In 1921, the first soldier of the Tomb of the Unknowns was laid to rest. The memorial was caught on film.

Cameras captured three days of ceremony that culminated with the dedication of the monument to the unidentified killed in war.

Guards patrol the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery on Nov. 9, 2018. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
12 min

It was cold and raining that afternoon, and officials had spread sand on the gangway so the sailors carrying the precious casket off the ship wouldn’t slip.

On the dock at the Washington Navy Yard, VIPs stood at attention, awaiting the return of America’s unknown soldier. The USS Olympia, which had carried the body from France, rang out eight bells — a traditional salute to the fallen.

A band began Chopin’s funeral march, and a team of six black horses hitched to an empty caisson waited for its cargo.

As the cameras rolled, Gen. John J. Pershing, who had led the American troops during World War I, stood bundled in his Army coat. Gen. John. A. Lejeune, the Marine Corps commandant, raised his hand in salute. Secretary of War John W. Weeks took off his top hat, baring his bald head in the weather.

On Nov. 9, 1921, the anonymous “doughboy” — the nickname given to the infantrymen — was carried down the wet gangway. And Washington paused for three days of ceremony that would lead to the creation of the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery.

There, the soldier was laid to rest on Nov. 11, 1921 — three years after World War I ended in 1918.

On Thursday, 100 years to the day, Arlington will commemorate the event with a public procession through the cemetery featuring honor guards, the U.S. Army Band and military flyovers.

(Video: Courtesy of National Archives)

President Biden will participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at the tomb and deliver remarks for the National Veterans Day Observance at the cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater, the White House said last week.

The catastrophe of the Great War, as it was then called, had claimed 116,000 Americans, through combat, disease and other causes, and killed millions more people around the world.

Men were obliterated, buried alive and gassed in the trenches. They were drowned at sea and burned to death in aircraft combat.

It had to be “the last war,” the British author H.G. Wells wrote in a 1914. “The War That Will End War.”

But over the decades the tomb would receive three more unknowns from three more wars — World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War — and become a somber national landmark guarded 24 hours a day.

(In 1998, the Vietnam unknown was removed and identified as Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie.)

In 1921, as the historic event unfolded, much of it was captured on three remarkable reels of silent film, now held at the National Archives. Most of it was shot or gathered by the U.S. Army Signal Corps, historians have said.

“I’ve watched this footage so many times, and it never ceases to fascinate me,” said Allison S. Finkelstein, Arlington Cemetery’s senior historian.

The massive funeral was attended by tens of thousands of mourners who filed through the Capitol to view the casket, which reportedly rested on the same bier that held Abraham Lincoln’s body in 1865

They jammed the avenues to watch the cortege pass, and swarmed into the cemetery to see the burial.

The day the Tomb of the Unknown was dedicated

The black and white film shows President Warren G. Harding, who led the mourners; Vice President, and soon-to-be president, Calvin Coolidge; and the ailing former president Woodrow Wilson, riding in a horse-drawn carriage driven by two African American men in formal wear.

Pershing, the Army chief of staff, was there throughout.

So was Lejeune, a Marine Corps legend who would have a famous Marine base named for him at the dawn of the next war.

Also present, but not recognizable on camera, was then-Army Maj. George S. Patton Jr., who would make a name for himself in World War II, and the gassed war hero Samuel Woodfill, who had been awarded the Medal of Honor.

(Video: Courtesy of National Archives)

The 70-year-old French marshal, Ferdinand Foch, who had led the victorious allied armies in Europe at war’s end, appears at the burial ceremony in the amphitheater.

He wore a black frock coat with gold buttons, a red sash, red trousers and a white-plumed chapeau, one newspaper reported.

When the controversial Treaty of Versailles was signed after the war, a dismayed Foch reportedly said: “This is not peace. It is an armistice for 20 years.”

The footage also paints a portrait of Washington 100 years ago.

Familiar landmarks appear as the cortege passes on Nov. 11 — the statue of the French general Rochambeau in Lafayette Square; the exterior of the Treasury Building, thronged with spectators, on 15th Street; the rectangular pillars and tall light standards marking the northwest entrance to the White House grounds.

The route along Pennsylvania Avenue is packed with bystanders — some running to get good viewing spots. A man pushes a baby carriage. Adults and children crowd windows. People wave handkerchiefs as Wilson passes. Others watch from rooftops. Flags fly from utility poles and businesses.

But Arlington Memorial Bridge over the Potomac had yet to be constructed. And two other crossings, the old Aqueduct Bridge in Georgetown, and the former Highway Bridge at 14th Street, had to be used by the cortege and the crowds to reach the cemetery.

The cortege went over the Aqueduct Bridge. Harding’s entourage used the Highway Bridge and got caught in a massive traffic jam. The traffic that day was so bad that it renewed demands for construction of what would become Memorial Bridge a decade later.

‘The soul of America’

The vast destruction of World War I had resulted in tens of thousands of missing or unidentified dead across the battlefields of Europe. A British war memorial in France bears the names of 72,000 soldiers missing from one battle that went on for five months.

There were more than 4,000 Americans missing in action, and at least 1,600 unidentified dead in cemeteries, according to the American Battle Monuments Commission. (The United States did not enter the 1914-1918 war until 1917.)

