Au nom de tous les autres : l'Internationale des Soldats inconnus (1916-2004)

The tomb of the British Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey in London
Corps 1
In the name of all the others: The "Internationale" for the unknown soldiers (1916-2004)
Corps 2


With its millions of dead and missing, the Great War placed a burden of grief on the population that overshadowed the victory with sorrow. In France from 1918 until the mid 1920's, these deaths invaded the nation's symbolic and emotional space, as they witnessed the numerous ceremonies, the erection in towns of monuments to the dead and the decision to honour the unknown soldier. A tribute paid by the whole country to the servicemen who died in the field of honour and a factor in national unity, the unknown soldier became a symbol that was adopted by many of the allied nations.

Why doesn't France open the doors of the Panthéon to one of these unknown servicemen who died bravely for his country, with just a two-word inscription in stone: a soldier. These words, spoken by the chairman of the French Remembrance society, François Simon, on the 26th November 1916 during a ceremony at the cemetery in Rennes in tribute to those soldiers who had died for their country, were the origin of the concept of the Unknown Soldier. Four years later on the 11th November 1920, two Unknown Soldiers were buried, a French one in Paris at the Arc de Triomphe and a British one at Westminster Abbey in London. The Unknown Soldier and the ceremony surrounding him were born and the concept, officially introduced in France in 1918, (1) which was to be adopted by several of the victorious countries of the First World War. Without entering into a fruitless debate - and more importantly, not having any evidence about who first muted the idea, the British or the French - it suffices to say that it provoked a reaction, a sort of "competition" between the two countries, when France learned that the British intended to come and claim the body of an anonymous tommy from her battlefields(2).

For the British, the choices had been made quite quickly and all the more easily, since those in charge had clearly made it known that, for the sake of total equality, the bodies of the tommies would remain forever where they were, on French soil. The repatriation of an anonymous body was thus an exception, which from the start gave it a powerful symbolic dimension. The British Unknown Soldier quickly gained an incontestable sacred status as an ambassador for those who had died in the Great War. On the French side, the matter, which was raised from 1918 onwards, gave rise to many debates and the choice of burial place was the subject of much controversy. A proliferation of non-implemented commemorative projects had abounded since the signing of the armistice and the start of drawn out prevarications on what should happen to the bodies of soldiers who had died or gone missing in the former military zone. In addition, it was hoped to hold together two commemorations as different as the burial of an Unknown Soldier and the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Republic, for which it had been planned to carry the heart of Gambetta to the Panthéon.

By setting these two ceremonies on the same day, the 11th November 1920, the country's leaders became locked in a controversial debate; decisions had to wait, because, all the fine speeches aside - which were often contradictory - by the beginning of November 1920 nothing had been officially decided. The French internal dispute first of all centred on the place where the body of the Unknown Soldier would rest. The government, following the initial wishes of François Simon, had suggested the Panthéon as the final resting place for the Unknown Soldier, as well as for the heart of the eminent Republican Gambetta. The choice of a monument with such heavily politically connotations (3) which had, since its creation, been badly perceived by the French (4), sparked a storm of protest, as much in the press as in the national assembly. The session held on the 8th November 1920 - two days after the selection of an anonymous body at the Verdun citadel - was anything but the great moment of sacred union expected.

Léon Daudet, an extreme right MP belonging to the Action Française party, took advantage of this to denigrate the Panthéon, a place of Republican worship, despised even more since the body of Zola, the author of La Débâcle had been laid to rest there... For its part, an ideologically similar association of ex-servicemen, La Ligue des chefs de section, headed by the writer Binet-Valmer, had threatened Leygues' government with exhuming an anonymous body from a former battlefield and placing it in front of the cortège that would carry the remains of the Unknown Soldier and Gambetta to the Panthéon... The socialist MP Alexandre Bracke, supported by the Blue Horizon Chamber, accused the government of wanting to organise a militarist ceremony that was intended to "hide the living high command behind a corpse that is a symbol of all those who have died (5)." In the end, it took the pacifying intervention of MPs Vidal and Sangnier to bring a little calm to the benches of the French Assembly: "The event that we are going to hold will not be the event of any one party, of any clique, it will be an event for France and the Republic, which today will be an expression of a victorious France on the march towards the democracy of the future(6)." These unifying comments had a much better calming effect on spirits, as MP André Paisant recalled in Le Journal on the 27th October, whilst the British allies prepared serenely and in complete agreement for the burial of their Unknown Soldier in the vaults of Westminster Abbey... It was no longer the time for controversy, but for action. The Arc de Triomphe in the Place de l'Étoile had found in extremis some fierce defenders.

The tribute thus paid to the dead by the French and British quickly inspired others, but only on the victorious side(7). As in France and Great Britain, the procedures that resulted in the emergence of new unknown soldiers were governmental decisions. They confirmed on an international level the concept of a way of mourning that could encompass both those soldiers known to have a distant burial place and those who did not have one and probably never would: the missing. On the other hand, they helped to maintain a union through commemoration between countries whose political, diplomatic and ideological positions, which had been more or less the same during the conflict, could, once the peace was signed, differ from or even oppose each other. Sending national delegations to the tombs of the various foreign Unknown Soldiers became common practice and a mark of mutual goodwill in the immediate post-war period. In 1921, Portugal, Italy and the United States designated their own Unknown Soldier, adopting formalities that replicated those of the British and French: the way of designating, the formalities for transporting the body, the burial rites and the service around the tombs of the Unknown. However, let's emphasise that in the United States, as happened simultaneously in France (8), the question of repatriating the bodies led to lively debate between the American Field of Honor (in favour of leaving the bodies where they were) and the powerful Bring Home the Soldier Dead League which won in the end, as American families were given the choice of whether or not to repatriate the bodies of those sammies laid to rest on French soil (9). Between 1922 and 1932, other countries took up the custom: Belgium, Yugoslavia, Romania, Poland and Czechoslovakia.

