Selecting the Unknown Soldier of WW1: Sgt. Edward Younger and the Second Casket on his Right

Selecting the Unknown Soldier of WW1 in France by Sgt. Edward Younger (standing in the center, back) /From the collection of the author & (Click on the photo to enlarge it )

Sgt. Edward Younger always believed something very unusual happened in the French town of Chalons-sur-Marne on the morning of October 24, 1921.  It was the day he chose America’s first Unknown Soldier to die on foreign soil.  This soldier would return home to rest in the newly-constructed Tomb of the Unknown in Arlington National Cemetery.

The war had been over for almost three years.  The British called it the “Great War.” H.G. Wells called it “The war that will end war” hopeful that the allied victory announced on the morning of November 11, 1918, would put an end to the monumental suffering.

At eleven o’clock this morning came to an end the cruelest and most terrible war that has ever scourged mankind. I hope we may say that thus, this fateful morning, came to an end all wars.Lloyd George, Remark in the House of Commons, November 11, 1918

Franklin D. Roosevelt, campaigning in 1920 for vice president assured the public that it would never happen again:

To them we must write the binding finish: it shall not happen again. Americans demand: the crime of war shall cease.”

War didn’t end.  It took a number and became World War I.


A Time of Tears

World War I was winding down at the same time the entire human race was fighting its own terrible battle. The 1918-1919 influenza pandemic was in full swing decimating an estimated 20 percent of the world’s population (25 percent of the U.S. population). This unusual, deadly flu targeted people aged 20-40 and killed an estimated 50 million — more than the total number of 16 million deaths  (military 9.7 million, civilian 6.8 million) in WWI.

Families were grieving lost loved ones from both the war and the pandemic. It was particularly painful for the families of fallen, unidentified sons who left their homes to fight and die in another country — soldiers who lost their lives as well as their identities.  They were the unknowns.

At the 11th Hour on the 11th Day in the 11th Month of 1918

Sgt. Edward Younger had just crossed the Meuse River in France when the ceasefire was announced.  The Chicago native enlisted in the Army in February 1917; two months before the United States formally entered the war. He was 18 years old when deployed to France with the 9th Infantry and survived in spite of insurmountable odds — an influenza epidemic, two war wounds and four deadly offensives.

British soldiers going "Over the top" climbing out of their trench on July 1, 1916. Credit The Daily Mail

British soldiers going “Over the top” climbing out of their trench on July 1, 1916. Photo Credit: The Daily Mail

He went “over the top” five times – climbing out of his trench to charge across ‘no man’s land’ facing a barrage of artillery shells and enemy machine gun fire until he either succeeded; died, was wounded or was ordered to retreat.   Younger was wounded once by machine gun fire and again by an artillery shell.

He served and fought from the U.S. declaration of war in April 1917 to the armistice in 1918 — serving as a private, corporal and sergeant. The average life expectancy of a soldier fighting  in the trenches was six weeks.  By all accounts, Edward Younger shouldn’t have been alive.

By the middle of 1918, 500,000 U.S. soldiers were fighting on the front lines in France. There was little separation between the living and the dead.  A French soldier fighting at Verdun described it this way:

We all carried the smell of dead bodies with us. The bread we ate, the stagnant water we drank. Everything we touched smelled of decomposition due to the fact that the earth surrounding us was packed with dead bodies.” French soldier

Edward Younger knew it too. Years after the war he recalled —

Like many who were in the thick of the fighting, I helped to bury the bodies of hundreds of my buddies under fire.  Many of them could not be identified. Could the hero I chose have been one of these?  Sgt. Edward Younger

How a WWI grave is marked by the Graves Registration Service, Q.M.C. On the cross are an identity tag and plate prepared by the Service. Mareuil-en-Dole, 77th Division 12 September 1918 / US Army Quartermaster Museum

How a WWI grave was marked by the Graves Registration Service, Q.M.C. On the cross are an identity tag and plate prepared by the Service. Mareuil-en-Dole, 77th Division 12 September 1918 / US Army Quartermaster Museum

“Every soldier’s grave is the nation’s monument.” William Bradley

Despite the carnage, every effort was made to identify fallen soldiers.  A war correspondent who viewed the 1917  Champagne battlefield three weeks after the event saw “bottles containing pieces of paper bearing the names of the fallen…thrust neck downward in the fresh earth of the graves, so the rains might not render the writing indecipherable.”

