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The Unknown Soldier

La Flamme du souvenir sur la tombe du Soldat inconnu à l'Arc de triomphe, 2010.

Since November 11, 1920, the Arc de triomphe houses the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Discover the great stages of its history, symbol of victory and sacrifice.

World War I

A deadly war

Following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, the First World War involved a large number of countries. It was supposed to be short, but it lasted four years and caused more than 18 million deaths.

On the French side, the war took the lives of nearly one million four hundred thousand men. As soon as the conflict ended, ossuaries and large military necropolises were hastily opened and opinion was divided on where the bodies should be buried.

Should these soldiers be buried in the place where they fell alongside their brothers in arms? Should they be returned to their families?

The debate caused great fervour in the country, especially among the survivors. The list of missing persons continued to grow...

Drapeau français flottant sous l'Arc de triomphe de l'Étoile, 1998.

Pascal Lemaître / Centre des monuments nationaux

The Victory Parade

The Cenotaph

On July 14, 1919, the day after the signing of the Versailles Treaty, Georges Clemenceau organised the Victory Parade. The man known as the "Father of Victory " chose the Arc de triomphe as the setting for the parade.

To create the cenotaph  several artists were called on.

The sculptor André Sartorio and the painters André Marre, Louis Süe and Gustave Louis Jaulmes realised in a few days this immense tomb. Eighteen meters high, the gilded sides of the cenotaph show winged victories and the inscription: "To those who died for the homeland".

The tribute of the French

The night before the parade, mourning French people gathered under the Arc de triomphe. They came to lay flowers and salute the memory of their sons, brothers and companions who had fallen in combat. A sad victory.

On the morning of July 14, 1919, Clemenceau announced his wish to have the troops march under the Arc de triomphe. The thirty-ton cenotaph was moved to the Champs-Élysées. A thousand wounded veterans opened the procession, followed by field marshals and inter-allied army staff.

Cenotaph to the fallen, 1918.
Tomb erected in memory of a dead person and which does not contain a body.

Agence Rol / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Airmen on foot...

The heavy protocol put in place to organise the Victory Parade foresaw that the airmen would not board their aircraft but march on foot.

Anger rose among some of them who saw it as provocation. They organised their response at the bar The Escadrille (Fouquet's).

A few days later, on August 7, 1919, at 7:20 a.m., Charles Godefroy took off in his Nieuport 11 biplane from the Villacoublay airfield.

He bypassed the Arc de triomphe twice, then flew under the archway. At the same time, a streetcar crossed the square, and it is said that the passengers threw themselves to the ground in panic.

The aviator Charles Godefroy under the Arc de Triomphe, 1919
Charles Godefroy flying under the Arc de Triomphe, 7 August 1919.

Reproduction Thomas Thibaut / Centre des monuments nationaux

The idea of the Unknown Soldier

The Panthéon as a haven

On November 26, 1916, when fighting was far from over, Francis Simon raised the idea of a French tribute to the unknown soldiers. At the Rennes cemetery, his speech took on a particular relevance:

Why shouldn't France open the doors of the Panthéon to one of these ignored combatants who died bravely for the country? This burial [...] where so many innovations and geniuses rest, would be like a symbol, and, moreover, a tribute to the entire French army! 

The day after the Armistice of 1918, Maurice Maunoury (the deputy of the Eure-et-Loir and a wounded veteran) borrowwed this idea in a law proposal. Newspapers echoed it with a definite enthusiasm. The debate started in both the country and in the Chamber of Deputies.

What will be the place of remembrance for all these bereaved families? Should an unknown soldier be buried at the Panthéon?

Panthéon seen from the town hall of the fifth arrondissement.
Panthéon seen from the town hall of the fifth arrondissement.

Giles Codina / Centre des monuments nationaux

An anonymous hero

Debates continued throughout the year 1920. But by summer, no decision had been made. While the British decided to bury an unknown soldier at Westminster Abbey on November 11, French deputies accelerated the discussions.

At the same time, the government planned to bury Gambetta's heart at the Panthéon on November 11, 1920. With this national tribute to Léon Gambetta, the government wished to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Republic but also to repair the painful memory of the defeat of 1870 .

