Plot "A", Row 42, Grave 58
February 25, 2016


My Unknown
In July 1918 a young man who had his whole life in front of him drew his last breath. No one knows how he died or exactly when, only that it was probably sometime during the battles that raged around Berzy-le-Sec, France because that is where his body was eventually found.
How he was buried, or by whom is also unknown. Many soldiers that fell in the trenches or No Man's Land of WWI lay in foxholes or shell craters until an exploding shell covered them forever. Most never had a prayer said over their body, they simply ceased to exist. At home a wife or mother, father, sister or brother would receive a telegram letting them know that their loved one was missing in action. At some later date they would be notified that he had been declared officially dead.
People grieve for awhile but life goes on. As the years pass, memories fade. Parents die and sisters and brothers grow up and raise families of their own. Eventually siblings die and with them almost certainly all thought of that dead soldier. It will be as if he never existed.
I had a great uncle that died during WWI. His name was Thomas Crosby. He caught the Spanish Influenza while serving at the Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland and died on Wednesday October 9, 1918. His family grieved for him like the family of that young man who died in France must have grieved. Like the relatives of the young man that fell in France my great uncle's relatives also moved on with their lives. Today, except on the rarest of occasions the name Thomas Crosby is never spoken. He is all but forgotten. However, at least he has a marked grave. I am sure that there are times when some random visitor to the cemetery where he is buried will pass his grave, pause for a minute, and read his name. For the briefest of times, his memory lives.
The man who fell in France back in 1918 had nothing because he lay in an unmarked grave. That grave, on the very edge of a small wood would be undisturbed for half a century. Years after his death the D1 highway was built approximately 850 feet west of his grave. Despite the construction activity so close by his grave was not discovered. Later a rail line connecting Paris and Soissons was built to the east of the of the D1 and within 150 feet of his grave but again fate determined he would remain unfound. It was in early March 1968 while Pierre Lecomte, a local laborer, was digging a small drainage ditch behind the house of Berzy-Le-Sec's mayor, Mr. Maillard, that this Unknown's battlefield grave was finally discovered. In a shovel full of dirt something caught his eye, a brass button; a brass button with a US insignia on it. When he uncovered bones he stopped digging and brought the mayor to the site. He contacted Arthur Darois who at the time was the Superintendent of the American Battle Monuments Cemetery in Aisne-Marne. Mr. Darois in turn contacted the US Army Mortuary, Identification Division in Frankfurt, Germany.
On Wednesday March 6, 1968 this Unknown's grave was painstakingly excavated. When war dead are found every shred of evidence is important because it may be the key to unlock the identity of the fallen. Tiny clues can lead to identification. This man's skeleton was largely intact missing only the small bones of his fingers and toes. None of the bones were broken. From this we can determine he was not blown up. He might have been killed by a nearby shell detonation but his body remained intact and this tells us someone probably either dug a grave for him or he was placed in a shell hole for burial. There he lay for almost exactly 50 years.
Unfortunately no ID tags were found in the grave so identification is much more difficult, especially after a body has been in the ground this long. A forensic anthropologist determined that this man was Caucasian based on the size and shape of his skull. Leg bones allow a skilled anthropologist to determine height and build with a high degree of accuracy, this Unknown stood 5' 7-1/4" tall and had a medium build.
Units from both the US Army and Marine Corp fought in this area. We know this Unknown belonged to an Army unit because a US Army Private First Class (PFC) chevron was found in the grave along with brass buttons which were part of the standard US Army field uniform. The anthropologist who examined the remains estimated this man to be between 18 and 18-1/2 years old which correlates well with a PFC.
Soldiers engaged in trench warfare typically don't carry around a lot of gear which isn't needed for fighting. When this Unknown was found there were only a few items buried with him, some we would expect but there were several surprises, both in what was buried with him and what wasn't.
On July 6, 1916 US Army regulations were changed and from that point on all soldiers were issued two identification tags: one to stay with the body and the other to go to the person in charge of the burial for record-keeping purposes. In 1918, the army adopted and allotted the serial number system, and name and serial numbers were ordered stamped on the identification tags. No ID tag was found in this Unknown's grave although it certainly would have been looked for. In the grave they found a number of bits of woolen uniform. The body had not been wrapped in any sort of shroud and certainly was not in a casket so in the decades after his death his uniform just disintegrated. A hard rubber comb stamped with the words "Goodyear 1851" was found as was a gas canister and parts of a gas mask. In the summer of 1918 gas attacks were a constant threat on the Western Front and our Unknown would not have traveled far with his gas mask. His boots were also found in the grave. They were standard WWI military issue hobnail boots. His brass belt buckle survived and was found with him but no belt. Four rounds of 45 cal. bullets were found but no weapons of any sort. A leather binocular case was found but this was empty. His Waterman fountain pen was found with him. It was labeled "Arthur A. Waterman Co. N.Y. Pat. Nov, 17, 1903". Oddly, a shaving brush was found with the bones. If you were in the middle of shaving and were attacked you might quickly stick a shaving brush in your pocket as you ran out of your bunker but no razor was found to go with it. By far, the most unusual item was a bugle. Very few people at the front would have a bugle so perhaps this Unknown was a company bugler. The condition of the bugle is not noted nor is there mention of a cord which the man might have used to make carrying the bugle easier. These few items are all that is left of this man's possessions.
Leather items can survive many years in the ground as evidenced by the binocular case but no wallet was found. There have been several cases where a wallet found in a WWI grave contained papers that were still legible decades after the war ended. If this Unknown had a wallet it wasn't found in his grave.
Fighting took place for only a few weeks in the area where this Unknown died. Two American divisions, the 1st and 2nd, fought in and around Berzy-le-sec. The First Division took Soissons, just north of where this Unknown was found, in July 1918. It was a very costly victory - more than 7000 men were killed or wounded and hundreds were Missing In Action. One of them, Private Francis Lupo of Cincinnati, was missing in action for 85 years, until his remains were discovered on the former battlefield in 2003). There was no reported fighting in this area at any time during WWII.
On January 13, 1969 a Board of Officers was convened to consider the facts of this person's identity. Several facts led to this soldier being classified as "Unknown". There was no identification of any kind found with the body. Although his skeleton was largely intact and a complete dental profile was obtained there is an almost complete lack of medical and dental records for servicemen during World War One to compare his remains to. When this man's remains were found DNA matching was unheard of and so no DNA sample was taken. Thousands of men died in this area and many hundreds are still listed as missing. With no way to narrow the field it was ruled that this man was unidentifiable. An order was issued for the disposal of the items found with the remains and further that the remains were to be buried as Unknown. American war dead from both World Wars that are occasionally still found on the battlefields of Europe are entitled to be buried in the Ardennes American Cemetery, if the next of kin so desires. Since this soldier is unknown there was no family to consult. On Thursday January 30, 1969 this soldier was laid to rest in Plot "A", Row 42, Grave 58 under a cross that bears the inscription:

He rests peacefully among the 5,327 other Americans killed in action that are buried in this cemetery.
After all these years this Unknown Soldier has arrived at his final resting place. Visitors to the cemetery will walk past his grave and some may even pause for a moment but they will move on and his grave will blend in their memory with the 776 other grave stones that bear the exact same inscription.
I know nothing about this man except that he died in the service of his country and I do not want his sacrifice to be forgotten. Starting in 2009 I have had flowers placed on his grave every February 25th (this will be my birthday present to myself). Hopefully these flowers will draw visitors to his grave, and others that might simply wander by to linger just a little longer and wonder about the man buried beneath their feet. He was someone's son and he never came home. I hope that they will say a silent prayer for him before they move on. He is unknown but his sacrifice is not forgotten.


February 25, 2016
February 25, 2015
February 25, 2014
February 25, 2013
May 17, 2012*
February 25, 2011
February 25, 2010
February 25, 2009

In 2017 the American Battle Monuments Commission discontinued its flower placement program.
I made repeated attempts to have flowers placed using local florists but this was not successful.
I speak no French and for the most part the places I was able to contact spoke no English.
It was a very frustrating process that ultimately led nowhere.
I had hoped to continue this tradition for many years but without the ABMC's help it looks like this has come to an end.
They said this program was too expensive to continue although the cost of the flowers is borne by the sender, not the government. It's unfortunate, but that's the government for you.


* In 2012 the flowers were placed and the photo was taken on May 17th due to a mix up at ABMC.



berzylesec1.png This is an overview of where this Unknown's grave was found. Berzy-Le-Sec is a very small town, even today. The population in 2008 was only 394 people and it would have been even smaller in 1918. Soissons is the nearest town of any real size and it is approximately 5 miles to the north.
As you can see from this aerial photo the area is primarily farmland with scattered woods which show up as dark green irregularly shaped areas.
The town center, such as it is, is just above the label for the town and below the D179 road label. The red arrow points to where the grave was found, east of the D1 highway and the railroad line that runs from Soissons to Paris.
The small green box is the area where the grave was found and this area is shown in much greater detail in the next photo.


berzylesec2.png This aerial photo shows the immediate area surrounding the gravesite.
The solid red line is a small stream. It was to this stream that the drainage ditch was being dug when the grave was discovered.
The blue dotted line is the Paris - Soissons rail line.
The green circle shows the area where the grave was found. The mayor's house is just above and to the right of the circle. You can see that the grave was on the very edge of a small wooded area.


western_front_summer_1918.jpg This is a US Army map of the Western Front as it looked in the summer of 1918.
You can see that the area changed hands several times with the most recent change during the exact timeframe when this man was killed.


For insight into the lives of three men killed in action in the same time frame, I strongly recommend Neil Hanson's book "Unknown Soldiers".
This book follows 3 men, an English soldier, a German soldier and an American airman from the time they entered the service until they were killed in action. All three died within days of each other within the same section of the Western Front. When hostilities ended their final resting places could not be determined and to this day all three are listed as Missing In Action.
Their stories are made all the more real by direct quotes from letters to and from their families.
As I read this book I had to constantly remind myself that the men Hanson talks about were real people and in 1918 all three were killed in action.


For complete information on the Ardennes American Cemetery where this Unknown Soldier is buried you should read the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) cemetery booklet.
Frank Woodruff Buckles died on February 27, 2011 at age 110 years, 26 days. He was the last surviving American combat veterans of WWI.
Return to JMLavelle.com


Copyright © 2018 James M. Lavelle