On. Nov. 11, 1920, Britain and France each buried a single unknown soldier to honor all their others. Britain buried its unknown in Westminster Abbey in London. France buried its unknown at the base of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

In December 1920, U.S. Rep. Hamilton Fish III, who had served in combat with the African American 369th Infantry Regiment during the war, proposed legislation for an American Tomb of the Unknown in Arlington Cemetery.

“The … purpose of this resolution is to bring home the body of an unknown American warrior who … represents no section, creed, or race [but] who typifies … the soul of America,” Fish told fellow members of Congress.

Finkelstein said: “The ultimate goal is really to help the American people mourn, to provide a single grave that’s representative of all of the unidentified … so that a family … can go to the tomb and consider that grave their own.”

(Video: Courtesy of National Archives)

“People are searching, they’re grasping for some way to honor these dead,” she said. “And choosing one … is both an effective way and also a very symbolic way.”

On Oct. 22, 1921, four unidentified bodies were exhumed from four big American cemeteries in France and taken to the elegant city hall of Châlons-en-Champagne, 100 miles east of Paris, according to a history of the American Graves Registration Service.

The next evening embalmers opened the four caskets and switched the bodies around, one of numerous efforts to prevent identification, historian Kyle J. Hatzinger has written.

On Oct. 24, Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, 23, who had twice been wounded in battle during the war, was shown into the room that held the four caskets. He had been picked to make the selection, and was handed a spray of white roses to mark his choice.

“I entered the door … and stood alone with the dead,” he said in an account years later. “For a moment I hesitated, and said a prayer … Each casket was draped with a beautiful American flag …. Three times I walked around the caskets; then something drew me to the coffin second to my right … It seemed as if God raised my hand and guided me as I placed the roses on the casket.”

World War I soldiers were exhumed and returned to the U.S.

The body was taken by train to Paris, and then to the port of Le Havre on the English Channel, where the Olympia was waiting. Huge crowds watched as the casket was conveyed through the streets. Women and children joined the march. School students threw flowers.

Younger’s white roses were said to still be in place.

(Video: Courtesy of National Archives)

A crowd on the hillside

After arriving at the Navy Yard in Washington the body was taken to the Capitol, where it rested in state under the dome the evening of Nov. 9. Dim film footage shows Harding placing a large wreath of flowers atop the casket. (The Associated Press said they were red roses.)

Pershing then places a flower arrangement — pink chrysanthemums, said the AP — beside the bier. He then steps back and salutes.

The body lay in the Capitol all day Nov. 10, while almost 100,000 mourners filed by to pay their respects.

The next day, the casket was carried out of the Capitol, down the central stairs on the east side of the complex and strapped onto a waiting horse-drawn caisson.

The procession to the cemetery began.

Pershing, wearing a dark mourning band on one sleeve, and Harding, wearing a top hat, walked side by side behind the caisson. Coolidge, who would become president two years later after Harding died of a heart attack, was a few paces behind.

Members of Congress and the Cabinet and Supreme Court justices reportedly followed.

Bands, soldiers, sailors, artillery units, machine gun outfits, a drum corps, cavalry, African American veterans, nurses in white uniforms with dark capes, the D.C. chapter of American War Mothers — an organization of mothers of service members — all marched past the cameras.

Once across the Potomac, the dignitaries met the casket at the cemetery’s colonnaded brick, granite and marble amphitheater. The building, said to seat 5,000, was filled. The approach to the stage was piled with ornate memorial wreaths and displays. “Old Pal,” said a display from the American Legion.

A loudspeaker system had been installed, as well as a telephone hookup to Madison Square Garden in New York and the Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, where people had gathered to listen, Finkelstein, the cemetery historian, said.

Four performers from the Metropolitan Opera in New York sang the hymn, “The Supreme Sacrifice.” One of the singers was the Welsh tenor Morgan Kingston, whose son, John, had reportedly suffered a severe facial wound in the war.

There were wounded White soldiers and Native American chiefs in the audience.

Dignitaries stepped forward to place medals on the casket. Foch, the French marshal, doffed his feathered hat and, according to the newspaper accounts, declared: “You are forever inscribed on the rolls of honor of the French armies.”

(Video: Courtesy of National Archives)

There was a two-minute period of silence. Harding gave the main address and said the Lord’s Prayer.

The casket was carried out of the amphitheater and around to the tomb, which was then a plain, marble structure set into the stairs of the amphitheater’s eastern plaza, a cemetery historical report says. (The present white marble sarcophagus atop the World War I unknown was completed in 1932. The crypts for the three others were placed between the sarcophagus and the amphitheater later.)

A huge crowd, reported to be about 100,000, waited on the hillside below.

In the distance across the Potomac, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol could be seen.

An artillery salute was fired, and the gun smoke drifted on the breeze.

Military officers surrounded the casket as it was lowered into the tomb. Hamilton Fish, the congressman who had pushed for the tomb, had placed a wreath, then stood in the background with his hat off.

Earlier, Harding had told the crowd in the amphitheater: “With all my heart, I wish we might say to the defenders who survive, to mothers who sorrow, to widows and children who mourn, that no such sacrifice shall be asked again …”

“As we return this poor clay to its mother soil … I can sense the prayers of our people, of all peoples, that this Armistice Day shall mark the beginning of a new and lasting era of peace on earth, good will among men.”

Editing by Monica Norton. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Video editing by Hadley Green. Animation by Jacqueline Lay. Copy editing by Jamie Zega. Design by Allison Mann and Talia Trackim.