America’s Unknown

In March 1921, Congress passed a resolution calling for the selection of an unknown American soldier from France and authorized the building of a memorial in Arlington National Cemetery.  The Quartermaster General was ordered to arrange for the selection of America’s unknown from among 1,237 unidentified fallen soldiers.  Four bodies were exhumed  on October 22, 1921 from four battlefield cemeteries and taken to Chalons-sur-Marne in northern France on the following day.

The Four Soldiers Came From These Cemeteries. Data From: The Quartermaster Review May-June 1930
Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery130 Acres14,182 Dead458 Unknown
Aisne-Marne American Cemetery34 Acres2,271 Dead252 Unknown
Somme American Cemetery13 Acres1,830 Dead131 Unknown
St. Mihiel American Cemetery30 Acres4,151 Dead117 Unknown

An Unexpected Twist of Fate

When the war ended, Sgt. Younger was sent to Germany with the Army of Occupation. He returned to the United States in August 1919, but would not stay long.  As “an orphan” he said, “I felt at loose ends back home, so I enlisted again and was shipped back to Germany.” His decision to re-enlist would change the course of his life.

On the morning of October 23, 1921, Younger was ordered to report to his commanding officer who informed him that he and five other soldiers from different units would serve as pallbearers for the Unknown Soldier. The selection was supposed to have been made by an officer, until a twist of fate and a healthy dose of political correctness intervened.   When Maj. Gen. H. L. Rogers, the Quartermaster General, learned the French had used an enlisted man to select their unknown, he changed U.S. plans to use an officer and ordered Maj. Robert Harbold, a West Point graduate who was in charge of the ceremony, to pick an enlisted man to select America’s unknown.

  • Press photo taken in 1921/ From the collection of the author &
  • Sgt. Edward Younger accompanying the Unknown Soldier to Havre, France / Source: / Bibliotheque nationale de France
  • Edward Younger mustered out of the Army and returned to the US in 1922. This photo was taken in Chicago in 1927 by the Chicago Tribune

October 23, 1921 – 3 PM.  The four caskets arrived by truck at the ornately decorated city hall of Chalons-sur-Marne  built in 1771.  French troops carried the mortuary shipping cases into a reception room. The caskets were removed from their shipping cases and draped with American flags.

When the six Army pallbearers arrived later that day, Maj. Harbold asked each man about his combat experience and broke the news that one of them would be chosen the following morning to select the body of the Unknown Soldier.  The men would then act as pallbearers until the Navy took custody of the body at the port in Havre. This was not welcome news to the enlisted men, as Younger recalled in a later interview. “Every man of us slept badly that night, each disturbed by the fear that the choosing might fall to him.”

October 23, 1921 – 10 PM.  American pallbearers joined a French guard of honor standing vigil over the caskets in a dimly lit, improvised chapel filled with flags and foliage.  During that peaceful night when the silence of the living joined the silence of the dead, the six pallbearers had time to reflect on the enormity of the task that would fall to one of them.

A Simple Ceremony

On the morning of October 24th, the caskets were removed from their shipping cases and rearranged so that a soldier’s cemetery could no longer be determined. Flags were re-draped over the caskets.  By 10 AM, French troops, a French military band and the townspeople of Chalons-sur-Marne filled the large courtyard in front of city hall.

