Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Had Its Origins in World War I (2024)

Although there were unknown soldiers who died on battlefields throughout U.S. history, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier had its genesis in World War I.

In 1916, after a British army chaplain noticed a grave marked "An Unknown British Soldier," he got the idea for what would become the United Kingdom's Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. That memorial was dedicated Nov. 11, 1920, two years after the armistice that ended World War I.

The idea took hold and spread among other wartime allies, including France, Italy and the U.S. On Nov. 11, 1921, the U.S. Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was dedicated in Arlington National Cemetery.

Military historian Patrick K. O'Donnell researched the backstory of that dedication, including the stories of the soldiers who brought the unknown soldier's remains to Arlington. He published his findings in the book "The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America's Unknown Soldier and WWI's Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home."

On Sept. 29, 1921, the War Department ordered the selection of an unknown soldier from those buried in France. The selection process was carried out by the U.S. Quartermaster Corps, in cooperation with the French and U.S. Navy, O'Donnell said.

Three weeks later, a Quartermaster Corps team exhumed four bodies of unidentified Americans from each of four American cemeteries in France: Aisne-Maine, Meuse-Argonne, Somme and St. Mihiel.

"Each was examined to ensure that the person had been a member of the American Expeditionary Forces, that he had died of wounds in combat, and that there were no clues to his identity whatsoever," O'Donnell said.

After mortuary preparation, the bodies were placed in identical caskets and shipping cases. The reason for this elaborate proceeding, O'Donnell explained, was to ensure that the one unknown soldier chosen would be truly a random selection, as this unknown soldier would represent the many other unknown soldiers. This followed the practice used by the other allies in their own process of selecting their own unknown soldiers.

On Oct. 23, 1921, all four caskets arrived by truck at the city hall of Chalons-sur-Marne. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger of Headquarters Company, 2d Battalion, 50th Infantry, American Forces in Germany, was given the honors of selecting the unknown soldier the next day.

Younger himself had been wounded in battle and had received the Distinguished Service Cross for valor.

An elaborate ceremony followed, O'Donnell related. Younger, carrying a spray of white roses presented by a Frenchman who had lost two sons in the war, led the procession. As the French band in the courtyard played a hymn, Younger walked around the caskets several times before placing the roses on one to indicate his selection.

Younger then saluted the chosen unknown American soldier, after which the U.S. and French officials came forward to pay their respects. O'Donnell noted that the roses that had been placed on the casket remained there and were later buried with the unknown soldier in Arlington.

Following the ceremony, the casket of the unknown soldier was carried in a horse-drawn caisson through Chalons-sur-Marne to the railroad station, where it was placed aboard a special funeral train provided by the French government and taken via Paris to Le Havre, O'Donnell said. Along the way, more French and U.S. units and dignitaries honored the unknown soldier in an elaborate and dignified fashion.

Finally, on Oct. 25, 1921, the unknown soldier was carried aboard the cruiser USS Olympia back to the United States. On Nov. 9, 1921, the Olympia arrived at the Washington Navy Yard. On hand to receive the body of the unknown soldier were all the service chiefs, the secretary of war, and General of the Armies John J. Pershing, O'Donnell said.

The procession, led by the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, accompanied the horse-drawn caisson containing the unknown soldier to the Capitol rotunda, where more honors were bestowed by dignitaries, including President Warren G. Harding, and ordinary American citizens.

On Nov. 11, 1921, eight highly decorated WWI veterans, handpicked by Pershing himself, escorted the unknown soldier to Arlington National Cemetery, O'Donnell said.

They included five Army soldiers: Color Sgt. James W. Dell, an artilleryman; Cpl. Thomas D. Saunders, a combat engineer, and a Native American; 1st Sgt. Harry Taylor, a cavalryman; Sgt. Samuel Woodfill, an infantryman and Medal of Honor recipient; and 1st Sgt. Louis Razga, from the Coast Artillery Corps.

Additionally, there were two sailors and one Marine who participated. Those were Navy Chief Gunner's Mate James Delaney, a torpedoman; Navy Chief Water Tender Charles Leo O'Connor; and Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Ernest A. Janson, a Medal of Honor recipient.

Pershing, the body bearers, and the unknown soldier had come "full circle," O'Donnell said. Those servicemen had left America's shores years earlier. While they were prepared to sacrifice themselves, they hadn't at the time fully comprehended the true cost of war. While one had paid the ultimate price, O'Donnell said, each had come home forever changed by battles won and friends lost.

Today, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is guarded by soldiers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, "The Old Guard." Since 1921, two other unknown soldiers have joined the World War I unknown soldier: one from World War II and one from the Korean War. The selection process was similar to the first.

