National Commemoration of the Centennial of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (1921-2021)

The Centennial was not only a celebration to remember the burial of the World War I Unknown Soldier, but an opportunity to reflect on what the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier means to America.

The legislation that created the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, written by Congressman Hamilton Fish, viewed the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as a focal point to bring all Americans together—that its meaning be not limited to the Great War and the exclusive claim of that War’s veterans.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington is an American symbol of remembrance that has a connection to an organization to Le Souvenir Francais. In 1887 this organization began in northern France in an area known as Alsace-Lorraine that was claimed by Prussia after the War of 1870. To remember French soldiers who had died fighting Prussian (German) soldiers, young French girls placed flowers and tri-color cockades of the French flag on the tombstones of these departed warriors despite the orders of Prussian officials who occupied Alsace-Lorraine not to decorate the graves. A professor from the area, Xavier Niessen organized the Le Souvenir Francais to honor these dead soldiers. As word spread throughout France, a swell of patriotism grew. On March 7, 1887 Professor Niessen petitioned the French government to join Le Souvenir Francais and they did. Up until 1914 and the start of Great War, Le Souvenir Francais created monuments and participated in ceremonies across France honoring war dead. In 1914 the organization began affixing tricolor cockades on tombstones of France’s dead near hospitals and cemeteries.

Following the end of World War I, Le Souvenir Francais was unable to access the graves of the dead still on French battlefields. The government was concerned about the spread of disease, unexploded ordnance and other hazards. Around the 1st of November, All Saints Day, Ceremonies were organized away from the battlefields to place flowers on graves and help bereaved families. It was during one of these ceremonies that Francis Simon asked the French government to transfer the body of an Unknown French Soldier from the battlefield to Paris.

The commanding general of American forces in France, Brigadier General. William D. Connor, learned of the French project while it was still in the planning stage. Favorably impressed, he proposed a similar American project to the Army Chief of Staff, General Peyton C March, on October 29, 1919.

General March ultimately did not approve General Connor's proposal. Mrs. M. M. Melony, editor of the Delineator, made a similar suggestion to General March. In his reply General March explained to Mrs. Melony that while the French and English had many unknown dead, it appeared possible that the Army Graves Registration Service eventually would identify all American dead. Furthermore, the United States had no burial place for a fallen hero similar to Westminster Abbey or the Arc de Triumphe. In any case, March pointed out, the matter was one for Congress to decide.

On December 21, 1920, Congressman Hamilton Fish, III of New York introduced a resolution calling for the return to the United States of an unknown American member of the overseas Expeditionary Force killed in combat in France and his burial with appropriate ceremonies in a tomb to be constructed at the recently built Memorial Amphitheater in Arlington National Cemetery.

The measure was approved on March 4, 1921 as Public Resolution 67 of the 66th Congress. Fish had originally intended for the ceremony to take place on Memorial Day 1921 but it was too late for that date. Then on October 20, 1921, Congress declared November 11, 1921 a legal holiday to honor all those who participated in World War I; an elaborate ceremony in Washington would pay tribute to the symbolic unknown soldier.

On September 9, 1921 the Quartermaster General received orders from the War Department to select an unknown soldier from those buried in France. Following the selection ceremony, he was to deliver the body to Le Havre, where the Navy would receive it for transportation to the United States. The necessary arrangements were completed by the Quartermaster Corps in France in cooperation with French and U.S. Navy authorities. According to plans, the selection ceremony was to take place at Chalons-sur-Marne, ninety miles east of Paris, on October 24, 1921.

Over the past 5 years the Society has woven together foreign governments, US government agencies, non-profit veterans' organizations, and people from all walks of life to commemorate in unique manners the Centennial of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

While the Centennial may be over, the work and spirit of continues in various projects. Stay tuned for updated information to this page, as well as events that will continue around the US.

- Gavin McIlvenna

Immediate Past President & former Centennial Committee Chairman

UPDATED February 20:

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UPDATED October 8:

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