World War I Unknown Soldier

Summary of War

United States of America (U.S.) involvement in the World War I (WWI) began almost two years after the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914. During that time, battle lines had been drawn up by most of the European nations, with the Allies (France, Britain and Russia) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey) fighting on two different fronts. Events that led U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to take action included the loss of U.S. lives during the sinking of the British passenger liner Lusitania, the sinking of several U.S. ships in early 1917, and the prospect of a German-Mexican alliance against the U.S. when President Wilson asked the U.S. Congress for a declaration of war, the U.S. joined the Allies on April 6, 1917.

It was on the Eastern Front that Germany was able to strike deadly blows against Russia, Serbia and Montenegro by the end of 1915. While operations in this region, especially in northern Italy, kept vast Austrian troops tied down, the Russians concluded a separate peace with Germany which allowed those central power forces to move into the western front in early 1918. It was on this front that grueling trench warfare, horrible living conditions and the use of poison gas became daily news. Over two million U.S. troops served overseas with the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), under the command of General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing. Battles such as Verdun, Saint-Mihiel, and Meuse-Argonne claimed many U.S. lives. With the help of the AEF, the Allies were able to force Germany to sign an armistice on November 11, 1918.

The Treaty of Versailles ended the fighting and changed the face of Europe. Gone were the great empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and Turkey. A vastly different political landscape emerged in the ruins WWI, differences that would play a distinct role in the future of the world. WWI had been one of the bloodiest wars in history1, without a single decisive battle.

1 Tragically, over 116,000 U.S. troops gave their lives in the war.


At the conclusion of WWI, the collective grief was palpable across the globe. France and Great Brittan officially began the process of selecting one of their fallen to represent all the dead from World War I in 1919.

France decided to lay their Soldat inconnu (Unknown Soldier) to rest at the center of the Arc de Triomphe, the full title being Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile (Arch of Triumph of the Star), on November 11, 1920.

On the same day the British Unknown Warrior made his final journey: his casket, draped in the war torn Union Jack which had been used by Chaplin David Railton as an alter cloth, and at times to cover the remains of fallen British soldiers during the war, which still bore the blood stains of his countrymen. He was laid to rest at Westminster Abbey near the west door, after pausing at The Cenotaph for the Great Silence and the playing of “Last Post”. King George V then scattered soil from France upon the casket and millions of mourners then paid their respects.

U.S. Congress approved Public Resolution 67 in 1921 and the process of locating U.S. unknown soldier for burial in Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) began. The U.S. Secretary of War delegated to the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps the duty of selecting the unknown soldier. The Quartermaster Corps General directed the Chief of U.S. Graves Registration Service in Europe to select from among the burials of U.S. unknown dead, the bodies of four who fell in the combat area in order that one could be anonymously designated and buried with full military honors.

The unknown candidates selected were assured to be those of U.S. troops lost in the war by determining the location of death, original burial, and uniforms. The utmost care was taken to see that there was no evidence of identification on the candidates selected and no indication that their identity could ever be established.

On October 22, 1921 instructions were given to the four teams on which cemetery they were to go to, and what grave they were to exhume. Back up plans were also in place in the event that an exhumed body upon inspection was actually identifiable, an alternate grave was identified. These alternates were never exhumed. Each of the four bodies were placed into a casket and put inside a highly polished transfer case.

Once suitable candidates were selected, the teams were ordered to the town of Châlons-sur-Marne (now called Châlons-en-Champagne) at explicitly set times on October 23: no team would arrive at the same time, and no team would know where the other came from. Inside city hall the transfer cases were used as a biers, and the steel caskets placed upon them with the flag of our nation covering them.

Following the same guidelines that the French and British used, the caskets were placed in line in a single room within the Hôtel de Ville. At odd times they were rotated to further insure against disrupting the determination of unidentifiable remains. An honor guard of French military stood watch through the day over these honored war dead that had sacrificed all to ensure their freedom; a joint honor guard of American and French watched over him throughout the night.

After the four candidates were arranged in the Hotel de Ville, the next step was selecting the one to represent all of the unknown U.S. dead.

On the morning of October 24, 1921, the French people began to gather near the town square in front of the Hôtel de Ville. Although the ceremony would not take place until 11:00AM, many were present to pay their respects. The original plan provided for an American officer to make the selection, much like the British, but at the last minute a non-commissioned officer was chosen by Major General Harry Rogers: he wanted someone that possibly served beside the Unknown Soldier in the trenches. Sergeant Edward F. Younger, of the Army of Occupation on the Rhine (assigned to the 50th Infantry), was designated to make the final selection: He was the recipient of two wound chevrons (precursor to the Purple Heart) and had fought on many of the same battlefields that the unknown candidates possibly fell.

This ceremony, though simple was most impressive. While a French military band played, Sergeant Younger slowly entered the room where the four caskets were placed. Passing between two lines formed by the officials he silently advanced to the caskets, circled them three times and placed a spray of white roses on the third casket from the left. He then faced the body, stood at attention, and saluted. He was immediately followed by officers of the French Army who saluted in the name of the French people.