At one time, a fourth unknown soldier, representing the Vietnam War, was entombed there as well, O'Donnell said. However, that service member was later identified as Air Force Capt. Michael J. Blassie. He was exhumed and reburied in his home state of Missouri, per his survivor's wishes.

Experience: Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Experience: Tomb of the Unknown Soldier:

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Had Its Origins in World War I (2024)


Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Had Its Origins in World War I? ›

The idea for the Tomb grew out of ceremonies in London and Paris in 1920, when the British and French interred their Unknown Soldiers from World War I. One of four exhumed American unknowns was selected in 1921 to be interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

What wars are the people in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from? ›

The Unknown Soldier from World War I lies underneath the large sarcophagus. World War II and Korean War unidentified service members lie in two crypts in front of the sarcophagus. An empty third crypt represents missing service members from Vietnam.

What are some fun facts about the tomb of the unknown soldier? ›

Since April 6, 1948, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has been guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year with zero exception. Every hour during winter and every half hour during the summer and daylight hours, one guard relieves another from their post in a ceremony with the precision of a Swiss watch.

Which war does the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier stand above the grave of an unknown soldier? ›

The Tomb sarcophagus stands above the grave of an Unknown Soldier from World War I, buried when the Tomb was dedicated on November 11, 1921.

What is the history of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior? ›

Buried within Westminster Abbey is the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, this grave contains the body of an unknown British soldier from the First World War. The body was brought from France to be buried in the Abbey on 11th November 1920, and this year marks the centenary of the interment.

How many bodies are currently in the tomb of the Unknown Soldier? ›

The Meaning

The Tomb began with one unknown service member from World War I, and today is the grave of three unidentified service members. Its meaning has evolved to represent the memory of all military members throughout American history.

Why is the tomb of the Unknown Soldier guarded in 24/7? ›

In March 1926, soldiers from nearby Fort Myer were first assigned to guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The guards, present only during daylight hours, discouraged visitors from climbing or stepping on the Tomb. In 1937, the guards became a 24/7 presence, standing watch over the Unknown Soldier at all times.

Do graves get dug up after 100 years? ›

Today, some cemeteries rent out plots, which allows people to lease a space for up to 100 years before the grave is allowed to be recycled and reused. Many countries around the world have resorted to this process as their available land begins to fill.

What's the story behind the Unknown Soldier? ›

During World War I, our allies France and Great Britain did not return the remains of their fallen servicemen. Instead, to ease the grief of their citizens, France and Great Britain each repatriated and buried one unknown soldier on Armistice Day, November 11, 1920.

Has anyone been killed at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier? ›

Although US soldiers guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery have never been killed while on duty that I am aware of, in 2014, a Canadian soldier was shot and killed while on duty guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa, Canada.

What is the mystery of the Unknown Soldier's Tomb? ›

The grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey contains the remains of an unidentified British serviceman who was interred in 1920 as a way of honouring the fallen of the First World War. The selection of the Unknown Warrior was a secretive event and remains shrouded in mystery to this day.

Is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier sacred? ›

For 100 years, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has served as the heart of Arlington National Cemetery. As a sacred memorial site and the grave of three unknown American service members, the Tomb connects visitors with the legacy of the United States armed forces throughout the nation's history.

Who is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier guarded by? ›

Twenty-four hours a day, soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as "The Old Guard," stand watch over the Tomb. The Tomb Guards, also called Sentinels, are chosen for this prestigious and highly selective post only after rigorous training and a demanding series of examinations (see below).

What wars are in the Arlington National Cemetery? ›

  • → Civil War MoH recipients.
  • → Indian Wars MoH recipients.
  • → Spanish American War MoH recipients.
  • → Philippine Insurrection MoH recipients.
  • → Boxer Rebellion MoH recipients.
  • → Mexican Service Campaign MoH recipients.
  • → Interim Years MoH recipients.
  • → World War I MoH recipients.

What are the rules for the guards at the Tomb Unknown Soldier? ›

Guards dress for duty in front of a full-length mirror. The first six months of duty a guard cannot talk to anyone, nor watch TV. All off duty time is spent studying the 175 notable people laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. A guard must memorize who they are and where they are interred.

Who was removed from the tomb of the Unknown Soldier? ›

DNA testing during the 1990s revealed that the Vietnam unknown was in fact First Lt. Michael J. Blassie, whose remains were subsequently removed.

Who are the sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier? ›

The Sentinels of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier stand watch 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in any weather. Sentinels, who volunteer for this post, are considered the elite of the elite 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), headquartered at nearby Fort Myer, Virginia.

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