Written by Todd Van Beck, CFuE
At 8:30 a.m. on Armistice Day, November 11, 1921, gun salvos sounded from Fort Myer and continued every 60 seconds during the five-hour ceremony.
No military leader, regardless of rank or achievements who died in the course of any war, received such a funeral ritual as this soldier who on this day would be interred as the Unknown Soldier in America’s most hallowed and revered cemetery – Arlington.
The funeral ceremony was really symbolic of the eternal gratitude of the whole nation to the common soldiers who sacrificed their lives for our freedom.
While the nation honored this nameless man on that chilly November morning, the Unknown Soldier, whose sacred remains came on the funeral caisson down famous Pennsylvania Avenue in front of thousands of mourners, was in reality known to all.
He was one of “our boys,” an American son, not a warrior as they were called throughout the centuries in the dark days of war.
To some women that day, weeping in the crowd after an all-night vigil, the Unknown Soldier was their boy who when missing one day and was never found until now.
To many of the men who lined the route of the funeral procession, many wearing ribbons and badges of mourning on now civilian clothes, he was a very familiar figure – a comrade, the one they like best, the hail-well-met chap who possibly drank too much in their taverns, and the one who went out into the fields of death and stayed there with the great, noble, and honored companionship.
As the funeral procession, with military precision, went by that day, a chilling thought entered the mind of many men: “That could have been me.” Doubtless, every man or woman that day realized this this funeral procession was a symbol of attained and cherished freedom and peace – that the world would now be a better place.
It was the red, white, and blue of Old Glory, the Stars and Stripes, draped over the standard gray military casket that revealed him instantly, not as a mythical warrior aloof from common humanity, but as one of those fellows dressed in khaki, stained by mud and grease, who went into the ditches and dirty trenches with the American flag leading his way. In his heart were unspoken emotions, bravery and fear simultaneously with a faith not shaken. He was full of complication, far from perfect, a human being, but in the watchwords of that war, he and we were then, as now under the same flag.
As the funeral procession reached Arlington Cemetery Amphitheater, there were some of the great men of the time waiting to greet the body of a simple American soldier.
General John G. “Black Jack” Pershing, tall and dignified stood at attention, along with former President and now Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, William Howard Taft. President Warren G. Harding nervously shuffled the papers of his speech.
Former president Woodrow Wilson, frail since being stricken by a stroke, but still the acknowledged and revered war leader was sitting quietly to the side.
There were bishops, archbishops, priest, and prime ministers ready to honor the sacred remains of a soldier who had gone trudging through the mud and muck like one ant in a legions of ants, all unknown to fame. A casualty not more heroic than his pals and buddy’s around him, and perhaps not missed much when he fell dead between the tangled wire and shell-holes, but a hero nonetheless.
Now this common solders body was brought before the greats of the greats from the United States military. It was their brains that had directed his movements down that long road that blistered his feet, over ground made impossible to cover because of gun fire, up banks from which he slipped under the weight of his pack. Whatever his rank as a soldier this day marked the end of his long journey, which this day finished in a grave marked, “Unknown.”
In life this soldier had looked upon these great men in awe. Sometimes, he had saluted them as they rode past him in their magnificence. Now they all stood at Arlington to salute him, to keep their silence in his presence, to render him homage more wonderful, with deeper reverence than any general or president has ever received. It was noticed that of all the greats who on this funeral day were humbled, only Woodrow Wilson unashamedly shed tears.
The light was dim that morning at Arlington. The ruins of old Arlington House, the former home of General Robert E. Lee, now the center of the cemetery, looked gloomy in the November mist.
The Capitol dome could not be seen but the minute funeral guns along the funeral route kept booming. Soon, the sun shone brighter so that the dome of the Capitol was etched with ever deepening lines. On all the buildings, flags were flying at half-mast. The military officers, who walked about with swords drawn wore mourning crepe on their left arms.
Presently, they passed the world along, “Reverse arms,” and all the lines of the funeral procession, soldiers turned over rifles and bent their heads in homage.
It was very silent in Arlington. Before the ordered silence, the dense lines of people had kept their places without movement and spoke little in their long line of waiting and then, as they caught their first glimpse of the caisson, were solemnly quiet, all heads bared and bent. One could feel the spirit of reverence in the crows. This gathering of everyday people was touched with the sharp, yet comforting thought as to what this funeral was really all about: Freedom.