The WWI Unknown Soldier lay in repose for several hours while watched by a guard of honor composed of French and U.S. troops, while the citizens of Châlons-sur-Marne reverently paid their respects and left offerings of flowers and other tributes. After brief official ceremonies by the city of Châlons-sur-Marne, the casket was placed on a U.S. flag-draped gun carriage and escorted by U.S. and French troops to the railroad station where it was placed aboard a special train for the journey to Le Harve.

From here the Unknown Soldier, never left unguarded by the Army honor guard, made his way to Paris where he remained overnight. Present with the honor guard throughout this journey in France was a uniformed member of the American Legion.

Upon arrival at Le Havre the train was met by French officials, troops and citizens of Le Havre who had gathered to pay homage to the Unknown Soldier. Escorted by French and U.S. troops, the solemn procession of the Unknown Soldier, adorned with floral tributes, moved through the city of Le Havre to the pier where the U.S. cruiser USS Olympia, Admiral George Dewey's flagship during the battle of Manila Bay, awaited with her U.S. flags at half-mast to receive the precious cargo she was to return home to the U.S.

Here, with ceremonies befitting the solemn occasion, Andre Maginot spoke on behalf of the French government and pinned the Crois de Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur upon the flag draped casket next to a spray of white roses.

Upon the completion of the rendering of honors, the USS Olympia band played Chopin’s “Funeral March” as the Unknown Soldier was transferred from US Army control to the US Navy, and Sailors form the Olympia carefully carried him aboard the ship with all appropriate military honors of a distinguish visitor embarking onto a naval vessel. The casket was placed on the flower decked stern of the USS Olympia for the long difficulty journey home.

Slowly and silently the cruiser moved from the pier, accompanied by a seventeen gun salute from the French destroyer, and began the journey home.

As the Olympia's Her holds and hatches were too small to accept the large casket, it was decided that the Unknown Soldiers casket would be lashed to the deck on the signal deck: Captain Henry Lake Wyman, USN, the Olympia’s skipper, instructed the Marine guard not to slant or tip the coffin. The coffin would not be placed in a cargo hold. Therefore, the coffin of the Unknown Soldier could not be moved to the interior of the ship through bulk head doors. Everyone onboard understood the dignity and respect deserving this fallen hero of America.

View the Olympia Log for October 25, 2021 HERE

During the difficult journey home the Olympia encountered fierce storms. CPT Erskine, the Marine officer in charge of the detail to watch over the Unknown Soldier, reminisced about the voyage home and their encounter with a tempest in the middle of the Atlantic saying that:

We had a real rough trip back. We had some very rough weather coming home, and there were times when we thought we might not make it home. The chaplain and the captain got together, and he held a special service, praying to God that the ship wouldn’t sink. Many times, the waves would go up to the bridge. In the wardroom we had at least four inches of water most of the time. It was so bad for several days that we couldn’t eat at the table. You just sat down with sandwiches and coffee, and you’d hold on to something with one hand and grabbed your sandwich with the other.”

At one point during the tempest it was suggested that the Marines standing watch come inside, but they refused and instead lashed themselves to the deck just as the Unknown Soldier was. They would not leave their post, weather be damned. This simple, yet immensely powerful, desire to remain on post is carried on today by the Tomb Guards of the 3d United States Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard): never faltering they have watched over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and each of the crypts (World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War) since 1948.

Read more about the US Marines detailed to this mission: Olympia Marines - With the Hand of God

The USS Olympia arrived at the Navy Yard in Washington D.C on November 9, 1921 and docked at Pier #3 at 3:01pm.

View the Olympia log for November 9, 1921 HERE

As the body bearers moved the Unknown Soldier down the sanded gangway and onto the pier, with the spray of white roses still resting upon the flag draped casket, they paused as the National Anthem played welcoming home its long-awaited son. The US Navy then transferred responsibility of the Unknown Soldier back to the 3d Cavalry Regiment of the US Army, who were mounted and waiting on the cobblestone pier facing Olympia

The flag-draped casket was solemnly transferred back to the U.S. Army, represented by the Commanding General of the Military District of Washington, and escorted to the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol by the 2nd Squadron of the 3rd US Cavalry Regiment.

Here, upon the same catafalque that had similarly held the remains of three slain U.S. Presidents, the body lay in state under a guard of honor. The next day thousands of people, including officials of the U.S. government, members of the Diplomatic Corps, and private citizens all passed before the casket to pay homage to the WWI Unknown Soldier and reflect upon his ultimate sacrifice.


As the dawn broke on November 11, 1921 the nation was in mourning for a son who fell in the Great War. Mothers in thousands of cities across the United States wondered if it was their son that the nation was honoring. Mourners who had filed passed the casket wondered if it was their son or buddy lying beneath our nations flag. As a nation we paused in profound grief as the Unknown Soldier was moved from the Rotunda of the Capital and again placed upon a caisson from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment and began the last leg of his journey.

