Sometime around the middle of 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 Château Thierry, France because that is where his body was eventually found.
How he was buried, or even IF he was buried 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. Over the years, those most likely to speak his name would have been the men who served in the trenches next to him. As this is written on February 25, 2011, there is exactly one American survivor of that conflict, his name is Frank Woodruff Buckles and he is 110 years old (see Links & Notes). When he dies it is likely that anyone who ever had a conversion with the soldier who fell in 1918 is also dead. There will be no first hand memories of him and most probably no second hand memories either. 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, maybe in a farmer’s field or some unnamed forest. All that changed in 1969 when something caused someone to pause at his resting place. It may have been a rusted relic of that long ago war. It could have been the tip of a bayonet or the brim of a helmet jutting out of the dirt but whatever it was it caused the person to stop. It may have been then or maybe later but at some point they dug and as they did they found more than war relics, they found bones.
The site was excavated and examined in minute detail. 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. Unfortunately, in the case of the soldier who fell in 1918 time has erased all traces of his identity. He had no wallet or papers. After more than 50 years in a shallow grave all that would remain of his uniform would be tiny scraps and evidently no emblems that would identify his unit were found. His dog tags would have rusted and crumbled when touched or they were never found. Although his remains were found, his name is forever lost.
There was enough evidence at the site where he was found to state with certainty that he was an American service man. Military artifacts would identify the time period he served, World War One. History provided a rough date for his death based on the battles fought in this area (Château-Thierry); fighting took place from May 31st to July 10, 1918. What this man is lacking, and will forever lack, is a name. He was given the number X-9393 as a way to distinguish his remains from those of other unknowns.
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. In 1969 this soldier was laid to rest in Plot “A”, Row 42, Grave 58 under a cross that bears the inscription:
A COMRADE IN ARMS
KNOWN BUT TO GOD”
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 will have 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 he is not forgotten.
He lived a short life and had a violent death. After all these years I hope that he may now rest, undisturbed, in eternal peace.
||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.