Major Harbold assembled the pallbearers near the reception area and called for Sergeant Younger, who saluted.  “You will take these flowers, proceed to the chapel, and place the bouquet on one of the four caskets resting there.  The one you select will be the Unknown Soldier.”  Younger said he was momentarily gripped “by an unreasonable fear” as he came to attention and took the bouquet of white roses from Maj. Harbold.

The military band played “The Death of Ase (click to listen)” from Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt, as Sgt.  Younger slowly walked to the makeshift chapel down a corridor lined on either side by French soldiers.  He entered the room. There was very little light coming from the tiny windows.  The door closed behind him.  He was alone.

A Connection Transcending Space and Time

Sgt. Younger shared a powerful bond with every one of the four soldiers resting in his mortuary packing case.  He had been wounded by an artillery shell At Vaux, (Aisne-Marne Offensive) where one of the unknown soldiers had lost his life. He was wounded a second time by machine gun fire in the St. Mihiel drive, where another unknown soldier died. He had fought and helped bury bodies on the battlefields of the Somme and Meuse-Argonne Offensives –- the same battlefields of the two remaining unknown men lying in their flag-draped coffins.

He had fought and lived in the same places where they had fought and died.

Younger stood alone in the small, dark octagonal room holding the bouquet of white roses cut from the garden of French parents who had lost two sons to the war.  He could hear the mournful cooing from the birds in the eaves.  The four men, whose blankets were now American flags, were more than comrades-in-arms to Sgt. Younger.  They were brothers to the orphaned Edward — and he always felt he knew one of them.  It was the man he chose.

“Instinctively I knelt in prayer on the petal-strewn floor” Younger said. He stood and circled the caskets three times, touching each casket.

“The tragedy and horror of war impressed themselves more forcibly on me than at any other time of my service in France, though I have seen men falling like leaves from shrapnel and machine gun fire.” Sgt. Edward Younger

Younger tried to picture the battles “the boy who slept within (the casket) had been through, and I reflected whether I might have fought with him or known him.”

This is a Pal of Yours

Something kept drawing him to the second casket on his right.

“It was as though something had pulled me” he said.  “Something seemed to stop me each time I passed the coffin. As I moved toward it, the mysterious pull grew irresistible; I could not have turned back now had I tried…. A voice seemed to say ‘This is a pal of yours….’ Something seemed to say ‘Pick this one.’” Sgt. Edward Younger

Younger saluted and placed the flowers on the second casket to his right.  “I knelt beside the bier for a moment, and as I arose, a great weight seemed to slip from me.” He marched out of the room, saluted his superior officers and reported the task completed.  The French band began to play the sorrowful Death March from Saul (click to listen), but curiously Sgt. Younger felt a “strange exultation” and for the rest of his life believed that he knew the man.

The Bouquet of White Roses

Younger and the five pallbearers moved the casket to a second room.  The body was removed and transferred to a special black coffin brought from the United States.  It had silver handles and was lined in black cloth.  On the top was a silver plate which bore the engraving: “An Unknown American Who Gave His Life in the World War.”  It was placed on a catafalque in the main hall and surrounded by flowers.  On top of the coffin lay the bouquet of white roses. The roses remained on the coffin throughout the journey home and were buried with the soldier at Arlington National Cemetery along with some soil taken from France.


Lying in repose in the main hall in Chalons-sur-Marne. Press photo taken before public viewing.  The bouquet of white roses rests on top of the coffin.  (Click on the photo to enlarge it) / Source: / Bibliotheque nationale de France


The residents of Chalons-sur-Marne declared the day an unofficial holiday. Shops were closed in honor of the Unknown Soldier and in honor of the sacrifice of all Americans serving in France.  People from town and countryside filed by the coffin, many stopping to pray and leave floral tributes and small bouquets of wildflowers brought by children.

French mothers in black mourning dress were profoundly moving, as they knelt near the coffin and wept silently for this American boy as well as for the sons they had lost.  Newspaper reports estimate 15,000 people paid their respects that day — filling the square in front of city hall and lining the mile-long processional route to the train station where the French government provided a special funeral train to Paris and on to Havre.