The WWI Unknown Soldier was escorted by general officers of the Army and admirals of the Navy and non-commissioned officers of the Navy and Marine Corps serving as pallbearers. Following the caisson bearing the U.S. flag-draped casket, walked a procession of many high ranking officials, including U.S. President, Vice-President, Chief Justice and Associate Justices of the Supreme Court, members of the Diplomatic Corps, recipients of the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor, members of Congress, the generals of WWI, distinguished Army, Navy and Marine Corps officers, veterans of the U.S. wars, state officials and representatives of patriotic organizations. Solemnly they marched through streets lined with thousands more gathered to pay homage.

The procession moved into ANC and upon arrival at the Memorial Amphitheater the casket was borne through the apse where it was reverently placed upon the catafalque. A simple but impressive funeral was conducted which included an address to the nation and her grieving families by the U.S. President Warren G. Harding.

"We are met today to pay the impersonal tribute. The name of him whose body lies before us took flight with his imperishable soul. We know not whence he came, but only that his death marks him with the everlasting glory of an American dying for his country."

He asked for all in the United States to “pause from their accustomed occupations and labor” for a two-minute silence beginning at noon. The President’s speech was broadcast on a “transmitter” known as a “Bell Loud Talker” that allowed those outside to hear in clear detail the words, while more listened in as the transmission was relayed in San Francisco and New York’s Madison Square Garden. Truly a moment in time when all of America was one Nation bound by their profound grief; their love of Country and their sacred duty to never forget.

Upon the conclusion of his speech President Harding conferred upon the WWI Unknown Soldier the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross. Following this ceremony special representatives of foreign governments, associated with the U.S. in WWI, each in turn conferred upon the WWI Unknown Soldier the highest military decoration of their respective nation:

  • Belgium Croix de Guerre
  • English Victoria Cross
  • French Medaille Militaire & Croix de Guerre
  • Italian Gold Medal for Bravery
  • Romanian Virtutes Militara
  • Czechoslavak War Cross
  • Polish Virtuti Militari


The Unknown Soldier, preceded by the clergy, was carried the last few steps from the Memorial Amphitheater to his final resting place. Once in place Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Western New York, Charles Brent, who was the American Expeditionary Forces Chaplain during the war, conducted the final rites above the Unknown Soldier. Congressman Fish then came forward and laid the first wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on behalf of those who fell during the war. This was followed by two Gold Star Mothers who laid a wreath for all the grieving mothers.

Crowds outside the Memorial Amphitheater on 11 NOV 1921

Chief Plenty Coups, the elder statesman of the Crow Nation who represented all of the American Indian tribes, came forward and placed his weathered war bonnet and coups sticks upon the open grave of the Unknown Soldier, one warrior honoring another warrior. A man of many visions and ability to find ways to work with white people he spoke about the thousands of native Americans who fought in uniform during the war and how “I hope that the Great Spirit will grant that these noble warriors have not given up their lives in vain and that there will be peace to all men hereafter”.

With three salvos of artillery, the rendering of Taps by 3rd Cavalry Regiment bugler Staff Sergeant Frank Witchey, the impressive funeral was brought to a conclusion and the Unknown Soldier was lowered into his final resting place atop the soil from France that the USS Olympia carried in her hold on the tempestuous journey home. A simple marble crypt was later placed over the grave.

The Tomb is Upgraded

Over the next few years, a lack of proper decorum was noticed at the Tomb resulting in the institution of civilian guards 17 November 1925, with the U.S. Army taking over guard duty on 25 March 1926. That same year the U.S. Congress allocated funds for the building of an elaborate sarcophagus. The Tomb as you see it today was designed by Lorimer Rich, who was chosen from a competitive field of over 70 submitted designs, and sculpted by Thomas H. Jones.

The cost to construct the sarcophagus was $48,000. It was made entirely out of white marble from the Yule Marble Quarry in Marble, Colorado, and was completed on April 9, 1931.

The Tomb is broken into seven different parts weighs 79 tons:

  • Sub-base: 15 tons, 4 pieces
  • Base: 16 tons, 1 piece
  • Die: 36 tons, 1 piece
  • Cap: 12 tons, 1 piece

On the north and south panels of the Tomb are six wreaths which are inverted to represent mourning.

On the east side of the Tomb, facing Washington D.C., there are three figures carved into the marble. The three figures, from left to right, represent Peace, Victory and Valor. Peace is holding a dove in her left hand, while holding the right hand of Victory. Valor is holding a broken sword in his hands and is facing Victory. Victory is holding the hand of Peace and extending an olive branch towards Valor. This symbolized the devotion and sacrifice that went with courage to make the cause of righteousness triumphant. On the west face of the Tomb there is an inscription:

Here Rests In
Honored Glory
An American Soldier
Known But To God

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