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Re-enactors dressed as American and French World War I soldiers join the U.S. European Command Honor Guard during a ceremonial vigil on the 100th anniversary of the selection for the U.S. Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Oct. 23, 2021 in Chalons-en-Champagne, France.
Re-enactors dressed as American and French World War I soldiers join the U.S. European Command Honor Guard during a ceremonial vigil on the 100th anniversary of the selection for the U.S. Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Oct. 23, 2021 in Chalons-en-Champagne, France. (Erik Slavin/Stars and Stripes)

CHALONS-EN-CHAMPAGNE, France — One hundred years ago, an Army sergeant looked over four caskets draped in American flags inside the city hall here and chose the U.S. soldier who would embody the sacrifice of everything, even his name, to a cause greater than himself.

French and American soldiers stood guard that night, never leaving the Unknown Soldier’s side.

On Saturday and Sunday, hundreds gathered for a vigil, a military parade and other ceremonies dedicated to that soldier and the many others he represents.

The U.S. European Command Honor Guard and the French Honor Guard march as members of the 21st Theater Sustainment Command salute in Chalons-en-Champagne, France, Oct. 24, 2021. The soldiers were participating in ceremonies to remember the selection of the U.S. Unknown Soldier in this city 100 years ago.
The U.S. European Command Honor Guard and the French Honor Guard march as members of the 21st Theater Sustainment Command salute in Chalons-en-Champagne, France, Oct. 24, 2021. The soldiers were participating in ceremonies to remember the selection of the U.S. Unknown Soldier in this city 100 years ago. (Erik Slavin/Stars and Stripes)

The attendees included current and former guards of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Gold Star mothers, veterans, military spouses and onlookers who, simply by remembering, shared in keeping the legacy of the Unknown Soldier’s selection alive.

“It’s a part of our history,” said Benoist Apparu, mayor of this city of about 45,000 people. “We need to celebrate this for the younger generation, so that they do not forget what happened here.”

France and Great Britain each dedicated tombs to their unknown World War I dead on Nov. 11, 1920. The U.S. Congress approved a memorial to be placed in Arlington National Cemetery the following year.

French World War I re-enactors stand outside the Cathedral Saint Etienne in Chalons-de-Champagne, France, Oct. 24, 2021. The city held events honoring the selection 100 years ago of the U.S. Unknown Soldier.
French World War I re-enactors stand outside the Cathedral Saint Etienne in Chalons-de-Champagne, France, Oct. 24, 2021. The city held events honoring the selection 100 years ago of the U.S. Unknown Soldier. (Erik Slavin/Stars and Stripes)

On Oct. 23, 1921, caskets carrying the remains of unidentified U.S. soldiers from four different war cemeteries in France arrived in the city, which was then known as Chalons-sur-Marne.

The selection was set to be made at 11 a.m. the next morning by an American officer, until Maj. Gen. Harry Rogers went off-script, according to an account from the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Rogers decided that a soldier who possibly served in the same trenches should make the choice.

French soldiers unload a casket containing a candidate for the U.S. Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at city hall in Chalons-sur-Marne, France, in October 1921. On Sunday, hundreds gathered at the same site in what is now Chalons-en-Champagne for the 100th anniversary of the selection.
French soldiers unload a casket containing a candidate for the U.S. Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at city hall in Chalons-sur-Marne, France, in October 1921. On Sunday, hundreds gathered at the same site in what is now Chalons-en-Champagne for the 100th anniversary of the selection. (Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier)

Sgt. Edward F. Younger of the Army of Occupation on the Rhine had shown up for duty as a pallbearer that day.

It fell to him to choose. Younger was nonchalant about it in interviews shortly afterward. But in a 1936 syndicated newspaper column, he described feeling overwhelmed.

“Perhaps one of them had fought with me, had befriended me, had possibly shielded me from a bullet that might have put me in his place,” he wrote. “Who would even know?”

Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier members Lonny LeGrand, Dave Hathaway, George March and James Livingston fold the American flag on Oct. 24, 2021, following the end of ceremonies remembering the selection of the U.S. Unknown Soldier 100 years ago in Chalons-en-Champagne, France.
Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier members Lonny LeGrand, Dave Hathaway, George March and James Livingston fold the American flag on Oct. 24, 2021, following the end of ceremonies remembering the selection of the U.S. Unknown Soldier 100 years ago in Chalons-en-Champagne, France. (Erik Slavin/Stars and Stripes)

Unknown soldiers would later be chosen to rest at Arlington National Cemetery to symbolize those who died in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

The tomb at Arlington also represents “every mother whose son has not come back and is unknown,” said Pam Stemple, second vice president of American Gold Star Mothers.

Scientific advances have meant that more unknown service members from past wars have been subsequently identified.

A horse-drawn carriage moves a casket draped in an American flag through the city of Chalons-en-Champagne, France,  on Oct. 24, 2021. The ceremony recreated the journey of the U.S. Unknown Soldier from the city exactly 100 years ago.
A horse-drawn carriage moves a casket draped in an American flag through the city of Chalons-en-Champagne, France, on Oct. 24, 2021. The ceremony recreated the journey of the U.S. Unknown Soldier from the city exactly 100 years ago. (Erik Slavin/Stars and Stripes)

Modern logistics have also contributed to preventing those killed in recent wars from being unknown.

Stemple’s son, Army Ranger Sgt. 1st Class Tomas Avey, died in Afghanistan in 2015. She reflected on what mothers who never got their children back endured.

“We want to honor that, and that’s why it’s so important for us to go and see this,” Stemple said.

Wreaths and flowers left by French and American guests are placed at  a monument to World War I service members who died for France at the Cathedral Saint Etienne in Chalons-de-Champagne, France, Oct. 24, 2021. The ceremony followed events honoring the selection 100 years ago of the U.S. Unknown Soldier in the city.
Wreaths and flowers left by French and American guests are placed at a monument to World War I service members who died for France at the Cathedral Saint Etienne in Chalons-de-Champagne, France, Oct. 24, 2021. The ceremony followed events honoring the selection 100 years ago of the U.S. Unknown Soldier in the city. (Erik Slavin/Stars and Stripes)

For Stemple and about 40 others, the stop in Chalons-en-Champagne is part of a pilgrimage that has included cemeteries and monuments throughout France.

There have been hard moments, and tears flowed for some during taps on Sunday. But the pilgrimage participants say this has also been a celebration. And for some, it’s added new color and depth to a mission of perpetuating the memory of the Unknown Soldier.

Gavin McIlvenna, the society’s president, was first relief commander as a tomb guard at Arlington in 1997 and 1998.

World World War I re-enactors stand at attention as a horse-drawn carriage moves a casket draped in an American flag in Chalons-en-Champagne, France,  on Oct. 24, 2021. The ceremony recreated the journey of the U.S. Unknown Soldier from the city exactly 100 years ago.
World World War I re-enactors stand at attention as a horse-drawn carriage moves a casket draped in an American flag in Chalons-en-Champagne, France, on Oct. 24, 2021. The ceremony recreated the journey of the U.S. Unknown Soldier from the city exactly 100 years ago. (Erik Slavin/Stars and Stripes)

He spent some nights on duty thinking about where the Unknown Soldier might have come from, and what it would have been like for him to travel on trains and a ship over the ocean to France.

For McIlvenna, the opportunity to follow the path of the man he guarded is nearly beyond description.

“That’s the room Sgt. Younger made his selection,” McIlvenna said while standing on the steps of city hall, as scores of people paid their respects at the vigil. “I don’t know how many times I can say this is overwhelming. But it is.”

Jo Ann Maitland, national president of American Gold Star Mothers, pays her respects at a monument to World War I service members who died for France at the Cathedral Saint Etienne in Chalons-de-Champagne, France, Oct. 24, 2021. Maitland and a pilgrimage of about 40 others from America attended ceremonies honoring the selection 100 years ago of the U.S. Unknown Soldier.
Jo Ann Maitland, national president of American Gold Star Mothers, pays her respects at a monument to World War I service members who died for France at the Cathedral Saint Etienne in Chalons-de-Champagne, France, Oct. 24, 2021. Maitland and a pilgrimage of about 40 others from America attended ceremonies honoring the selection 100 years ago of the U.S. Unknown Soldier. (Erik Slavin/Stars and Stripes)
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