CHALONS-EN-CHAMPAGNE, France – One hundred years ago here, an army sergeant examined four coffins draped in American flags inside the town hall and chose the American soldier who would embody the sacrifice of everything, even his name, to a cause greater than himself.
French and American soldiers stood guard that night, never leaving the side of the Unknown Soldier.
On Saturday and Sunday, hundreds of people gathered for a vigil, military parade and other ceremonies dedicated to this soldier and the many others he represents.
Attendees included current and former Guardians of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Gold Star Mothers, Veterans, Military Wives, and onlookers who, just by remembering, shared the legacy of selecting the Unknown Soldier.
“It’s part of our history,” said Benoist Apparu, mayor of this town of about 45,000 inhabitants. “We have to celebrate this for the younger generation, so that they don’t forget what happened here. “
France and Britain each dedicated graves to their unknown World War I dead on November 11, 1920. The US Congress approved the installation of a memorial at Arlington National Cemetery the following year.
French actors from the First World War stand in front of Saint-Etienne Cathedral in Châlons-de-Champagne, France, October 24, 2021. The city has held events in honor of the selection 100 years ago of the unknown American soldier. (Erik Slavin / Stars and Stripes)
On October 23, 1921, coffins carrying the remains of unidentified American soldiers from four different war cemeteries in France arrived in the town, then known as Châlons-sur-Marne.
The selection was to be made at 11 a.m. the next morning by an American officer, until Major General Harry Rogers was out of script, according to a Society of the Honor Guard account, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Rogers decided that a soldier who may have served in the same trenches should make the choice.
French soldiers unload a coffin containing a candidate for the American tomb of the unknown soldier at the town hall of Châlons-sur-Marne, France, in October 1921. On Sunday, hundreds of people gathered at the same site in the current Châlons-en-Champagne for the 100th anniversary of the selection. (Society of the Guard of Honor, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier)
Sgt. Edward F. Younger of the occupation army on the Rhine introduced himself that day as a coffin bearer.
It was up to him to choose. Younger was nonchalant about it in interviews soon after. But in a 1936 syndicated newspaper column, he described feeling overwhelmed.
“Perhaps one of them had fought with me, had befriended me, had perhaps protected me from a bullet which could have put me in his place”, he wrote. “Who would even know? “
Members of the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Lonny LeGrand, Dave Hathaway, George March and James Livingston fold the American flag on October 24, 2021, after the commemorative ceremonies for the selection of the unknown American soldier ended there. is 100 years old in Châlons-en-Champagne, France. (Erik Slavin / Stars and Stripes)
Unknown soldiers would later be chosen to rest at Arlington National Cemetery to symbolize those who died in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
The Arlington grave also represents “all mothers whose sons have not returned and are unknown,” said Pam Stemple, second vice president of American Gold Star Mothers.
Scientific advances have meant that more military personnel unknown from past wars have subsequently been identified.
A horse-drawn carriage moves a coffin draped with an American flag through the city of Châlons-en-Champagne, France, October 24, 2021. The ceremony recreated the journey of the unknown American soldier from the city exactly 100 years ago. (Erik Slavin / Stars and Stripes)
Modern logistics have also helped keep those killed in recent wars from being unknown.
Stemple’s son, Army Ranger Sgt. 1st Class Tomas Avey, who died in Afghanistan in 2015. She reflected on what mothers who never picked up their children endured.
“We want to honor that, and that’s why it’s so important for us to go and see this,” Stemple said.
Wreaths and flowers left by French and American guests are placed in front of a monument to World War I servicemen who died for France at Saint-Etienne Cathedral in Châlons-de-Champagne, France on October 24, 2021. The ceremony followed events in honor of the selection 100 years ago of the unknown American soldier in the city. (Erik Slavin / Stars and Stripes)
For Stemple and around forty others, the stopover in Châlons-en-Champagne is part of a pilgrimage that included cemeteries and monuments throughout France.
There were difficult times, and tears flowed for some during the taps on Sunday. But pilgrimage participants say it was also a celebration. And for some, it adds a new color and depth to a mission to perpetuate the memory of the Unknown Soldier.
Gavin McIlvenna, president of the company, was the first relief commander as a grave guard in Arlington in 1997 and 1998.
Reenactments of the First World War stand at attention as a horse-drawn carriage moves an American flag-draped coffin in Châlons-en-Champagne, France, October 24, 2021. The ceremony recreated the journey of the city’s unknown American soldier exactly 100 years ago. (Erik Slavin / Stars and Stripes)
He spent a few nights on duty reflecting on the origin of the Unknown Soldier and what it would have been like for him to travel by train and boat across the ocean to France.
For McIlvenna, the opportunity to follow the path of the man he was guarding is almost indescribable.
“This is the exhibit Sgt. Younger made his selection, ”McIlvenna said as he stood on the steps of Town Hall as dozens of people paid homage to him at the vigil. “I don’t know how many times I can say it’s overwhelming. But he is. “
Jo Ann Maitland, National President of American Gold Star Mothers, honors a monument to World War I servicemen who died for France at Saint Etienne Cathedral in Châlons-de-Champagne, France, October 24, 2021. Maitland and a pilgrimage of about 40 other people from America attended ceremonies honoring the selection 100 years ago of the unknown American soldier. (Erik Slavin / Stars and Stripes)