Veteran’s Day and the Tomb of the Unknowns…or how “The War To End All Wars” was initially remembered, and how that eventually evolved into America’s Veteran’s Day, and Memorial Days around the Globe.

Posted by Rebekah
Nov 11 2014

Before I get to the end, I just want to say, “Thank you” to all Veterans, past, present and future.  As a civilian, I want to say thank you for being willing to do what you do and allow me and my family to live in freedom safe from war on my doorstep.  I hope everyone enjoys this post detailing the memorials that sprang up after WWI, and how they developed into Veteran’s Day as we recognize it today.


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. Graves were decorated, people remembered those who lost their lives in the conflict, and honored the Civil War dead  Before long, the war dead of 1812, Barbary and the Revolution were also being honored.  But then a conflict known as WWI began.  Though the United States mostly stayed out of the conflict until April 1917, WWI raged across Europe for four years, destroying pretty much anything in its path.  Even 90 years later, portions of France are still pockmarked from exploding mines and bombs, and the re-buried trenches have started to collapse on themselves, snaking their way across now-peaceful farmland. To look at these photos now, and realize just how terribly torn the land had to be in 1918 to remain so marked now, is sobering.

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.

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Armistice Day, Munitions Centre, painted by Frederick Etchells. Oil Crayon on canvas, currently in the collection of the Canadian War Museum, Beaverbrook Collection of War Art. This painting, depics the celebrations in Canada when the announcement of the Armistice was announced. The crowd waved flags of the many Allied nations, while dancing to the music of the organ grinder. Image from Wikipedia.

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, and even a year later in 1919, and people all over the US and Europe sought a way to celebrate and commemorate their lost men.

The concept of a Tomb of an Unknown Soldier or Unknown Warrior 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 war Grave of an unknown soldier of WWI. It was such a grave as this that inspired the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Britain and France, and later, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in America. Image from the National Library of Scotland


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.)

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in France, as it appears today. Image Source: Wikipedia.


In France, eight bodies were exhumed from the fields of Flanders , Artois , the Somme, Ile de-FranceChemin des Dames , ChampagneVerdun and Lorraine , placed in oaken caskets and brought to a bunker in Verdun.  The caskets were rotated and shuffled many times until no one could remember which casket’s remains came from which battlefield.  The next morning, during the ceremony, the orphaned son of a lost fighter of WWI, Auguste Thin, was handed a bouquet o red and white carnations and asked to select one of the caskets on behalf of France.  Now a soldier himself, Auguste chose the sixth one he passed in honor of his own Sixth Corp and 132nd Regiment (1+3+2=6, or so his logic went).  The chosen remains were interred under the Arc De Triomphe, where the flame is still re-kindled every night by French veterans.

In the British case, a set of unidentified remains were exhumed from the battle graveyards of the four major British Graves, Aisne, Arras, the Somme, and Pyres.  Each set was covered with a Union Jack flag and taken to a chapel where Brigadier General Wyatt and Colonel Gell of the Graves Registration Department placed their hands on one set, 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  in a  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.”

A replica of the oaken coffin the Unknown Warrior was placed in. One can see the Iron banding, and the sword beneath the epitaph shield. The replica is on display in in railroad car in which the original casket with the Warrior was transported from Dover to London. The car was also used to transport many remains repatriated after WWI including executed nurse Edith Cavell and executed civilian ship’s captain Charles Fryatt. This photo, taken by Hugh Nightengale on June 5, 2012, shows the sixty red poppies adorning the replica are in honor of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. The Queen’s Mother lost her brother during WWI, and left her bridal bouquet on the tomb of the Unknown Warrior on her way out of the chapel after her wedding–a tradition continued by every royal bride since, including her Majesty Elizabeth and Kate Middleton. Image Source, Wikipedia.

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. Foreign heads of state often lay wreaths at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, and he has been decorated with many foreign decorations and awards 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.)

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The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior a it appears today. The wreath of silk poppies is a permanent fixture, the three wreaths at the foot and the candelabra bases were placed there the day this photograph was taken–the 90th anniversary of the Warrior’s internment. Image Source: Wikipedia

To this day, November 11 is Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom, and the day to honor Britain’s fallen.  This year, with the Centennial anniversary of the start of WWI, the Tower of London hosted a new public installation, “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Read”.  It’s field of poppies–888,246 handmade ceramic poppies were planted in the dry moat, each memorializing a men who was killed or went missing during WWI.  It’s taken from August to November 11 to install each Poppy..  The last was placed this morning at 11 am in Britain.

