Monday, October 31, 2011

Armistice Day and the First Unknown Soldier


This year the holiday known as Veterans Day will be observed on Friday, November 11th.  
First proclaimed in 1919 by President Woodrow Wilson to be celebrated on November 11th as a holiday called Armistice Day, it marked the cessation of hostilities  between the Allies and Germany in the First World War. Signed in a railway car at Compiègne, France, the armistice had taken effect in 1918 at “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month."
 In 1954, the name of the American holiday was changed to Veterans Day. In the British Commonwealth, Armistice Day became Remembrance Sunday and is celebrated on the second Sunday in November. Armistice Day (Jour de l'Armistice) remains the name of the holiday in France and Belgium.
Although the date is still widely observed in countries that participated in the First World War, many are unfamiliar with its origins.

The U. S. in the First World War
When the U.S. declared war against Germany on April 6, 1917, its army was on a par with that of Chile, Denmark and the Netherlands. All four countries shared 17th place among nations in terms of army size.
By the standards of the armies fighting in Europe, the U.S. Army was unimpressive not only in size but in training. It was led by elderly officers who had achieved fame as Indian fighters and were close to retirement. Few of the 5,000 officers and 120,000 enlisted men had ever fired a shot in anger.
The country also had a National Guard consisting of some 80,000 ill-trained and poorly equipped officers and enlisted men, many of whom regarded it as a social organization.
By the time of the Armistice, the United States had mobilized and trained 58 divisions, 43 of which had been shipped overseas. Twelve of the latter divisions were not active combat units but were used to provide replacements in France.
American divisions numbered about 27,000 soldiers, twice the size of British, French or German divisions--mainly because of a lack of trained junior officers.
Two out of every three American soldiers who reached France took part in action of some kind. In addition to the threat of being smashed and ripped apart by shrapnel from an incoming shell or cut down by merciless machine-gun fire, the average "doughboy" was perpetually at the mercy of the elements, the mud and the degradation of living in rat-infested tunnels and trenches into which poison gas could seep.
His diet was unhealthy and his body was unwashed. Grime and filth were everywhere, along with the stench of rotting dead bodies and ubiquitous "cooties"--the body lice that infested his clothing.
Nevertheless, high-spirited American soldiers provided the fresh enthusiasm and surge of power needed by the battle-weary French and British troops to break the German defenses of the Hindenburg Line. The process of turning America's paltry regular army into the strongest army on the European continent had been remarkable.
Through careful planning, sheer determination and hard work this country’s small combat force grew tremendously. At the Armistice, a total of 1,962,767 American troops were in France.
In the 200 days between April 25, 1918--when the 1st Division entered the front line to relieve the battered French First Army near Cantigny--and the Armistice on November 11th, American forces participated in 13 battles as part of six major campaigns.
In the 19-month period between the declaration of war and the armistice, the United States went from a nation whose tiny army was unready for battle to a world power. It also paid a high price: 53,402 battle deaths, 63,114 other deaths and 204,002 wounded.
The number of combat deaths includes 4,452 who were counted as missing in action and whose remains were never found or could not be identified. One of that number rests today beneath a white marble tomb in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. This is his story.
The idea of a symbolic burial honoring a single unknown soldier of the First World War originated in Europe. In 1920, the British interred an unknown "Tommy" in Westminster Abbey to represent the hundreds of thousands that had perished in that conflict. Similarly, the French honored an unknown "poilu" at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

