1917, leading to casualties of its own numbering 321,467.
The idea of honoring the unknown dead of the “War to End Wars” originated during the war itself, in Europe. A British Commonwealth soldier was the first to be so honored, laid to rest in Westminster Abbey on Armistice day, November 11, 1920.
Private Auguste Thien of the 123e Régiment d’Infantrie had the honor of final selection for the French Unknown Soldier. Today that single grave lies under the Arch of Triumph. The eternal flame above was first kindled by French Minister for War Andre Maginot, on November 11, 1923. That flame is re-lit each night at twilight, in solemn remembrance of the millions of French heroes who went to their final rest, in places unknown.
In 1921, the United States followed Great Britain and France in honoring its own unknown dead. A single unidentified soldier was selected each from the Aisne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Somme and St. Mihiel American cemeteries, and carefully examined, lest there be any clue as to identity. The remains were then transported to the Hotel de Villes, where Sergeant Edward F. Younger, himself a wounded combat veteran and recipient of the Distinguished Service Medal, had the honor of performing the final selection.
Passing between two lines of French and American officials, Younger entered the room. Slowly, he circled the four caskets three times, finally stopping at the third from the left. There Sgt. Younger placed a spray of white roses, drew himself to attention, and saluted.
With flags at half-mast and stern bedecked with flowers, the cruiser USS Olympia received the precious cargo and returned to the United States, arriving in the Washington Navy Yard on November 9, 1921. There the flag draped casket was solemnly transferred to the United States Army, and placed under guard of honor on the same catafalque which had once borne the bodies of three slain Presidents: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley.On November 11, Armistice Day, the casket was removed from the Rotunda of the Capitol and escorted under military guard to the amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery. In a simple ceremony, President Warren G. Harding bestowed on this unknown soldier the Medal of Honor, and the Distinguished Service Cross.
Special representatives of foreign nations then bestowed, each in their turn, their nation’s highest military decoration: the Croix de Guerre of Belgium, the English Victoria Cross, le Medaille Militaire & Croix de Guerre of France, the Italian Medaglia al Valor Militare, the Romanian Virtutes Militara, the Czechoslavak Československý Vojnový Kríž 1918, and the Polish Virtuti Militari.With three salvos of artillery, the rendering of Taps and the National Salute, the ceremony was brought to a close and the 12 ton marble cap placed over the tomb of the unknown. The west facing side bears this inscription:
Here Rests In
An American Soldier
Known But To God
Two years later, a civilian guard was placed on the tomb of the unknown. A permanent Military guard would take its place in 1926.
Since 1937, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has been under 24/7/365 guard, heedless of hurricanes, howling blizzards and bone-chilling cold. Guards come from the 3rd Infantry Regiment, “The Old Guard”. Established in 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the United States military.Every movement of the guard is a series of “twenty-ones” in reference to the 21-gun salute, a military tradition dating to the 14th century and universally recognized as the highest honor, among nations.
Tombguard.org explains: “The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins“.
In 1919, both AEF commander General John Pershing and Allied supreme commander Ferdinand Foch of France were adamantly opposed to the treaty at Versailles. Germany had been defeated, they argued, but not well and truly Beaten. The failure to defeat Imperial Germany on German soil the pair believed, would once again lead the three nations to war.
Meanwhile in Germany, the “Stab in the Back” fiction destined to become Nazi party mythology, was already taking shape.
On reading the treaty, Foch said “This isn’t a peace. It’s a cease-fire for 20 years!”
He got that wrong, by 36 days.