Tuesday, October 22, 2013

That is the Unknown Solider being carried on a caisson through the streets of Washington, D.C., on November 11, 1921.

World War I began in Europe on July 28, 1914. It wasn't until Imperial Germany supported a Mexican invasion of Texas and the Southwest that the U.S. entered the war on April 6, 1917. Even then, it took the woefully unprepared U.S. Army nearly a year to get troops to Europe. Even then, U.S. troops didn't fully engage with the enemy until August. The war ended on November 11, 1918. The Treaty of Versailles, creating a formal peace, was signed in June 1919.

There were 10 million military and 7 million civilian deaths during the war. About 2 million died from disease. A whopping 6 million -- that's 40 percent -- simply went missing, presumed dead. Some 40 to 50 percent of French and British war dead were unidentified. In the U.S., just 2 percent went unidentified, all because an insistent but tiny group of people in the Army demanded the use of dog-tags (which Army brass opposed).

The mind-boggling number of unknowns led to a demand in England and France to erect monuments to these dead. Both nations interred the remains of an unknown soldier on Armistice Day in November 1919. Some American generals, too, had suggested in 1919 that a "Tomb of an Unknown Soldier" be created in the United States. The idea didn't gain traction at first, but the British and French ceremonies received much press attention in the United States. On February 4, 1921, Congress enacted legislation establishing a memorial.

The American tomb was a rush job. Congress did not specify a site for the tomb, and some veterans' groups wanted to use the crypt beneath the Capitol Rotunda. Terrified that the Capitol might become a mausoleum, Congress instead chose Arlington National Cemetery as the site for the memorial. On March 4, 1921, with just hours left in his presidency, President Woodrow Wilson signed the legislation into law.

The process of choosing an unknown soldier was difficult. A grave had to be unearthed, and the body and uniform inspected for any identifying marks. Only those remains which were absolutely unidentifiable could be used. A body was identified at Aisne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Somme, and St. Mihiel. Each disinterment team was given an identical steel casket and a wooden shipping crate. All caskets and crates had to be absolutely clean before being transported. The four caskets were shipped on October 23, 1921, to Châlons-sur-Marne in France and placed in the main foyer of the City Hall. The paperwork for each casket was then burned in an alley in back of the building, so no one could tell which cemetery each casket came from. On the morning of October 24, Sgt. Edward F. Younger entered the City Hall, the doors were closed behind him, and Younger made his choice. (The three bodies not selected were reburied in the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery.)

Back in the United States, preparation for the tomb was frantically under way. The newly-formed American Legion (a congressionally-chartered veterans' lobby group) was pressing as late as May 1921 for the body to be buried in the Capitol's crypt. This debate was not resolved until mid-July, and by then very little time remained to create the monument. Where to build the tomb at Arlington National Cemetery continued until October, when it was decided that the view from the Memorial Amphitheater's plaza was the most appropriate site for the new memorial.

The tomb required major construction, and the Army Corps of Engineers frantically cut through the steps of Memorial Amphitheater, dug 40 feet down, and created a huge, concreate lined shaft. The vault was then lined with marble which had to be rushed to the site. Additional marble for the plinth (or "sub-base") and the base also had to be rushed to D.C., and a capstone created. The capstone was pierced with the a hole to permit the coffin to be lowered into the vault. The bottom of the vault was lined with two inches of French soil, taken from various battlefields in France.

The World War I unknown was interred as scheduled on November 11, 1921. More than 100,000 people attended the ceremonies, including the Premier of France, Aristide Briand; the former Premier of France, Rene Viviani (who led France through the war); Marshal Ferdinand Foch (the French general who was Commander in Chief of Allied Forces in France); President Warren G. Harding; and former President William Howard Taft. (Former President Woodrow Wilson, his body and mind shattered from the massive stroke he suffered on October 2, 1919, and from which he had never fully recovered, was to weak to attend. He rode in the funeral procession, but then returned to his home.)

Because the tomb was rushed, no appropriate memorial could be designed or built. The structure you see today was approved in 1926, and after a national competition a design chosen in 1929. The memorial was placed in April 1932. (Notably, this sculpture has never been formally dedicated.)

There's a lot more here, at the link.

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