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Transcript: Tombstone of the Unknown Soldier

The Canadian War Museum holds millions of objects in the National Collection. Each one tells a story.

Let’s look at one of the museum’s most important artifacts: The Tombstone of the Unknown Soldier.

This is the tombstone of Canada’s Unknown Soldier. It reads: “A Soldier of the Great War – A Canadian Regiment – Known Unto God.”

To understand why this artifact is so significant, we must go back in time to the First World War.

Who was the unknown soldier? He was one among 650,000 Canadians who enlisted during the First World War. We don’t know what led to his decision. Maybe he was driven by a patriotic desire to serve his country; or a more pragmatic need for a job. Maybe he felt pressure to sign up from his friends or family, or he felt the desire to leave for an adventure.

He passed his medical exam and was sent overseas. He certainly left behind someone he loved: Parents? Friends? Siblings? A spouse or lover? We don’t know.

At some point, he was serving in France, near Vimy Ridge. He was sent into battle, he was killed, and no one was able to identify his body.

He was buried in the Cabaret-Rouge British Cemetery in Souchez, France—Plot 8, Row E, Grave 7. His place was marked with this tombstone. Of the more than 66,000 Canadians who died in the First World War, almost 20,000 have no known grave.

Since 1920, a single Unknown Soldier in London, England, had represented the unidentified war dead of Canada and other Commonwealth states. In 1993, Australia marked the 75th anniversary of the end of the First World War by repatriating the remains of its own Unknown Soldier. Canada followed in 2000 at the suggestion of the Royal Canadian Legion and other groups.

Canada’s Unknown Soldier was selected from among 6,846 Canadians buried as “unknown soldiers”, which mean their bodies were recovered but their identities could not be confirmed.

His body was exhumed and sent back to Canada. On May 28th, 2000, he was re-interred, with full military honours, in a granite sarcophagus at the National War Memorial in Ottawa.

In front of a crowd of 20,000 people, Governor General Adrienne Clarkson explained what he signified as follows: “In honouring this unknown soldier today, … we are … saying that because we do not know him and we do not know what he could have become, he has become more than one body, more than one grave. He is an ideal. He is a symbol of all sacrifice. He is every soldier in all our wars.”

When the Canadian War Museum opened in 2005, Canada’s Unknown Soldier’s original tombstone was placed in the museum. It was given a place of honour, built into the architecture of the building. Every year, on Remembrance Day—November 11th—at 11 a.m., a beam of light passes through a window overhead to perfectly frame the gravestone.

A gravestone that represents more than just the man whose place it marked for so long; it represents the sacrifice of every Canadian serviceman and servicewoman, past, present and future.