  • The Unknown Soldier Leaves City Hall / The Last Salute
  • The cortege makes its way from city hall to the train station. The street banner reads: "Glory to the Unknown American Hero."/Source: / Bibliotheque nationale de France
  • Source: / Bibliotheque nationale de France
  • The Unknown Soldier arrives at Gare du Havre from Paris, October 25,1921 / Source: / Bibliotheque nationale de France
  • Sgt. Younger is the soldier standing closest to the right side of the photo. Source: / Bibliotheque nationale de France
  • The procession moves toward the USS Olympia docked at Havre. Sgt. Younger is the first US pallbearer on the left near the white roses / From the collection of the author &
  • Source: / Bibliotheque nationale de France

Edward Younger stayed beside his ‘pal’ from the time of his selection, to the next day when the procession made its way to the USS Olympia, Admiral Dewey’s flagship.  At Havre, Younger and the Army pallbearers stood down as Navy pallbearers assumed custody of the body for the trip to Washington, D.C.

  • The Unknown Soldier boards the USS Olympia docked at Havre/Source: / Bibliotheque nationale de France
  • Source: / Bibliotheque nationale de France
  • On board the USS Olympia/Source: / Bibliotheque nationale de France

In 1922, Sgt. Younger mustered out of the Army and returned to Chicago where he married, started a family and worked for the U.S. Postal Service.

He visited the Tomb of the Unknown in Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day 1930, to recreate the moment when he placed the bouquet of white roses on the second casket to his right.  Though a little less than nine years had passed, Edward Younger, wearing the same uniform he wore in Chalons-sur-Marne, looked much older than his 32 years.

Edward Younger recreating his selection of the Unknown Soldier on May 30, 1930, at the Tomb of the Unknown in Arlington National Cemetery / From the collection of CV Horos

Edward Younger recreating his selection of the Unknown Soldier on May 30, 1930, at the Tomb of the Unknown in Arlington National Cemetery / From the collection of the author &


“Great heroes are always humble.” John Templeton

Photo credit: Arlington National Cemetery

Photo credit: Arlington National Cemetery

On July 4, 1939, Younger was invited to return to Chalons-sur-Marne to participate in the commemoration of the 1921 selection of the Unknown Soldier led by the U.S. ambassador to France, but was too ill to attend.

Edward Younger died of a heart attack in Chicago on August 6, 1942.  He was 44 years old.  Younger was interviewed many times concerning the Unknown Soldier — reporters routinely describe him as a quiet, humble man.  He is buried in Section 18 of Arlington National Cemetery, not far from the Tomb of the Unknowns.

My Buddy

In 1922, Gus Kahn (words) and Walter Donaldson (music) wrote a tender waltz called “My Buddy” that was beloved by the veterans of World War I.

The war had been over for several years when the song was published. The men and women who returned from Europe had long since traded their uniforms for civilian clothes. Many thousands never made it home alive — and like all wars, left empty spaces in the hearts of their buddies who missed them still.

My Buddy

Life is a book that we study,
Some of its leaves bring a sigh,
There it was written, my buddy,
That we must part, you and I.

Nights are long since you went away,
I think about you all through the day,
My buddy, my buddy, no buddy quite so true.
Miss your voice, the touch of your hand,
Just long to know that you understand,
My buddy, my buddy, your buddy misses you.

Buddies through all of the gray days,
Buddies when something went wrong;
I wait alone through the gray days,
Missing your smile and your song.

Nights are long since you went away,
I think about you all through the day,
My buddy, my buddy, no buddy quite so true.
Miss your voice, the touch of your hand,
Just long to know that you understand,
My buddy, my buddy, your buddy misses you.


Listen to “My Buddy” sung by Henry Burr in 1922
YouTube Source: susandiane311

© Carol V. Horos, February 25, 2014