All 888,246 poppies have now been planted in the dry 16-acre moat, heralding the completion of the poignant memorial

The field of poppies circles the ancient castle. It put things in perspective, at least, for me. This photo is from this article in the UK’s Daily Mail.

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior idea soon inspired America.  Four of America’s  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.

The Casket of the WWI Unknown, as he disembarked from the USS Olympia on the shoulders of his fellow servicemen. Colorized Photo, Wikipedia.

The marble for the grave was quarried in Vermont, and it known as Yule Marble, among the whitest, purest marble available.  The Unknown is buried in the earth, with the tiered monument placed above and around him.   Most visitors to Arlington National Cemetery can see the writing on the original tomb: “Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known But to God”.  on the reverse of that, on the side facing the Capitol, are carved three allegorical figures:  A female Victory flanked by a male Valor figure, and a female Peace figure.

The rarely-photographed east and southern sides of the Unknown’s original Tomb. Here you can clearly see the Allegorical figures and the inverted wreaths and doric columns that adorn the side. Image from flickr, taken by Tim Evanson. Date of photo: 5 April 2012.


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)

At first, there was no guard at the Tomb, but as reports came in of people standing on, or even eating Picnics on the Tomb (!) a guard was posted during the public hours.  This guard was expanded to the current 24/7 watch on July 2, 1937, and it has been guarded continually ever since.  Very few of the volunteers who come forward to be one of the guards make it through training, and even fewer are accepted.  Those who are live in a barracks below the Tomb, and must abide by strict rules, some, (like the prohibition against alcohol and swearing) for the rest of their lives.  The pin designating such a guard is the second most rarely awarded pin in the military*.  If, at any time during their lives, both active and retired, a guard, current or former, conducts himself in such a way as to dishonor the Tomb, the pin is revoked.

Their uniforms are unique, lacking all marks of the guards’ own ranks, lest they inadvertently outrank any of the Unknowns.  The changing of the guard is a carefully orchestrated, precise ceremony that is counted down to the second.  The guards change every 30 minutes to 2 hours (depending on the time of day and the weather) and continues around the clock regardless of weather.   While there is a contingency plan for the guards to watch over the Tomb from a special location in the Trophy Room overlooking the Tomb in case of inclement weather (provisions specifically mention winds in excess of 120 mph) , no one has yet done so…despite blizzards, hurricanes, and superstorm Sandy.

A Changing of the Tomb Guard in the midst of winter. Photos alleging to be during Superstorm Sandy are posted on the Internet, but most are not real…though the Old Guard reported that the guard went on through the storm. Image Credit: US Army

One final interesting fact about these devoted guards is their uniform must be absolutely perfect at all times,in honor of the fallen Unknowns.  Such meticulous attention to detail means they spend FIVE HOURS A DAY on maintaining their uniforms to the proper standard for guard duty.  That’s in addition to their actual guard duty, and assisting with the many wreath laying ceremonies that take place at the Tomb.


Armistice Day was supposed to help us remember the war that ended all wars, but sadly, WWI ended up being a prelude.  After WWII,  Armistice Day developed into a 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.

But since the US already had a “Memorial Day” to honor our war dead, Armistice Day evolved rather differently here.  With more veterans in the American population due to WWII and the the Korean conflict, Armistice Day officially changed to Veterans Day in 1954, a day in which we honor all our veterans, those that died, and those that lived and returned.  In the USA, it is 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.  This year (2014) as President Obama is abroad, Vice President Joe Biden will lay the wreath.


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, and your services, are Never Forgotten.

More Links:

Photos of WWI Battlefields, 90 years on

Underground tunnels discovered in WWI Battlefields

Newly uncovered WWI Diary with haunting drawings made at the front

Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary Soldier

Facts about Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Website of the Old Guard, the men who guard the Tomb of Unknown Soldier

Other photos and links to various Tombs of the Unknowns around the World

As an end note, America founded more Tombs for Unknown Soldiers int he latter half of the 20th century.  In 1954, America  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.)

*In case you’re curious about the rarest award in the military, it’s the Astronaut Pin.

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