More recently, Australia in 1993, Canada in 2000 and New Zealand in 2004, each decided to exhume an anonymous soldier in France and repatriate him to their respective capital cities. Study of the formalities that led to these events and analysis of the speeches made by the authorities on the return of the bodies reveals a deep sense of respect and demonstrates great similarities with what had taken place in the two decades that followed the Great War. These last ceremonies prove that the symbol of the Unknown Soldier can still emotionally touch our contemporaries, keen to have a better understanding of the scale of the human tragedy caused by the First World War. It is true that the choice not to repatriate the bodies immediately after the war, as well as the symbolism that developed around the tombs of other unknown soldiers - simple embodiments of those who died, they quickly became symbolic of all those who died in the conflict - could only serve to support these decisions.

Today the very anonymity of these bodies makes them a powerful national bond, as it did just after the First World War. A study of the speeches made during the burial ceremonies by the Australian Prime Minister P.J. Keating and the Governor General of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson, apart from their obvious similarities, shows that for these nations, both established as a result of immigration and at least one of which is a bilingual country, the universality of the symbol in its total anonymity is a measure of the renewed unity that can only strengthen - though very belatedly - the bonds of national union, albeit somewhat problematic, as sometimes is the case in Canada...

Quoting in his speech on the 28th May 2000 the proposals written in 1916 by Major Talbot Papineau and to emphasise the full scope of the honoured symbol, the governor of Canada chose a passage glorifying national unity: "Will their sacrifice be in vain or will it not cement the foundations of a true Canadian nation, a Canadian nation that is independent in thought, independent in action and independent even in its political system - but united in spirit, sharing the same humanitarian goals and with high international aims(10)."

Contemporaries of Major Papineau were not wrong in sensing that part of the Canadian nation was born in France, a year later, on a hillside in the Pas-de-Calais region. "Vimy became a symbolic Canadian triumph, one of those "great things" nations must do together to achieve identity", the Canadian historian Desmond Morton quite rightly stated(11). Seven years before Adrienne Clarkson's speech, P.J. Keating had gone in the same direction by evoking the memory of the 45,000 Australians who died in France and reminding us, on the subject of the Unknown Australian, that he "is all of them. And he is one of us."

Today, just as in the past, the choice of these two anonymous bodies and the range of formalities that until recently surrounded them, serve both to honour the dead of the Great war and to consolidate and reaffirm national ties around the past victory and sacrifice. The only original thing of note in the speeches made in 1993 and 2000, is that they go beyond the First World War, by making these anonymous bodies symbols of all the action in which Australians and Canadians have taken part during the 20th century. In France, the process of choosing unknown soldiers to represent each kind of conflict (the Second World War, Indochina, North Africa etc.) carried on until 1980, not forgetting the repatriation of the ashes of anonymous deportees.

NB (1) The MP and disabled war veteran Maurice Maunoury lodged an initial legislative bill on the 19th November. (2) C. Vilain, Le Soldat Inconnu, M. D'Hartoy, 1933, p. 51 and M. Dupont, L'Arc de Triomphe et le Soldat Inconnu, Les Editions françaises, 1958, p. 15. In his book, The Unknown Soldier. The story of the missing of the Great War, Corgi Books, 2005, pp 422-423, N. Hanson appears to confirm the theory that the French were first, as, according to his research, the idea of burying a British unknown soldier was not confirmed until mid-October 1920. (3) There was not agreement on the choice of the Panthéon, a disused church during the Revolution. It had been converted into a temple for the great dead of the Republic, into a Republican temple that the Right had never accepted as a national one; as for the Arc de Triomphe, it was an open place on which there was more or less unanimous agreement. (4) Mona Ozouf, "Le Panthéon. L'École normale des morts" in the collection (ed. P. Nora), Les lieux de mémoire 1, Gallimard, republished in 1997, pp 155-177. (5) Official journal of the MP's Chamber, the debates of the 8th November 1920, p. 15. (6) On all of the lasting debates on the tomb of the French unknown soldier, cf. J.F. Jagielski, Le soldat inconnu. Invention et postérité d'un symbole, Imago, 2005. (7) On the refusal for a commemorative process in Germany, cf. V. Ackermann, "La vision allemande du soldat inconnu: débats politiques, réflexion philosophique et artistique" in the collection, Guerres et cultures 1914-1918, Armand Colin, 1994, pp 385-396. (8) AN F2 2125, minutes of the National Commission for military graves session held on the 31st May 1919. (9) M. Meigs, "La mort et ses enjeux: l'utilisation des corps de soldats américains lors de la Première Guerre mondiale", Guerres et conflits contemporains no.175, July 1994, pp 135-146. (10) Quoted in J.F. Jagielski, op. cit., p 236 (11) Billet pour le front. Histoire sociale des volontaires canadiens (1914-1919), Athéna éditions, 2005, p 196