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What became of the other unknown soldiers that were considered for selection of a French 'Soldat Inconnu' in 1920?

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As we commemorate the onset of the Battle of Verdun (21 February – 18 December 1916), one of the most savagely fought battles of the First World War, we will remember that a French Unknown Soldier was symbolically chosen in the town of Verdun to act as a focal point to pay homage to the sacrifice by so many soldiers "Mort pour la France". The idea was first put forward in 1916 and legislation was passed by the French Parliament in 1920 that the remains of a 'Soldat Inconnu' or unknown soldier killed during the Great War would be buried under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The Western Front was divided into nine areas: Flanders, Artois, Somme, Marne, the Chemin des Dames, Champagne, Verdun, Lorraine and Alsace. From each area, one soldier whose identity could not be established was exhumed. Only eight coffins arrived on 9 November 1920 at the underground Citadel of Verdun as one of the remains could potentially be identified. The following day at 3 p.m., Private Auguste Thien of the 123e Régiment d'Infantrie laid on casket number six a bunch of flowers and chose the French Unknown Soldier among the eight caskets draped with a French flag. Why did he choose the sixth? It was because his regiment's number (1+2+3) added up to six. On 11 November 1920, the body was solemnly transported to Paris to rest in the chapel on the first floor of the Arc de Triomphe. Simultaneously, the British Unknown Warrior was buried in Westminster Abbey, London. The French Unknown Soldier was laid in his permanent place at the base of the Arc on 28 January 1921. André Maginot (1877–1932), Minister for War, lit for the first time the Flame of Remembrance on 11 November 1923.

But what happened to the seven remaining unknown soldiers? The city of Verdun became responsible for the burial of the bodies. The city council immediately decided to create in the war cemetery of Faubourg-Pavé, one of the nineteen national necropolises of the Battle of Verdun, the 'Section of the Seven Unknowns' (Carré des sept Inconnus). Seven pits were dug around a large cross – three pits at the front, two behind and one on each side of the monument. As the French Unknown Soldier's journey from Verdun to Paris begun on 10 November 1920, the seven coffins remained until the next day in the Citadel of Verdun. Starting at 9 a.m., each coffin borne on a horse-drawn gun carriage left the fortress, escorted by soldiers of the garrison commanded by General Boichut (1864–1941), military, civil and religious authorities, veterans of the Great War and Franco-Prussian War of 1870, firefighters, railway workers as well as students and teachers. The procession moved slowly to the cemetery at the rhythm of several funeral marches, crossing the city of Verdun decorated with French flags. The seven unknown soldiers were interred after receiving full military honours. Today, 5,516 soldiers are buried at the Necropolis of the Faubourg-Pavé, of which 4,884 are from the First World War. Each corner of the 'Carré des sept Inconnus' is surmounted by a helmet representing symbols of the French army: artillery, light-infantry, colonial and infantry. The words "Soldat français inconnu mort pour la France" are inscribed on each grave. Since 2014, a Remembrance Flame is permanently lit on the site. Other unknown French soldiers are buried in the ossuary under the lantern tower at Notre Dame de Lorette near Arras.

On this day, 21 February 2022, we commemorate the 106th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Verdun for control of the strategically located town of Verdun-sur-Meuse in Alsace-Lorraine, in northern France. Originally scheduled to start on 12 February the offensive was postponed to 21 February on account of poor weather, preceded by a 21-hour preliminary bombardment. A total of 2,390,000 soldiers were mobilized from both sides. On 18 December 1916, the battle left an estimated 750,000 soldiers dead, wounded or missing in the longest single battle in war history, lasting a total of 300 days. No tactical or strategic advantage had been gained by either side; however, the enemy "did not pass", as General Robert Nivelle (1856–1924) urged his men "You shall not let them pass" on 23 June 1916. Losses are larger than it appears from official numbers. The mutilated, the psychiatric patients, the blinded, the crippled, the victims of gas, and all the others who in fact did survive the battle should be included as they were not able to function in society ever again. We will remember them.

Christophe Kervégant-Tanguy

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