Paris, France—Commemorating the centennial of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a delegation of 41 Americans—veterans, Tomb Guards and Gold Star Mothers—retraced through France over the past week the solemn route of the selection process of the first Unknown Soldier entombed at Arlington National Cemetery.

The group, led by Society of the Honor Guard president Gavin McIlvenna, raised a Centennial Flag and laid wreaths at the four American cemeteries in eastern France from which remains were taken in 1921—St. Mihiel, Aisne-Marne, Somme and Meuse-Argonne. The delegation also traveled to Normandy and Le Havre, where the remains of the first Unknown Soldier set sail for home. On Tuesday, the American Legion’s Paris Post 1 hosted the group for an elegant gala dinner at France’s Ecole Militaire.

McIlvenna, a former U.S. Army paratrooper, said the welcome and embrace the group received from French and Americans along their path had been “overwhelming.” The October 23 ceremony in Chalons-en-Champagne, where the original selection occurred in 1921, included a replica casket draped with an American flag brought from Arlington and raised in each of the cemeteries they visited, as well as an original musical composition by U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own” arranger Sarah Corry.

McIlvenna said it was a deeply emotional moment.

“It was the culmination of everything we’ve been working for in France, with The American Cathedral, with the American Battle Monuments Commission, with the cities—it has been overwhelming,” McIlvenna said. “It seemed like every step was like that, oh wow, I didn’t expect that!”

Gold Star mothers at the St. Mihiel American Cemetery and Memorial.
Gold Star mothers at the St. Mihiel American Cemetery and Memorial.

Despite the recent contretemps between France and the United States over an Australian navy submarine contract, French officials and residents of every town the group visited turned out to warmly welcome them.

“We were incredibly honored to be with them and see the reaction that we read about in 1921, and here it is, in person. Every one of the Tomb Guards or the Gold Star Mothers or the Daughters of the American Revolution, they all were saying, ‘We can’t believe this is happening, I can’t believe they are thanking me.’”

Jo Ann Maitland, president of the American Gold Star Mothers, said the group paid homage not just to the unknown soldiers, but to the mothers who did not learn the fate of their fallen sons. The organization was founded in the wake of World War I, and the first pilgrimage of bereaved mothers visited France in 1930.

DAR President General Denise van Buren also participated in the tour, noting that this October marked the 240th anniversary of the Battle of Yorktown, and thanking the French for their vital support in the American Revolution.

Commemorations of the centennial of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier will continue in November at Arlington National Cemetery and other sites across the nation. For more information, see www.tombguard.org or @SHGTUS.