(WHTM) — The year 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the selection, return from Europe, and interment at Arlington Cemetery of The Unknown Soldier.
“For a generation of this country, it really represented all the great loss of the First World War.”
On the signal deck of the cruiser Olympia, a simple memorial marks the spot where The Unknown Soldier’s coffin was lashed down for the trip across the Atlantic. Peter Seibert, President and CEO of Independence Maritime Museum, which maintains the ship, shared his thoughts about what the Unknown meant to Americans in 1921.
“Even though we had only been in the war for a brief period, we had a very high casualty count. Many Americans only got word through a letter or a telegram about that loss, and never knew where their loved one rested. So, the Unknown came to symbolize for all those people their lost family member who was never brought home from France.” “
After a rough and at times perilous voyage across the ocean, Olympia pulled into Washington Navy Yard on November 9. The Unknown was conveyed to the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, where he lay in state on November 10. It’s estimated 90,000 visitors filed through the rotunda that day to pay their respects.
On November 11, 1921, the Unknown Soldier began his last journey, carried down the capitol steps to a waiting caisson, to be taken to Arlington National Cemetery.
“It was a nationwide affair,” Dr. Michael Neiberg of the U.S. Army War College said. “The nation took two minutes’ silence, Madison Square Garden sold out (15,000 seats-Auth.) so that people could hear President Harding speak, it was broadcast on radio nationwide, radio stations across the country broadcast it, dignitaries from all over the world were there, the British Medal of Honor was put on the coffin, it was a big ceremony and a big national news day.”
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The parade wound its way through the streets of Washington, taking over three hours to gather at Arlington National Cemetery.
“They constructed a brand new part of Arlington Cemetary just for this,” Neiberg said. “Two Italian immigrant brothers who had done the sculpture of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial designed the marble tomb. There was another part of that tomb in which French soil was going to be poured in by General Pershing, so the symbolism, the intended symbology of it was very carefully orchestrated.”
“Back then a lot of the symbolism around the Unknown Soldier was related to mothers, especially in
The United States because for most American mothers, they would never have a chance to go to the battlefields where their sons fell. One mother was selected to put a bouquet of flowers on the tomb, and the idea was this would symbolize the loss that all mothers encountered, especially those who would never get the chance to come to France.”
Politicians also looked to the Unknown to help heal scars remaining from the Civil War. Arlington Cemetery had been created during that war for the burial of Union dead, and already had a monument for unknown Northern soldiers, which sits over a vault containing 2,111 remains. A section for Confederate soldiers would not be established until 1900.
“The Unknown Soldier also was meant to symbolize the reunion of North and South,” Neiberg said. “And many of the political speeches made on that day went out of their way to say there was no way to know if this soldier was Northern or Southern. So there was a kind of coming together of the two regions-at least that’s the way the politicians tried to interpret it.”
The ceremony ended with the casket being lowered into the crypt, onto the layer of French soil. A bugler played Taps, and as the last note faded a battery of artillery fired twenty-one guns in a final salute.
In the years since 1921, Unknowns from World War II and the Korean War were interred next to the World War I unknown. An Unknown from the Vietnam War was added but was later identified and returned to his family. With modern DNA analysis, it’s unlikely another unknown will join those already there.
The Tomb of the Unknown has taken on far greater meaning than just one soldier, from just one war.
Michael Neiberg, who has written several books about World War One, says it’s important we learn the lessons of the war in which the first Unknown fought and died.
“Because a lot of the things we are looking at in our world today, great powers competitions, globalization, rapid technological change, all of those things had clear antecedents and clear analogs from a century ago.”
“I think it’s important to recognize that the people in World War I were no more stupid or no more smart than we are. That they were dealing with problems that didn’t have any obvious solutions, they were dealing with a world in which technologies were changing very quickly, whose political arrangements were changing very quickly. It’s a bad idea for us to lock them into some box and just hope that they were dumber than we are, so that we don’t make the mistakes they made.”
“So I argue here, I argue with anyone who will listen to me that the First World War is very important for us to study, not just because of the legacies it left behind, but because of the ways our world looks very much like that world.”