‘Known But To God’ – How the World Commemorates its Unknown Soldiers

Canadian soldiers guard Ottawa's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The monument was the scene of a fatal shooting on Wednesday that shocked the country.

Canadian soldiers stand guard over Ottawa’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Last Wednesday, the monument was the scene of a fatal shooting that shocked the entire country.

“At least 45 other nations have dedicated shrines to unknown soldiers. Here are some of the more interesting ones.”

ALL OF CANADA WILL PAUSE TOMORROW as Nathan Cirillo of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Regiment of Canada is laid to rest.

The 25-year-old reservist was on guard at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on Wednesday morning when he was shot in the back by a gunman who then stormed Canada’s Parliament. The killer, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, was felled amid a volley of gunfire in the halls of the legislature just minutes later (video here).

Cirillo, who will be buried with full-military honours in his hometown of Hamilton, Ontario on Tuesday, has been elevated to the status of a national hero in the wake of the tragedy. His likeness and life story have dominated the Canadian airwaves and newspapers all week. Ironically, the now-famous infantryman was guarding Canada’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier when he was gunned down.

While the country’s war memorial to the nameless fallen was erected following the 1918 Armistice, the crypt itself, which is located at the foot of the monument, wasn’t consecrated until 2000. It contains the exhumed remains of an unidentified soldier killed in 1917 at Vimy Ridge, a battle that’s commonly regarded in Canada as a formative nation-building event.

Only recently have soldiers stood sentry at the tomb. The tradition began following a 2006 incident in which three teens were filmed urinating on the edifice.

Of course Canada isn’t the only country that has a memorial to its unknown soldiers. At least 45 other nations have dedicated similar shrines. Here are some of the more interesting ones:

World War One

The casket of Britain's so-called Unknown Warrior lies in state at London's Westminster Abbey, Nov. 11, 1920.

The coffin of Britain’s so-called “Unknown Warrior” lies in state at London’s Westminster Abbey, Nov. 11, 1920.

Many of such tombs sprung up across Europe following World War One. Britain and France led the way in 1920 with the simultaneous interment of bodies in Paris and London. As part of the joint ceremonies, an unidentified Tommy was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey and an unknown French trooper was placed within the Arc de Triomphe. Both services occurred on Nov. 11. The repatriation of Britain’s “Unknown Warrior” was a national sensation at the time. Following a solemn overland journey from the battlefield at Arras to the English Channel, the casket was brought ashore at Dover and carried by rail to London’s Victoria Station. Small monuments were dedicated to the anonymous soldier at various points along the funeral route. Even the railway car in which the body travelled has been preserved. The remains were placed in the floor of Westminster with earth brought over from Flanders.

Other countries followed suit in subsequent years. Romania memorialized the remains of an unidentified infantryman within a monument in Bucharest in 1923. Prague built a marker honouring the sacrifices of 167 members of Imperial Russia’s Czech Legion that died at the 1917 Battle of Zborov, most of which were never recovered. Portugal’s often forgotten contribution to the Allies in the Great War is commemorated with a tomb containing the remains of a nameless soldier in the famous monastery at Batalha. Serbia’s lost war-dead were commemorated in Belgrade in 1938 with the Monument to the Unknown Hero. Turkey consecrated the Çanakkale Martyrs’ Memorial in 1944 to recognize the hundreds of soldiers who died or went missing during the failed Anglo-ANZAC assault on Gallipoli.

An honour guard stands watch over the Polish unknown soldier memorial. (Image source: WikiCommons)

An honour guard stands watch over the Polish unknown soldier memorial. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Re-Writing History

It wasn’t just the First World War, but the follow-on 1918-20 war against the Bolsheviks that the Poles saw fit to commemorate in Warsaw’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The shrine is located in the capital’s historic Saxon Palace. It contains the ashes of one nameless combatant along with the soil from 14 different Polish battlefields. Much of the site was destroyed by German troops in 1944. Although reconstructed the following year, the country’s post-war communist authorities censored any reference on the restored edifice to the earlier conflict between Poland and the Soviet Union. Similarly, a tomb to the unknown soldiers of Estonia’s anti-Russian 1918 war of independence was also wiped clean on orders of Moscow. The Defence Forces Cemetery in Tallinn was taken over by the Soviets during World War Two and used to inter the remains of Red Army troops. During the 1990s, Russia and Estonia jointly rededicated a tomb to the unknown soldiers of both countries.

Russia's unknown soldier monument contains the remains of soldiers killed halting the German advance on Moscow in 1941.

Russia’s unknown soldier monument contains the bodies of soldiers killed halting the German advance on Moscow in 1941.

Heroes of the Soviet Union

Russia’s own Tomb of the Unknown Soldier resides inside the Kremlin’s Walls. The grave contains what’s left of several unidentified men who perished repelling the Nazi advance on the Soviet capital. The bodies were originally laid to rest on the spot of the Germany’s deepest penetration into the U.S.S.R. – 41 km to the west at Zelenograd. On the 25th anniversary of Hitler’s invasion, the remains were exhumed and re-buried in Moscow. A walkway to the memorial near Red Square is lined with stones taken from 40 different Soviet cities that became battlefields during the war. An honour guard watches over the site to this day.

