The unknown soldier buried under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, whose grave is at the center of French Remembrance Day ceremonies on November 11, was chosen from the remains of eight soldiers, gathered from the main battlefields of the First World War.
A soldier named Auguste Thin, then 21 years old, made the choice on November 10, 1920, in Verdun, by placing a wreath of flowers on one of the eight coffins lined up in front of him.
He chooses the sixth coffin lined up in front of him because his regiment bears the number 132 (he adds the numbers) and is part of the Sixth Army Corps.
The coffin was transferred by train to a chapel in the Arc de Triomphe for the 1920 Armistice ceremony and then buried in a tomb on January 28, 1921, with an eternal flame lit above.
Small military ceremonies are still held at the site every evening when the flag is lowered.
Thin, that was a private second classwas a last-minute replacement for the Choice Ceremony.
The officers decided that a private second class – the lowest rank in the army – of merit, who had served in the war, should make the choice.
The first choice was a rookie from Martinique but hours before the ceremony he was diagnosed with typhoid and Thin was chosen in his place.
After the chosen remains were sent to Paris for burial on January 28, 1920, ceremonies commemorating the Armistice were held by the French President every year, except during the years of German occupation.
British and French perspectives on the war
In 1925, British King George V visited Paris and laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris (see photo).
France and Britain have similar but slightly divergent historical perspectives on the horror of the First World War.
In Great Britain it is the horrors of the battles of 1916 which dominate, in particular the battle of the Somme where the British army lost 20,000 men in one day.
Losses in 1916 were proportionately heavier in the middle classes, which provided most of the front-line volunteer officers.
One in four officers were killed, compared to one in 10 other ranks.
In France, it was in 1914 and in the first months of the war that one day in August 27,000 soldiers lost their lives, an event that imprinted the horror of war on the collective consciousness.
The number of French casualties on the battlefield in August and September 1914 is estimated at 400,000.
The country mobilized early and many of the dead and maimed in the early months of the war were called farm boys or rural town apprentices, meaning the dreaded image of the postman on a bicycle bringing bad news quickly spread to the most remote corners. of the country from the start of the war.
Hundreds of thousands of bodies lost
In both countries, the nature of warfare, where artillery shells caused 70% of the dead and missing, meant that a high proportion of bodies were never found or were never recovered for identification and burial.
France and Great Britain had identity disc systems, (military dog tag) since the start of the war, but shrapnel and artillery blasts meant that these were sometimes blown away, which meant that dead soldiers could not be identified unless other soldiers in their units weren’t there when their bodies were recovered.
When the final count was made, the French army had lost 1,400,000 soldiers, but only 960,000 were found buried.
The idea of a national memorial for the dead emerged early in France and Britain, in 1916 – the British have their own Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Westminster Abbey.
After the election ceremony, the coffins of the other seven French unknowns remained in place under honor guard for the night and were buried with full military honors under a large wooden cross in the nearby Faubourg Pavé national cemetery.
It houses the graves of 5,722 soldiers, most of whom were killed during the battles of Verdun.
Thin, who had been raised as a ward of the nationwas working as a grocer in Cherbourg when he enlisted in the army aged 19 in January 1918.
After being demobilized from the army, he returned to civilian life, married in 1920, and died in 1982, having been decorated just before his death with the Legion of Honor at the Arc de la Triomphe by the President François Mitterrand.
A 3D virtual reality reconstruction of the ceremony for choosing the remains has been installed at the Verdun military museum.
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