Unknown Soldiers

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The burial of the Unknown Soldier is a commemorative rite that originated after the First World War. The date 11 November 1920, when the first ceremonies took place in London and Paris, marked the beginning of a series of commemorative projects in different capital cities that spanned the twentieth century.

These national funerals were celebrated by most former belligerents. Part of their power lay in their aim to commemorate the hundreds of thousands of soldiers whose remains were destroyed and who therefore had no known grave. In 1921 burials of Unknown Soldiers took place in Washington, D.C., Rome, and Brussels; in 1922 in Prague and Belgrade; and later in Warsaw and Athens. New countries established by the postwar treaties were particularly eager to institute this ceremony, which also effectively celebrated their existence; they were born of the war and in the war they had sacrificed their own. Victorious states and defeated states alike established the cult of the Unknown Soldier; death has a uniform effect on memory. An Unknown Soldier was buried in Sofia in 1923; Bucharest and Vienna followed suit. Burials of Unknown Soldiers of the Great War took place later in the century when Australians, New Zealanders, and Canadians felt the need to mark their own sacrifice, previously incorporated in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey in London.

The only two important exceptions were Germany and Russia, with the greatest number of war dead. In 1925 Germany's Weimar Republic did not respond when Konrad Adenauer, mayor of Cologne, called for the burial of an Unknown Soldier on the banks of the Rhine. Indeed, far away from the defeated capital, what would an Unknown Soldier signify? Only after 1933 did a form of the cult of the Unknown Soldier develop, in the person of Adolf Hitler, the "unknown corporal." Russia, taken over by the Bolsheviks during the war, was entirely preoccupied with the revolution and able to erect a tomb in Moscow only for Lenin.

In the early twenty-first century the cult of the Unknown Soldier has taken on a consensual image in the various countries that does not always match the reality of the 1920s and 1930s. In 1920 both polemics and fervor played a major role in the ceremonies. The burial of the Unknown Soldier had to be at a place appropriate for this ceremony. Establishing where to place this symbolic tomb provoked major debate. The French idea was to bring to the capital, to the center of power, an unknown body chosen from the unidentified dead at the 1916 Battle of Verdun, the mythic high-water mark of the war. Similarly, the body of an unknown British soldier was to be transported from France to England on the HMS Verdun and then by train to London. No one had a problem with the date, 11 November. The delay until 1920 was simply a matter of the time required for preparing such an important event. For the French, 1920 was ideal, because it was the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Republic in 1870. That coincidence led to a debate on the choice of place for the funeral as well as on the inscription. The Panthéon seemed to be the proper setting, its pediment engraved with the words "A grateful nation salutes its great men" (Aux grands hommes la patrie reconnaissante). But the men who died in the war deserved a different kind of remembrance from that accorded to the political, military, and scientific figures placed in the Panthéon. Thus the Ministry of Public Instruction, which was in charge of the 11 November commemoration, was led to organize a two-stage ceremony. First came a cortege to the Panthéon, then to the Arc de Triomphe, where "the remains of the Unknown Soldier who fell in the Great War" would eternally rest.

On the evening of 10 November 1920 the casket of the Unknown Soldier, chosen from among eight other caskets from Verdun, was transported by special railroad car and lay in state in the south of Paris at the place Denfert-Rochereau. (Denfert-Rochereau was a colonel and hero of the lost war of 1870–1871.) The arrival in Paris thus expressed revenge in victory over the Germans in 1918 without ignoring the enormous price paid by the French people. The coffin was then brought to the Panthéon and afterward to the Arc de Triomphe. Transported on a caisson covered by the French flag, it was accompanied by wounded veterans. The burial of the Unknown Soldier, and his adoption by the entire nation, created a unity in mourning all the dead of the Great War.

The Unknown Soldier was also accompanied on his journey from Verdun by a family that included a war widow, a mother and father who had lost their son, and a child who had lost his father. This casket could have contained the body of any one of the 1.4 million French soldiers who had died in the war. A journalist who had served in the war put it this way: "Perhaps he fell near me in Artois, in Champagne, or at Verdun. Perhaps he had shown me pictures of his father and mother, of his wife and his children during our long watches in the trenches."

For years afterward the Arc de Triomphe remained an obligatory destination for French and foreign visitors alike. Beyond official ceremonies and military parades, the Unknown Soldier symbolized both the values of sacrifice and the deep sorrow inflicted by the war. The French ceremony, at once democratic and emotional, was the inspiration for liturgies in other countries. An orphan, widow, or very young serviceman would choose the Unknown Soldier from among several coffins by placing flowers upon it. Interment involved grand ceremonies suited to monarchs or chiefs of states. The burial place would be some site of high national honor, such as the Vittoriano, altar of the nation in Italy, or it might have religious and historical significance, such as Westminster Abbey in London. Tombs were in all cases viewed as sacred; guards kept watch and ensured that the flame burned in perpetuity.

These symbolic tombs also became symbols for pacifism. Others invoked the tombs to protest the way disabled veterans were treated. One Londoner wrote, "Revere the memory of our class who fought, bled and died, but don't forget the unknown warriors living" (London, 1921). The French poet Benjamin Péret and the German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht mocked the cult of the dead as obscuring the needs of the living. W. H. Auden put it this way in 1930: "Let us honor if we can/The vertical man/Though we value none/But the Horizontal one." Later in the century writers and filmmakers returned to this theme of commemoration as an alternative to facing the problems of the postwar world. Thus the title of Bertrand Tavernier's 1989 film La vie et rien d'autre (Life and Nothing But) and its account of the burial of the Unknown Soldier in France.

An Unknown Soldier was buried in Australia on 11 November 1993, then another in New Zealand in 2004. Eighty years after the Westminster ceremony that celebrated a British Unknown Soldier who symbolized all the sacrifices of the country, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) decided that symbolism would best be served by repatriating an Unknown Soldier from the Somme in France. For Americans, World War II had to be celebrated just as its predecessor had been, and so the habit developed of burying an Unknown Soldier after each war. In 1998, however, genetic testing betrayed the anonymity of the Unknown Soldier from the U.S. war in Vietnam. Anonymity still mattered, because even in the case of the Vietnam War, all those who died are represented by one whose name is known but to God.

See alsoWar Memorials.


Becker, Annette. War and Faith: The Religious Imagination in France, 1914–1930. Oxford, U.K., and New York, 1998.

Inglis, Ken. "War Memorials: Ten Questions for Historians." Guerres mondiales et conflits contemporains, no. 167 (July 1992): 5–21.

——. "Entombing Unknown Soldiers: From London and Paris to Baghdad." History and Memory 5, no. 2 (fall–winter 1993): 7–31.

Winter, Jay, and Emmanuel Sivan, eds. War and Remembrance in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1999.

Annette Becker