Unknown Soldier


Like ancient rituals the appropriation of an Unknown Soldier for the Great War originally arose in France but it was put in motion by Great Britain, with the first ritualised anonymous choice of a soldier killed in battle. He was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey on 11 November 1920, on which date France placed a solider under the Arc de Triomphe. This unmistakably patriotic and funereal cult, representing all those killed in war, combines with the Eternal Flame evoking for survivors their sacrifice, as a living flame that renews itself and blends in a daily gesture shared by compatriots. These are particular symptoms of the cult of the dead, generalised for all participants of the Great War, manifested to a greater or lesser specific or profound extent, affecting the colours of the picture of the Memories of War.

In April 1921, the Ministry of War organised and carried out a large international celebration of the “Effort of Race”. Two Unknown Soldiers were exhumed and re-buried in the Monastery of Santa Maria Vitória in Batalha. A ceremonial procedure similar to major European celebrations – the desired brilliance of an acknowledgement of the effort made, which from the start was marked by specificities that go beyond the general standards in participating countries. The controversial involvement of the Portuguese Armed Forces on two battle fronts led to the need to make a random and anonymous selection of two unknown soldiers, from both Flanders and Africa.

The design of the tribute, under the responsibility of the Ministry of War in conjunction with other ministries, chambers and associations, began with the arrival of the Unknown Soldiers and ended with their dedication in the Monastery of Santa Maria Vitória. It started with the important invitation to participants, ranging from associations to national or international personalities, which would ensure that Portugal’s intervention in the armed conflict would endure in international memory. Among those present were Marshall Joffre, prominent French military leader in the battlefields of the First World War, Generalissimo Diaz, Admiral D. Pedro Zofia and the Governor of Gibraltar, General Smith-Dorrien, as well as L. Carnegie, English attaché in Portugal (showing the minor effort Great Britain made to be represented).

The festivities began on 5 April, as soon as the first diplomatic representations arrived in Lisbon, at the same time the Unknown Soldier from Africa was also arriving. The hero was placed in the Navy Arsenal next to the soldier from Flanders, who had arrived earlier. On the 7th, the caskets were transported from the Arsenal to the Palace of Congress where they were decorated by the President of the Republic, ensuring they would be mourned by the Portuguese.

The main day of the commemorations - 9 April – was marked by a triumphal cortege in Lisbon ending at Rossio Railway Station. The caskets were placed on an open wagon until their departure for Batalha the next day. The last stage began with the convening at Rossio Station for the journey in three special trains. These carried not only the bodies of the two soldiers but also the President of the Republic, the Cardinal, the Government, the entire Diplomatic Corps and foreign military missions. In Batalha, the triumphal march began outside the station. At 1700 hours it convened in the monastery forecourt together with all the waiting personalities and the population, surrounded by the respectful faces of the military forces and their flags, until the soldiers entered the Chapter Room, their final resting place. The final ceremony was held here, with speeches by the President of the Chamber of Deputies, Abílio Marçal, and then the President of the Republic and other figures, until the close of the festivities in honour of the Unknown Soldiers. In an apologetic and justificative speech, the President of the Republic, António José de Almeida, summarised the greatest celebration of Portugal’s effort in the Great War: “So, if this temple is in itself suitable to accommodate the Unknown Soldiers, it is so also due to the company they have been allocated through circumstances. Heroes encounter heroes. Shadows, spectres of greatness will take to their bosom other equally great and spectral shadows. Those who until a few days ago were simple country men will be shoulder to shoulder with the magnificent captains of yesteryear. Sons of the people, issuing from the farms, the sea, the factories, the mines, will sleep alongside kings and princes.” (Diário das Sessões do Congresso, 7 April 1921). Those believing that the magnificence of the event was the result of a generalised agreement are mistaken. The fact is that not only then, but on the anniversaries of this date, there was opposition to the formal commemorative options, and to the more general implications of the meaning or even lack of meaning of this celebration.
MOSSE, George L., Le guerre mondiali dalla tragedia al mito dei caduti, Laterza, Rome 1990.
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