Many years ago, Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck remarked, “If a general war begins, it will be because of some damn fool thing in the Balkans“.
The Chancellor got his damn fool thing on a side street in Sarajevo, when a tubercular 19-year old leveled his revolver and murdered the heir-apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife on June 28, 1914.
In another time and place, such an event may have led to limited conflict. A policing action, in the Balkans. Instead, mutually entangling alliances brought mobilization timetables into effect, dictating the movement of men and equipment according to precise and predetermined schedules.
German troops, leaving for the front
The hippie subculture of the 1960s produced an antiwar slogan based on the title of a McCall’s Magazine article by Charlotte E. Keyes. “Suppose They Gave a War and No One Came.” In 1914, the coming war Had to happen. If only because everyone was there.
The cataclysm could have been averted, as late as the last day of July. By the first of August, mutual distrust had brought events past the point of no return. By the time it was over a generation was shattered, a continent destroyed and a new century, set on a difficult and dangerous course. Some 40 million were killed in the Great War, either that or maimed or simply,…vanished.
It was a mind bending number, equivalent to the entire population in 1900 of either France, or the United Kingdom. Equal to the combined populations of the bottom two-thirds of every nation on the planet. Every woman, man, puppy, boy and girl.
The United States entered the conflict in 1917, suffering casualties of 320,518 in only a few short months.
The idea of honoring the unknown dead from the “War to end all Wars” originated in Europe. Reverend David Railton remembered a rough cross from somewhere on the western front, with the words written in pencil: “An Unknown British Soldier”.
In November 1916, an officer of the French war memorial association Le Souvenir Français proposed a national-level recognition for the unknown dead of the Great War. Across the English Channel, Reverend Railton proposed the same.
The two nations performed ceremonies on the first anniversary of Armistice Day, the Unknown Warrior laid to rest at Westminster Abbey on November 11, 1920.
La Tombe du Soldat Inconnu was simultaneously consecrated under the Arc de Triomphe with the actual burial taking place, the following January.
Left to Right: Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey, London. La Tombe du Soldat Inconnu. lArc de Triomphe, Paris.
That was the year, the United States followed Great Britain and France in honoring her own, unknown dead.
Four unidentified bodies were selected from the Aisne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Somme and St. Mihiel cemeteries and carefully examined, lest there be any clues to identity. The four were then transported to the Hôtel de Ville at Châlons-sur-Marne, and placed in a makeshift chapel.
Six soldiers were invited to act as pallbearers, each man a highly decorated and respected member of his own unit.
Outside the chapel, Major Harbold of the Graves Registration Office handed a large spray of pink and white roses to twice-wounded Sergeant Edward F. Younger, of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). It was he who would perform the final selection.
Passing between two lines of French and American officials, Sgt. Younger entered the room, alone. Slowly, he circled the four caskets, three times, before at last stopping at the third from the left. “What caused me to stop” he later said, “I don’t know. It was as though something had pulled me“. Younger placed the roses on the casket, drew himself to attention, and saluted. This was the one.
The body was transferred to a black casket bearing the inscription: “An Unknown American who gave his life in the World War”.
The casket passed from French soil on October 25, 1921. Up the gangplank to the the protected cruiser USS Olympia, even as the band segueued from La Marseilles, to the Star Spangled Banner.
Flags at half-mast with stern bedecked with flowers, Commodore George Dewey’s former flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay 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 catafalque which had borne the bodies of three slain Presidents: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley.
On November 11, 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 upon this unknown soldier of the Great War, the nation’s highest military decorations. The Medal of Honor. The Distinguished Service Cross.
Special representatives of foreign nations then bestowed each in turn, his 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. 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 Soldier. 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 at the tomb of the unknown. A permanent Military guard took its place in 1926 and there remains, to this day.
In 1956, President Dwight David Eisenhower signed a bill to select and pay tribute to the unknown dead of WW2 and the American war in Korea. Selection and interment of these Unknowns took place in 1958.
The Unknown from the American war in Vietnam was selected on May 17, 1984, but wouldn’t remain unknown, for long.
Advances in mitochondrial DNA led to the exhumation and identification of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie of St. Louis, Missouri, shot down near An Lộc, in 1972.
The Tomb of the Unknown from the Vietnam conflict remains empty. It is unlikely any future war is capable of producing a truly “Unknown”.
Sharing Today in History:
So it is through bitter cold and scorching heat, through hurricanes and blizzards and irrespective of day or night or whether Arlington is open or closed, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier stands under guard.
This Guard of Honor is performed by a carefully selected elite body of the 3rd Infantry Division. The “Old Guard”. In service since 1784, the Tomb Guard is part of the longest-serving active infantry unit in the United States military.
Since the 14th-century, the cannon salute signified the recognition of a sovereign state and a peaceful intent, among nations. The 21-gun salute is the highest military honor, a nation can bestow. The Tomb Sentinel who “walks the mat” walks precisely 21 steps down the 63-foot black mat laid across the Tomb of the Unknown, signifying that 21-gun salute. The Guard then turns east to face the Tomb, pauses another 21-seconds, before beginning the return walk of 21-steps.
The Tomb Sentinel will continue in this manner for a half-hour, one hour or two depending on the time of day, and the season of the year. If you have witnessed the Changing of the Guard, you are not likely to forget it. My brother and I were once privileged to experience the moment, in the company of an Honor Flight of World War 2 veterans. If you’ve never seen the ceremony, I recommend the experience.
Back in 1919, AEF commander General John Pershing and Allied Supreme Commander Marshall Ferdinand Foch of France were adamantly opposed to the treaty, at Versailles. Germany had been defeated they argued, but not Beaten. Without destroying the German war machine on its own soil, Pershing believed the two nations would once again find themselves at war. Marshall Foch agreed, reading the treaty with the remark: “This isn’t a peace. It’s a cease-fire for 20 years!”
He got that wrong. By 36 days.