April 2, 1917 Known but to God

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has been under 24/7 guard since 1937, 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.

Many years ago, Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck said “If a general war begins, it will be because of some damn fool thing in the Balkans”.

On June 28, 1914, a tubercular 19 year old leveled his revolver in Sarajevo, and murdered the heir-apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie.

What followed should have been at worst a regional conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, as the two settled issues going well beyond the scope of this essay. Instead, mutually entangling national alliances were invoked, as mobilization timetables moved vast armies according to predetermined schedules.

download (44)The coming cataclysm would lay waste to a generation, and to a continent.

The catastrophe of WW1 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, and 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 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.

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In 1921, the United States followed Great Britain and France in honoring its unknown dead. One unidentified soldier was selected each from the Aisne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Somme and St. Mihiel American cemeteries, and carefully examined in case there be any clues to their identities. The remains were transported to the Hotel de Villes, where wounded combat veteran and recipient of the Distinguished Service Medal Sergeant Edward F. Younger, had the honor of performing the final selection.

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Edward F Younger recreates his selection of the Unknown

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 one from the left.  There Sgt. Younger placed a spray of white roses, drew himself to attention, and saluted.

With flags at half-mast and its stern decked with flowers, the cruiser USS Olympia received the precious cargo and returned to the United States, arriving in the Navy Yard in Washington DC 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 borne the bodies of three slain Presidents: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley.

funeral-13-300x225On 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 Gold Medal for Bravery, the Romanian Virtutes Militara, the Czechoslavak War Cross, 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. On the west facing side there is an inscription:

Here Rests In

Honored Glory

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.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has been under 24/7 guard since 1937, 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 deference to the 21-gun salute:

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“.

unknown-soldier1

In 1919, both AEF commander General John Pershing and Allied supreme commander Ferdinand Foch of France had been adamantly against the treaty at Versailles. Germany had been defeated, they argued, but not 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 was wrong.  By 36 days.

 

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October 23, 1983 Heritage

A list of memorials at Arlington reads like a history of the nation itself. The Argonne Cross commemorates the honored dead of the “War to end all Wars” in 1917-1918, some 2,100 of whom were re-interred in Section 18 after the war. The Battle of the Bulge memorial reads, “To World War II American Soldiers who fought in the Battle of the Bulge – The greatest Land Battle in the history of the United States Army”. The Beirut Memorial honors 241 American service members killed in the October 23, 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, twenty-one of whom went to their final rest, at Arlington National Cemetery.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines Monument as “A statue, building, or other structure erected to commemorate a notable person or event”.

Arlington National Cemetery is itself such a monument; Memorial Avenue extending across the Potomac, connecting Arlington House, the former home of a Confederate general, with the Lincoln Memorial at the opposite end, symbolizing the immutable bond between North and South.

Approach Arlington at night, and the eternal flame marking the grave of JFK can be seen on the hillside, like some faraway beacon of light.

Eternal Flame

A list of memorials at Arlington reads like a history of the nation itself. The Argonne Cross commemorates the honored dead of the “War to end all Wars” in 1917-1918, some 2,100 of whom were re-interred in Section 18 after the war. The Battle of the Bulge memorial reads, “To World War II American Soldiers who fought in the Battle of the Bulge- The greatest Land Battle in the history of the United States Army”.

The Beirut Memorial honors 241 American service members killed in the October 23, 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, twenty-one of whom went to their final rest, at Arlington National Cemetery.  The inscription reads:

“Let Peace Take Root”

This Cedar of Lebanon tree grows in living memory of the Americans killed in the Beirut terrorist attack and all victims of terrorism throughout the world.
Dedicated during the first memorial ceremony for these victims.

Given by: No Greater Love
October 23, 1984
A time of remembrance

Beirut memorial
“This Cedar of Lebanon tree grows in living memory of the Americans killed in the Beirut terrorist attack and all victims of terrorism throughout the world. Dedicated during the first memorial ceremony for these victims”.

On Chaplain Hill stands a row of four memorials, bearing the names of four Chaplains who laid down their lives in four wars. The Cenotaph, (“an empty tomb or a monument erected in honour of a person or group of people whose remains lie elsewhere”), bears this inscription: “Greater Love Hath No Man Than This, That A Man Lay Down His Life For His Friends.” Written there are the names of the only two chaplains ever awarded the Medal of Honor: Major Charles Joseph Watters, killed in Vietnam, while rendering aid to fallen comrades, and Captain Emil Joseph Kapaun, the “Shepherd in Combat Boots” who remains to this day in some unmarked North Korean grave site.

Emil Kapaun

I have barely scratched the Cs. Altogether, there are 28 major and 142 minor Memorials and monuments at Arlington National Cemetery, to say nothing of the 400,000+ military grave sites, stretching across the landscape. Each of them across the 624 acres of Arlington, equivalent to 472 football fields, is dedicated to a person, place or event which has earned the right to be remembered.

It has long seemed to this writer that, irrespective of political persuasion, an informed citizen of a free Republic can’t cast an informed vote, can’t know where he wants his country to go, without an understanding of where it’s been. If you haven’t had the opportunity to visit Arlington National Cemetery recently, I highly recommend the trip. Leave yourself plenty of time to take it all in. It would be hard to find more heritage, tradition and history, in any other single place.

 

Feature Image Credit, Navin Sarma Photography. “Snow and wind mix in with purple city glow at sunset at the Air Force Memorial”