John I. asks: Is there anyone buried in the tomb of the unknown soldier or is it just all symbolism?
It’s Armistice Day, November 11th, in the nation’s capital. It is a brisk day at Arlington National Cemetery. Dignitaries stand silently on the third anniversary of the ending of World War I, watching as a single white casket is lowered into a marbled tomb. In attendance is President Calvin Coolidge, former President Woodrow Wilson, Supreme Court Justice (as well as former President) William Howard Taft, Chief Plenty Coups, and hundreds of dedicated United States servicemen. As the casket settles on its final resting place in the tomb, upon a thin layer of French soil, three salvos are fired. A bugler plays taps and, with the final note, comes a 21 gun salute. The smoke clears and eyes dry as the Unknown Soldier from World War I is laid to rest; the first unknown soldier to be officially honored in this manner in American history.
The United States’ allies in World War I, France and Britain, were the first countries to practice the concept of burying an “unknown soldier.” World War I was, at the time, the most destructive global war in human history. A staggering 37 million people (about 1 in 48) were killed, wounded, captured, or missing in action across both sides in what was called “The War to End All Wars.” (Interestingly, around this same time, the Spanish Flu killed between 50-100 million people and infected around a half a billion around the globe, roughly 1 in 4 humans.)
Even before the end of the war, the idea of finding a way to properly commemorate the lost, missing, or unable-to-be-identified French soldiers who died fighting for their country was conceived. Around November 1916, a full two years before the war ended, the city of Rennes in France performed a ceremony to honor those local citizens who were lost and unable to be found. Upon hearing of this ceremony, three years later, France’s Prime Minister approved a tomb dedicated to France’s unknown soldier to be installed in Paris. He originally proposed that the tomb be placed in the Pantheon, with other French historical figures like Victor Hugo and Voltaire (the latter of which made his fortune by rigging the lottery). However, veterans organizations wanted a location that was reserved solely for the Unknown Solider. They agreed upon a tomb under the Arc de Triomphe, originally completed in 1836 to commemorate other lost French military members.
With the help of a 21 year old French baker turned “valiant” soldier named August Thin, a representative unknown soldier was settled upon. On November 11, 1920, his casket was pulled down the streets of Paris, before settling under the Arc de Triomphe, where he was laid to rest. To this day, the tomb is still there with a torch by its side, rekindled every night at 6:30 PM.
That same day, two hundred eighty five miles away in London, Great Britain was holding a similar ceremony. “The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior,” as it is called in London, is housed at Westminster Abbey. It is the only tombstone in the Abbey that it is forbidden to walk upon, and bears this inscription, “Beneath this stone rest the body of a British warrior unknown by name or rank brought from France to lie among the most illustrious of the land and buried here on Armistice Day 11 Nov: 1920.”
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