Unidentified remains of soldiers from all of America's 20th Century wars lie within the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.

Unidentified remains of soldiers from all of America’s major 20th Century wars lie within the “Tomb of the Unknowns” at Arlington National Cemetery.

America’s Unknown

America established its famous Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery just outside Washington D.C. in 1922. An unidentified doughboy recovered from France was the first to be interred beneath the large marble monument, which bears the inscription: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God”. The nameless trooper was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, as well as a British Victoria Cross at the time of his reburial. In 1953, the remains of a pair of World War Two servicemen — one from the Pacific, the other from the European theatre — were exhumed from their overseas war graves and transported to Arlington where they were also laid to rest. The body of a Korean War GI was added in 1958, while an unidentified KIA from the Vietnam War was buried there in 1984. This last serviceman was later identified using DNA as 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie of St. Louis Missouri. The 24-year-old pilot was shot down over An Loc, South Vietnam on May 11, 1972. The American Tomb of the Unknowns is guarded 24/7 by Sentinels of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment.

Just steps away from the famous monument is a lesser-known memorial to unknown soldiers from the Civil War. The cenotaph dates back to 1865. That’s when Union officials set aside land on the seized Arlington, Virginia estate of Robert E. Lee for the bodies of unburied soldiers that still littered the fields surrounding the U.S. capital. In all, more than 2,100 skeletons were collected (both Union and Confederate) and carefully placed within in a 20-foot wide brick-lined pit. The entire chamber was sealed and a large stone marker was placed above it. Another similar memorial sits in Philadelphia’s Washington Square. It’s dedicated to forgotten Revolutionary War dead. Likewise, a tomb for an anonymous Confederate soldier was consecrated in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1981. The unknown rebel was killed near Vicksburg.

A statue of a mother cradling her dead son at Berlin's Neue Wache memorial. (Image source: WikiCommons)

A statue of a mother cradling her dead son at Berlin’s Neue Wache memorial. (Image source: WikiCommons)

‘Victims of Fascism’

Germany’s unknown soldier tomb is located in the Prussian-era Neue Wache in eastern Berlin. It contains the remains of an anonymous concentration camp victim in addition to a lost German infantryman. The site was dedicated in 1969 by communist authorities as a tribute to the victims of fascism.

Different Ways to Honour the Dead

Not all countries like the idea of memorializing their unnamed casualties. For years after the First World War, Bulgaria refused to complete a proposed lost soldiers’ monument in Sofia. Many felt that not identifying the fallen by name was somehow disrespectful. Others complained that the planned design, which featured a statue of a sitting lion, suggested defeat – the animal should have been standing up, detractors argued. It took until 1981 before the edifice was finally completed.

Namibia's Heroes Acre memorial is partially empty and is already falling apart. Image courtesy the Namibia tourism board.

Namibia’s Heroes Acre memorial, completed in 2002, is partially empty and is already falling apart. Image courtesy the Namibia tourism board.

Namibia’s monument, known as Heroes Acre, includes tombs for up to 174 fallen heroes from the country’s 24-year independence war, most of which are actually empty. The site, which also contains a parade ground and seating for 5,000 spectators, opened in 2002. The entire park was built by North Korean contractors for $60 million. It’s reportedly already crumbling. Critics have called the entire installation “monstrous”, [1] while others complained upon its dedication that the statue of the unknown soldier looks suspiciously like Sam Nujoma, the president of the country at the time of its construction.

Chile, Ukraine and Indonesia all have tombs dedicated to unknown sailors.

Some memorials are dedicated to the enemy’s nameless dead. Limestone College in Gaffney, South Carolina is the site of a monument to three British redcoats slain in 1781 at the Battle of Cowpens. A similar marker to the British and Canadian fallen that were left on American soil during the War of 1812 was inaugurated in 2013 at Sackets Harbor, New York.

Similarly, a monument located near Tokyo that houses the remains of more than 260 unidentified Japanese troops, is actually for all of the unknown combatants of World War Two no matter what their country of origin. It’s estimated that the bodies of more than 2.6 million dead were never recovered from the conflict’s many battlefields. In 1953, Japan chose to honour them all wherever they may lie.

2 comments for “‘Known But To God’ – How the World Commemorates its Unknown Soldiers

  1. Angel
    7 November, 2014 at 4:32 am

    In the center of Madrid (Spain) you can find a Memorial dedicated to all those who died for Spain. It is located only few meters far from El Prado Museum.
    The memorial was erected on 1840 dedicated initially to the people of Madrid who rebelled against the french soldiers in 2th May 1808. The monument has a burning flame in front of a grave containing the ashes of those killed by the french troops. It was erected in the same place where those events took place.

    His majesty teh King Juan Carlos I decided in 1985 to dedicate it to all the spanish who ever died for Spain.

    • admin
      7 November, 2014 at 6:58 am

      Thanks for adding that.

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