The First Unknown Soldier
By 1921, America had still not formally honored its war dead. As early as 1919, when Brig. Gen. William D. Connor, commanding general of American forces in Europe, first learned of the French plans, he proposed a similar project to the U.S. Army's chief of staff, Gen. Peyton C. March.
General March was not enthusiastic about the proposal, thinking it premature. Although the French and British had a great many unknown dead, he felt that the American Army's Graves Registration Service would eventually identify almost all American unknowns.
He had been told by the Quartermaster General that less than two thousand American dead were still unidentified, and these were being studied. General March's concern was that haste could result in the selection of a body that might later be identified. In addition, he said, the United States had no suitable national monument like Westminster Abbey or the Arc de Triomphe.
On December 21, 1920, Congressman Hamilton Fish, Jr., of Putnam County, New York, introduced a resolution in Congress calling for the return of the body of an unknown American soldier from France for burial with appropriate ceremonies in a tomb to be constructed at the Memorial Amphitheater of Arlington National Cemetery. The Fish proposal attracted broad support from both parties in the House, from Gen. Pershing, veterans' organizations and the press.
The New York Times later reversed its previously supportive position on Arlington, arguing that the rotunda of the Capitol would be a more appropriate site. "All America finds its way to the Capitol, many Americans never go to Arlington, which being a military cemetery by dedication, can hardly be the ‘Westminster Abbey of America's heroic dead.'"
 The measure was signed into law in the waning days of the Wilson administration. Congressman Fish wanted ceremonies to be held on Memorial Day, but Secretary of War Newton D. Baker thought the date was premature. The Congressman tried again through the newly appointed Secretary of War, John W. Weeks, who replaced Baker after President Warren G. Harding took office.
 Weeks also rejected Memorial Day and opted for a ceremony to be held on Armistice Day, November 11, with the selection of the Unknown Soldier to be carried out on October 24.
.Four unidentified bodies were exhumed, one from each of four American military cemeteries, Aisne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Somme and St. Mihiel, and were taken by truck to the city hall at Chalons-sur-Marne, where American Quartermaster Corps Major Robert P. Harbold, chief of field operations, awaited them. The War Department took elaborate measures to prevent any possibility of identification at some future date of the military cemetery from which each had been exhumed.
The outside of the building had been draped with French and American flags. Inside, the halls and corridors were ornamented with potted palms and more flags. A catafalque--the stand on which a casket is placed--had been set up in the main hall. Another room was decorated to hold the caskets of the four unknown soldiers, and a third room was prepared in which the chosen Unknown Soldier would be transferred to a casket shipped from the United States.
French troops carried the four shipping cases from the trucks into the city hall. The four gray steel caskets were then removed, set on top of the shipping cases and draped with American flags. Six American NCOs arrived from American occupation headquarters in Coblenz, Germany, to serve as pallbearers.
Acting on Major Harbold's orders, French soldiers rearranged the caskets so each rested on a shipping case other than the one in which it had arrived. Now there was little chance that anyone would know the cemetery from which the unidentified remains came.
The selection ceremony was not scheduled to take place until the following day. At 11 o'clock on the morning of Monday, October 24, a large group was waiting, including officers of the French and American armies, and local officials. A French military band in the courtyard played Chopin's doleful funeral March,
Originally, a commissioned officer was intended to make the selection, but the plan was changed when the Americans learned that the French had used an enlisted man to choose their Unknown Soldier. Major Harbold selected Sgt. Edward F. Younger, one of the men who had arrived from Coblenz, to perform that duty.
Sergeant Younger had fought in four of the American offensives and wore two wound stripes as well as the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest military decoration awarded for extreme gallantry and risk of life in combat. He entered the room where the four caskets lay in state, carrying a spray of pink and white roses, presented by a Frenchman who had lost two sons in the war.
Slowly circling the four caskets three times, he paused, laid the flowers on the second coffin from the right and saluted smartly. Sergeant Younger later recalled that he had a feeling that the dead soldier he chose was someone he had known. “I walked around them three times. Suddenly I stopped.  It was as though something had pulled me. A voice seemed to say, ‘This is a pal of yours,’“ he said. “I still remember the awed feeling I had, standing there alone.”
Immediately after the selection was made, the six American pallbearers raised the casket onto their shoulders and carried it to another room where the body was removed from its steel coffin by senior officers and placed in an ebony casket inlaid with silver. It bore the simple phrase "Unknown, but to God."
Draped with the Stars and Stripes, the casket containing the Unknown Soldier was carried to the lobby of the city hall, where it lay in state with the spray of roses atop the casket. The steel caskets of the other three unknowns were returned to shipping containers and taken by truck to the Meuse-Argonne American Military Cemetery for immediate reburial.