The debate now focused on the place of burial. The Panthéon was gradually discarded by a part of the political class. The ecclesiastical origin of the monument was evoked and a secular temple was preferred.

In addition to this argument, the anonymity of the soldier also played a part. It is not a question here of honoring a great man. The Unknown Soldier is neither a great writer, nor a scientist, nor even a politician. He is much greater and should be laid to rest in an exceptional place reserved for him because the sacrifice he represents has no comparison. Through him, the memory of millions of men will be commemorated.

On November 8, 1920, the Chamber of Deputies voted unanimously for the burial of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de triomphe.

The chapelle ardente in Verdun of the 8 unknown soldiers, 10 November 1920.
The chapelle ardente in Verdun of the 8 unknown soldiers, 10 November 1920.

Agence Rol / Bibliothèque nationale de France

A chosen soldier

On November 9, 1920, nine coffins were exhumed. They came from the nine sites most affected by the conflicts in the areas of Flanders, Artois, the Somme, the Chemin des Dames, Champagne, and Verdun . Doubts remained about the nationality of one of the bodies, so it was decided to remove it. The eight remaining coffins were placed in the citadel of Verdun.

André Maginot, a wounded veteran, presided over the ceremony to select the soldier. He gave Auguste Thin, a young corporal, a bouquet of flowers to lay on the chosen soldier. The young Auguste Thin chose the sixth soldier.

The body of the Unknown Soldier immediately set off for Paris on a special train. During the night, the coffin was placed in a chapelle ardente located at Place Denfert-Rochereau.

Private Auguste Thin, 7 November 1920.
He has just pointed to the coffin of the unknown soldier in front of M. Maginot.

Meurisse Press Agency / Bibliothèque nationale de France

A national tribute

November 11, 1920

On November 11, 1920, hundreds of thousands of people followed the funeral procession in silence and tears. A fictitious family marches behind the coffin of the Unknown Soldier, which was covered with the tricolor flag.

The convoy stops at the Panthéon before going to the Arc de triomphe. The heart of Gambetta and the body of the Unknown Soldier were placed under the vault of the monument.

Later in the day, Gambetta's heart was moved to the Panthéon. The Unknown Soldier was placed in the Salle des Palmes inside the Arc de triomphe.

In the evening, one hundred and fifty spotlights will illuminate the Arc de triomphe.

Burial of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe, 28th January 1921.
Burial of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe, 28th January 1921.

Agence Rol / Bibliothèque nationale de France

The final burial

The tomb of the Unknown Soldier was not ready when he arrived on November 11, 1920. His body was kept in vigil day and night inside the Arc de triomphe until his final burial on January 28, 1921.

On this occasion, the entire government was present, as well as President Millerand and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

Louis Barthou took the floor. The Minister of War had also just lost his only son on the battlefield. As the coffin was placed in the vault, the minister cried out in tears:

Long live France!

The coffin of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de triomphe, 28 January 1921.
The coffin of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de triomphe, 28 January 1921.

Agence Rol / Bibliothèque nationale de France

The birth of the Flame

Two years after the burial of the Unknown Soldier, journalist and poet Gabriel Boissy launched the idea of the Flame of Remembrance, which immediately received an enthusiastic approval of public opinion.

With the support of André Maginot, who became Minister of War, the project moved forward rapidly.

The ironworker Edgar Brandt and the architect Henri Favier were called in to create the fire hydrant. They created a circular shield with cannon mouth opening from which the flame emerges. Twenty-five swords radiate in the shape of a star shape around the flame.

The flame was lit for the first time on November 11, 1923 by Maginot, surrounded by a multitude of veterans; it has never been extinguished since.

A daily service is paid to the Great Death : every evening, at 6:30 pm, the flame is rekindled by the association Flame under the Arc de triomphe, which represents hundreds of veterans' associations in France.

Arc de triomphe, Guardian of the Flame, 1942
Arc de triomphe de l'Étoile, the keeper of the Flame, June 1942

Séeberger Frères / Centre des monuments nationaux

To go further

A look back at the day of January 28, 1921

Dive into this very special historic day of January 28, 1921 by discovering numerous archive images, retracing the key moments of the burial of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de triomphe:

 

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