Today in History: The first “Unknown Soldier” from World War I is honored

October 23rd, 2013

77,000 American servicemen died during World War I. To commemorate their sacrifice, the US military selected bodies of unknown soldiers who died in France. One was chosen to be brought to Arlington National Cemetery. On October 23, 1921, four unknown soldiers from the cemeteries of Asine-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Somme, and St. Mihiel were brought to the Hotel de Ville in France for final selection. 

The chosen soldier would represent just one of many who would never be identified. The military service record describes the selection of the first unknown soldier out of a group of four:

The original records showing the internment of these bodies were searched and the four bodies selected represented the remains of soldiers of which there was absolutely no indication as to name, rank, organization or date of death.

The selection of the first unknown soldier to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery was made at the Hotel de Ville. Sergeant Edward F. Younger was chosen to select which of the four unknown soldiers would be brought to the United States. Younger entered the mortuary room, “carrying a spray of white roses which had been donated by M. Brasseur Brulfer, a former member of the City Council. Sergeant Younger passing between two lines formed by the officials, entered the chamber in which the bodies of the four Unknown Soldiers lay, circled the caskets three times, then silently placed the flowers on the third casket from the left. He faced the body, stood at attention and saluted. General Duport stepped forward at the other end of the casket and saluted in the name of the French people. He was followed by the other officials present.”

The casket was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with the inscription, “An Unknown American who gave his life in the World War.” For another perspective on the loss of soldiers in war, read John Ciardi’s moving poem, “A Box Comes Home.

Click here to sign up for our newsletter.