Going Home

The body Sgt. Younger had chosen as the Unknown Soldier lay in state for several hours, watched over by a small contingent of American and French soldiers. After brief tributes by the mayor of Chalons-sur-Marne and other officials, the casket was placed on a flag-draped gun caisson drawn by four jet-black horses. Escorted by French and American troops, the cortege moved along the Rue de Marne to the railroad station as a French military band played the funeral march from Peer Gynt.
Dismounted French cavalry lined the route to the station. Still bearing the spray of roses, it was lifted aboard a special train for the journey to the port of Le Havre, by way of Paris. The train left Chalons-sur-Marne at 4:10 p.m. and arrived in Paris about three hours later. After ceremonies in Paris the next morning, the special train left Paris in midmorning and arrived at Le Havre about 1:00 p.m.
A procession took the body from the station to the Quai d'Escale, where the American cruiser Olympia was waiting, the entire ship’s company lining the rails. Launched in 1895, the Olympia, Admiral Dewey's old flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay in the Spanish-American War, was capable of doing only 20 knots.
Reverently, as Chopin’s funeral march was played again, the casket was placed on the flower-bedecked stern of the Olympia for the voyage back to America.
Escorted by the two-year-old American destroyer Reuben James (which would later be torpedoed by a German U-boat in October of 1941 before the U.S. declared war on Germany), and eight French naval vessels, the Olympia put to sea. As the cruiser cleared the harbor, it received a 17-gun salute from a French battleship and another as the escorting French ships dropped astern outside French territorial waters.
The Unknown Soldier was at last on his way home.

Appendix: The Human Cost of America's Participation in World War One

The following table shows the numbers of dead buried in the eight World War One American Military Cemeteries in Europe. Each cemetery has a chapel on whose walls are inscribed the names of those who were missing in action or whose remains could not be identified. As the numbers of living World War One veterans and their next-of-kin dwindle, these cemeteries attract fewer visitors each year. The graves, marked by white marble crosses and Stars of David, are carefully tended.

Among the 136,516 Americans who died in the 19 months that America participated in the First World War, 4,452 were declared missing in action; their remans could not be identified or were never found. The next-of-kin of 101,143 dead servicemen chose to have their remains returned to the United States for burial. The next-of-kin of 30,921 war dead elected to have their remains buried in Europe.

A Directory of First World War American Cemeteries in Europe

The following information is from the American Battle Monuments Commission:

Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery
Romagne-sous-Montfaucon (Meuse), about 160 miles from Paris
14,246 graves; 954 MIA

Oise-Aisne American Cemetery
Fere-en-Tardenois (Aisne), about 60 miles from Paris
6,012 graves; 241 MIA

St. Mihiel American Cemetery
Thiaucourt (Meurthe-et-Moselle), about 20 miles from Metz
4,153 graves; 284 MIA

Aisne-Marne American Cemetery
Belleau (Aisne), about 60 miles from Paris
2,289 graves, 1,060 MIA

Somme American Cemetery
Bony (Aisne), about 100 miles from Paris
1,844 graves; 333 MIA

Suresnes American Cemetery
Suresnes (Seine), 5 miles west of Paris
1,541 graves, 974 MIA, or lost or buried at sea

Flanders Field American Cemetery
Waregem, Belgium, 46 miles west of Brussels
368 graves; 43 MIA

Brookwood American Cemetery
Brookwood, England, about 28 miles from London
468 graves; 563 MIA, or lost or buried at sea

Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a two-part series on the Unknown Soldier.


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