World War I Unknown

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 history 1, 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 U.S. grief was palpable. The idea of honoring the unknown dead originated in Europe. The first country to honor its unknown warriors from that war was Great Britain. That country’s unknown soldier was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey on Armistice Day, November 11, 1920, in an impressive ceremony. Inspired by both Britain and France honoring their unknown warriors, the 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. Unknown soldiers were selected from the Aisne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Somme and St. Mihiel cemeteries, and transferred to Chalons where they were placed in the Hotel de Ville. The unknowns 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 unknowns selected and no indication that their identity could ever be established. After the four unknowns 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, in the presence of the Quartermaster General, the Commanding General of the U.S. Forces in Germany, the Mayor of Chalons-sur-Marne, high officers of the French Army, distinguished French citizens and eminent U.S. and French civilians, the selection was made. In view of his outstanding service, U.S. Sergeant Edward F. Younger, who was on duty with the AEF in Germany, was given the honor of making the final selection. 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 lay in repose for several hours while watched by a guard of honor composed of French and U.S. troops, while the citizens of Chalons reverently paid their respects and left offerings of flowers and other tributes. After brief official ceremonies by the city of Chalons, 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. 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 WWI Unknown. Escorted by French and U.S. troops, the solemn procession of the WWI Unknown, 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, the casket was turned over to the U.S. Navy and placed on the flower decked stern of the USS Olympia for the long journey. Slowly and silently the cruiser moved from the pier, accompanied by a seventeen gun salute from the French destroyer, and began the journey home.

On November 9, 1921, the USS Olympia reached the U.S. Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. The U.S. flag-draped casket was solemnly transferred 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. 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 and reflect upon his ultimate sacrifice.

On the morning of November 11, 1921, Armistice Day, the casket was removed from the rotunda of the Capitol and escorted to the Memorial Amphitheater in ANC under a military escort. The WWI Unknown 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. 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 by the U.S. President Warren G. Harding, who conferred upon the WWI Unknown 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 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 WWI Unknown, preceded by the clergy, President and Mrs. Harding, and others seated in the apse, were borne to the Tomb where a brief committal service was held. With three salvos of artillery, the rendering of Taps and the National Salute, the impressive funeral was brought to a conclusion. A simple marble crypt was placed over the WWI Unknown.

Over the next few years, a lack of proper decorum was noticed at the Tomb resulting in the institution of civilian guards in 1923, with the U.S. Army taking over guard duty in 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 and the six major battle campaigns of WWI:

  • Battle of Ardennes
  • Battle of Belleau Wood
  • Battle of Chateau-Thierry
  • Battle of Meusse-Argonne
  • Battle of Oisiu-Eiseu
  • Battle of Somme

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