The military bands passed with their inspiring funeral music and their drums thumping at the hearts of men, women, and children. Guards with their reversed arms passed and then the caisson, with its impressive teams of horses, halted in front of the cemetery amphitheater where President Harding stood, and every had was raised to salute the soldier who died so we might live, chosen by fate for this honor, which is in remembrance of the great Army Patriots who went out with “our boy” to fight for his country. Possibly he had heard or read President Wilson’s firm and haunting admonition “We must keep the world safe for democracy.”
President Harding, looking polished and dignified laid his wreath on the casket and stepped back again. Crowded behind the caisson in one long line was an immense column of men from all branches of the military, moving up slowly before coming to a halt. They were followed by other men in civilian clothes. Everywhere among them could be seen the most ancient of funeral tributes – flowers in the form of wreaths and crosses.
Then all was still and the picture was complete, framing the wreath laying upon the flag-draped casket. The soul of the national at its best, purified at the moment by emotion, was there in silence about the body of the man dubbed for eternity as the Unknown Soldier.
Funeral guns continued to be fired in the distance. They were not loud, more like the distance crackling of guns on a misty day in France, a day when there was “nothing to report,” thought a day, perhaps, this man died.
It was a time of silence. No political arguing or grandstanding here. What thoughts were in the minds of all the people, only Gods knows, as they stood there for those minutes that seemed more like hours.
In the midst of this silence, off to the sidelines, the crowd focused in reverent saw and attention on not only the Unknown Soldier, but on one of the last true casualties of the Great War – Woodrow Wilson.
For as sure as the barbed wire tore one’s hand in battle and the bullets would rip and tear at your very soul – so it was likened to this great, but flawed man who had a mission of peace for all times, but for whose cause the barbed wire and bullets tore to pieces. Yes, there were two casualties of war on this Armistice Day.
Suddenly the silence ended. Some words rang out, guns in unison could be heard sounding the three volleys over the tomb – the ancient symbol in military funeral customs that the battle of life is over for the dead warriors, but that this battle of life must continue for the rest who are still alive.
In the crowd, women were weeping quietly, but it was their hearts crying that made the loudest sound. Many had lost their only son. Men’s faces were hard, like masks, hiding all they thought or felt.
At the entrance to the ceremonial platform, the casket was carried shoulder high by eight tall military men. On the platform, the casket was centered in the pathway usually held for kings, prime ministers, and presidents.
Now, no one can ever go to the altar of death to commemorate or to be honored without first paying homage to the resting place of a man who is a symbol of the many soldiers who died so that this nation might endure.
The actual funeral service was a simple as in any village church in the land. The 23rd Psalm was sung, followed by an invocation, and an address by President Harding. Then another anthem and almost, as an afterthought, the program called for some brief remarks by President Woodrow Wilson.
The crowds hushed as the not invalid war leader awkwardly made his way to the podium being steadied by men holding onto both of his arms.
President Wilson, with his head bowed and his wife bracing his paralyzed left side said in a weak voice: “Our life is but a little pan. One generation follows another very quickly. It a man with read blood in him had his choice, knowing that he must die, he would rather die to vindicate some right, unselfish to himself, than die in his own bed.”
“This is what has brought us together today, for we all are touched with the love of the glory, which is real glory, and the only real glory comes from utter self-forgetfulness and self-sacrifice. As impressive as this monument is, the true glory of the American experience is that we can never erect enough statues to men who have not been forgotten themselves and been glorified by the memory of others. This is the patriotic standard that America holds up to mankind in all sincerity and in all earnestness.”
The crowd stood with moistened eyes in absolute silence. As Woodrow Wilson was helped from the platform a cheer went up that lasted 10 minutes. It was to be the only applause of the day.
The gray metal casket was lowered into the tomb. A clergyman said something about “earth to earth” as former President and Chief Justice Taft stepped forward and from a silver bowl, sprinkled the casket with soil from France. The funeral service was concluded. The funeral ritual had accomplished its mystical and unexplainable purpose – it made people feel they had done the right thing and had given them peace of mind.
As the words of blessing died away, from far up the line you could hear a whisper of sound. The sound of human beings grew louder and it seemed that all were on the march back to the joys and sores of daily life which surely lay in wait.
As the last person left, and the last roll of drums faded, two soldiers came forward to serve as the guard of protection for this glorious dead. From that day onward, there would forever be a guard at the tomb of “our boy,” at the entrance to the hallowed tomb of the Unknown Soldier.