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Nations have many reasons for devising post war rituals and building memorials to those who fought and in the 20th century to those who were killed. Most common are the war memorials often with the names of local men killed in war; less common are the cenotaphs – though there are some 400 around Britain alone – representing perhaps all the dead fighters. Many countries have also chosen to bury a ‘representative’ of some of its military war dead – this is the unknown soldier, elevated to ‘warrior’ in Britain.

The first known burial of soldiers identified as unknown took place in the American Civil war in 1866 when unknown soldiers of the American Union Army were buried in Arlington Cemetery. The expectation of relatives was that conscripts would be buried in individual marked graves. The soldiers buried in Arlington were buried there because they could not be identified and given a marked grave in Civil War cemeteries. The idea of marking of individual graves spread to Europe where in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 - a high proportion of the dead were ‘unknown’ but most, then as before, were thrown in large mass graves. A number of people suggested that a single unidentified soldier should be selected as representative of all but the idea was not realized until 1920 when the French Soldat Inconu was interned under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on the same day as the British unknown soldier was displayed in London.

Why unknown? As casualties mounted in the First World War increasing effort was made to identify not only the place of burial but the soldiers themselves. Soldiers were given insubstantial fibre identity disks to help identify the growing number of corpses. Many soldiers went to the considerable expense of buying their own more durable aluminium versions so in the event of them being killed their corpse could be identified. Despite this some 500,000 British soldiers alone remained unidentified often because only body parts remained. Even originally identified and buried soldiers could turn into unknown ones as heavy shelling churned the ground, the graves and tore the bodies into countless pieces.