The Unknown Soldier Part One: The last journey begins

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(WHTM) — The year 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the selection, return from Europe, and interment at Arlington Cemetery of the Unknown Soldier.

According to Dr. Michael Neiberg of the U.S. Army War College, honoring unknown soldiers is not a new idea.

“The idea of creating a monument to unknown soldiers goes back to the ancient Greeks. Thucydides mentioned it (The Peloponnesian War, 5th Century B.C.E.-Auth.) we in the United States did it in the American Civil War, so it is an ancient custom,” Neiberg said.

But World War I would create a special need to honor the unidentified dead. The old ways of fighting –infantry charges, attack and counterattack, marching in formation — were literally blown away. Rapid-fire artillery and machine guns turned dashing across a field towards an enemy an exercise in mass suicide.

The war began on June 28th, 1914. By Sept. 15, less than four months later, the first trenches were dug, and the war literally ground to a halt in a brutal, bloody stalemate. All told, the two sides would dig almost 35,000 miles of trenches.

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The U.S. Army Heritage and Education in Carlisle has a replica World War I Trench, which is where we met Dr. Neiberg to talk about the war.

“Trench warfare was awful,” Neiberg said. “All the conditions, exposed to weather, exposed to rats, exposed to shelling, just awful. But it did save lives, it was better for human life than being out in the open, but it was a miserable way to fight a war, as everyone recognized early on.”

At first, the United States tried to stay out of the war. According to Dr. Neiberg: “America tried to hold to a pro-allied neutrality. Most Americans favored the British and French but didn’t want to get involved.”

But get involved they did, entering the war in 1917.

“Even then,” Neiberg explained, “The United States goes in as an associated power, that is, saying we’re fighting for our own interests, not necessarily the British or French.”

“But it takes about a year for the United States to really put together large numbers of forces. The first big battle the United States fights in really isn’t until the summer of 1918. And then the United States is a major part of the war from summer 1918 until it’s done.

And when it was done, the United States had over 116,000 dead. Many are never identified.

“Most soldiers in World War I are killed by artillery. And very often artillery doesn’t leave enough of a body to identify it,” Neiberg said. “So, there are simply more unknown soldiers in the First World War than there had been in other wars, which creates a kind of macabre and bizarre kind of need to commemorate those folks. Virtually all of the major combatants of World War I created an unknown soldier.”

Belgium, Britain, France, Italy, and Portugal established monuments to unknown soldiers. And on Oct. 25, 1921, a train arrived in the French harbor of Le Havre. Onboard, America’s Unknown Soldier. He had been selected a day earlier.

“The United States Army gave orders to a Sargeant named Edward Younger, a well-decorated combat veteran,” Neiberg said. “They told him to go to the town of Chalons-sur-Marne in France, where a Frenchman who had lost three sons handed him a bouquet of roses. Then he was escorted into a room where there were four coffins of unidentified soldiers, soldiers that were completely untraceable. Sargeant Younger walked around the room a couple of times, placed the bouquet of roses on one casket, and that’s how they chose the one that would go to Arlington.”

French and American dignitaries gathered to escort the Unknown to a waiting vessel. For the special passenger, the navy had picked a special ship.

“The Unknown Soldier comes on board the Olympia, which at that time would probably have been the most famous ship in the U.S. Navy. It was Admiral Dewey’s flagship when he went to the Philippines in 1898, so the symbolism is really important,” Neiberg said.

The Olympia pulled away from the dock, sailors at stations, and a detachment of marines to stand watch over the Unknown during the journey. Those aboard the ship had no way of knowing it, but they were about to go in harm’s way.

This is the first story in a three-part series. To view part two, “A hard crossing,” click here. To view part three, “The final journey,” click here.

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