Memorial Day, (in America celebrated on the last Monday in the month of May) began as a way to honor the fallen Union and Confederate soldiers. The concept developed further in the aftermath of WWI. While the final treaty ending WWI wasn’t signed until 24 July 1923, the fighting ended (temporarily then permanently) on 11 a.m., November 11, 1919. On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, arms were laid down and the soldiers began the long process of returning home, and remembering the nearly 35 million souls, both civilian and military who had perished.
It became known as Armistice Day at first, and was celebrated as the end of the War to End All Wars. The effects of WWI were long, and far reaching, even in 1919. Discounting the events leading up to WWII, people all over the US and Europe sought a way to celebrate and commemorate their men.
The concept of a Tomb of an Unknown Soldier was also started at this time. A British Chaplain by the name of David Railton was working in France and came across a rough wooden cross marking a grave. The cross read “An Unknown British Soldier”, and Railton had the idea of bringing one of these unidentified boys back and burying them in Westminster Abbey, alongside the Royalty, artists, explorers, authors and other notable and distinguished personages of Britain, to stand for all the men who would never come back home. It took a very short while for the idea to take root and get going, and on November 11, 1920, both Britain and France laid an unidentified man to rest in locations befitting the highest honors their countries could bestow. (In England, inside Westminster Abbey, in France, Under the Arc de Triumphe.) In the British case, a set of unidentified remains were exhumed from their battlefield grave, covered with a Union Jack flag and taken to a chapel where Brigadier General Wyatt and Colonel Gell of the Graves Registration Department chose one, neither knowing anything about which remains came form which battlefield. Those remains not selected were respectfully reburied, but the chosen one was placed in a plain coffin and escorted with full honors to a castle in Bologne. There, the coffin was further enclosed casket made of timbers from the Royal Palace of Hampton Court, bound with iron and a Medieval sword, selected by King George V from the Royal Collection, and a shield bearing an inscription “A British Warrior who fell in the Great War for King and Country.” He was laid to rest, after a long, ceremonial trip, in the West Nave of Westminster Abbey, where soil from each major battlefield covered his grave and 100 women who had lost their husband and all sons to the war stood in attendance, along with the Royal Family. Today, he rests beneath a black granite stone, engraved with brass melted down from war ammunitions, and wreathed with silken poppies.
I got to see the grave a few years back when I spent an incredible five hours touring Westminster (and it wasn’t nearly long enough). There are graves EVERYWHERE there, and despite what my parents taught me about being polite in graveyards and not deliberately walking on anyone, you can’t help it. Except for that grave. No one, king or commoner, Brit or foreigner, is allowed to step on it, and it’s just incredible how it sits at the Western door to the Abbey and despite the babble of voices checking out the graves of the Tudors, Edwards the Longshanks, Oliver Cromwell, Chaucer, Dickens, and so so so so many more, that section of the church, voices just fall silent, and people so very carefully, respectfully, move around the soldier, and give him his peace. Royal Brides, beginning with the Queen Mum, have laid their bridal bouquets there (Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon lost her brother in WWI), including the most recent Royal Wedding this past April. Foreign heads of state often lay wreaths at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, and he has been decorated with many foreign decorations in the 91 years he’s slept, including the American Medal of Honor. (The only time any of this caused a problem was when a Nazi official laid a Swastika wreath at the tomb in 1933. A British WWI Veteran threw it in the Thames.)
The idea soon inspired America. Four of its warriors from different battlefields were disinterred and brought to a city hall in Chalon-en-Champagne, where US Army Sgt. Younger laid a spray of white roses on one casket, which was returned to the USA and laid in state until Armistice Day, 1921, when he was laid to rest among the best and brightest of our honored military dead in Arlington National Cemetery. The ceremony was attended by US President Harding, and, representing WWI ally Britain, Admiral of the Fleet Lord Beatty, who awarded the American Unknown with the highest honor Britain can bestow, the Victoria Cross, which was placed with him before burial. The marble sarcophagus was built over top his grave in 1926.
After WWII, the Tomb was expanded. One unidentified soldier from the European Theater and one from the Pacific Theater was exhumed, placed in identical caskets aboard the USS Canberra, where corpsmen and Medal of Honor recipient William Charette, not knowing which casket was from which theater, chose one to join his WWI brother. A similar method was used to selected the Korean unknown from four candidates as was the Vietnam Unknown. (In 1998, using DNA technology, the Vietnam unknown was identified and released to be buried with his family)
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is guarded 24 hours a day, seven days a week, no matter the weather, and the assignment to guard the Tomb is considered one of the highest honors in the military. Those who complete the rigorous training never wear any insignia of their own ranks, lest they inadvertently outrank the Unknowns.
In 1954, America even founded a Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary Soldier in Philadelphia, and the Tomb of the Unknown Confederate Soldier in Biloxi Mississippi in 1981. (Arlington National Cemetery, of course, was founded as a burial site, originally, for Union Soldiers, many of whom were also unidentified.)
Armistice Day was supposed to help us remember the war that ended all wars, but sadly, WWI ended up being a prelude. How Armistice Day was remembered developed in many countries, but today, it is the National Day of Veterans Remembrance in many countries of the world. It is Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom which celebrates with two minutes of national silence, and, since the US already had a “Memorial Day” it is called Veterans Day in the USA, celebrated through a variety of observances, the most famous of all has to be the laying of the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
So today, I honor all those who have served, are serving, and will someday serve in our Armed Forces, keeping us safe and defending our freedoms with their years, training, and sometimes, their lives. May we keep reminding ourselves of history so that you may never again find yourselves in another World War.
You are Never Forgotten.