By Kevin M. Hymel (Contractor, ANC History Office)
Minister of Pensions André Maginot presents the French Legion of Honor to the Unknown Soldier
in Le Havre, France, October 25, 1921. (Bibliothèque nationale de France)
On October 25, 1921, France’s Minister of Pensions, André Maginot, stood before the flag-draped casket of America’s Unknown Soldier on the dock at Le Havre, France. Flanked by members of the American and French military, civilians and cameramen, he concluded his remarks by speaking to both the American Unknown Soldier and the French Unknown Soldier: “We can no more separate you than we can separate the two flags which the enemy brought together,” he stated. Then, tall and erect even while leaning on a cane, Maginot placed the French Legion of Honor medal on the casket before it was borne on the shoulders of American sailors and marines for the journey home aboard the USS Olympia.
It was appropriate that Maginot gave the last farewell to the Unknown Soldier who helped defend France during World War I. After his untimely death in January 1932 (from typhoid caused by eating tainted oysters), the New York Times memorialized Maginot as “physically a giant” yet also “bighearted,” especially in his efforts to sustain French soldiers’ morale during and after the war. Maginot himself had served during the war, both in uniform and as a civilian government leader. A proponent of military preparedness since his appointment as France’s undersecretary of war in 1913, at the age of 36, he was one of the few government leaders who saw war with Germany on the horizon. As undersecretary of war, Maginot worked to improve the country’s defenses—particularly around the city of Nancy, in northeastern France near the German border.
When Germany declared war against France on August 3, 1914, Maginot was exempt from the draft due to his government position. However, he immediately volunteered to serve, entering the army as a private. He rose to the rank of sergeant and became known for leading daring raids behind enemy lines. During one such raid in 1914, in the town of Verdun, France, enemy fire shattered both of his legs, leaving him with a limp for the rest of his life. Maginot’s actions in combat earned him the Legion of Honor. After his recovery, he returned to civilian government service, becoming France’s minister for the colonies in 1917.
Right: A WW I veteran, Maginot played a prominent role in honoring both the French and American Unknown Soldiers. (Library of Congress)
After the war, Maginot participated in commemoration ceremonies, including the selection of France’s Unknown Soldier on November 10, 1920. During the selection ceremony, Maginot reportedly handed Private Auguste Thin—the World War I enlisted veteran who would select France’s unknown—a bouquet of flowers to place upon one of the eight caskets, indicating his selection. This inspired a similar gesture a year later during the selection of the American Unknown Soldier, when Sgt. Edward F. Younger placed a spray of white roses upon the chosen casket.
Maginot was appointed as minister of pensions in January 1921, as part of France’s new cabinet under Premier Aristide Briand. In this capacity, Maginot oversaw responding to pension requests from war widows and orphans. In October 1921, he also participated in the French ceremonies for the American Unknown Soldier. Maginot’s previous participation in France’s Unknown Soldier selection ceremony—along with his military experience, political position and enormous popularity—rendered him an ideal choice to be the last French official to bid farewell to the American Unknown Soldier at Le Havre.
Maginot’s role in honoring the American Unknown made him a familiar name in the United States. In the years that followed World War I, he became popular with American veterans, who often requested his presence when they reunited in Paris. Although he never visited the United States, he “prided himself on his knowledge of American’s war generation,” in the words of the St. Louis Dispatch. In 1922, Maginot was appointed as minister of war. During the interwar years, he strenuously opposed efforts to reduce France’s defense budget, consistent with his longtime advocacy of military preparedness. He also oversaw the French occupation of Germany’s Ruhr region in 1923, in order to extract war reparations as mandated in the Treaty of Versailles.
Maginot addresses the crowd at the port of Le Havre, prior to the Unknown's departure from France
aboard USS Olympia, October 25, 1921. (Bibliothèque nationale de France)
Perpetually concerned about another war against Germany, which had invaded France twice during the past half century, Maginot repeatedly advocated a defensive line of fortifications along the German border. In the event of another war, he believed, this line of fortifications would hold back German forces while France mobilized. Beginning in 1929, Maginot oversaw construction of the line that he had envisioned, and it would eventually bear his name—the Maginot Line.
In 1932, before the project was completed, Maginot passed away from typhoid fever at the age of 54. His death made headlines in newspapers throughout the United States, from the New York Times to the Des Moines Register. It would take another six years for engineers to finish constructing the line of defenses. However, the Maginot Line stretched only across the length of the French-German border, and did not continue along France’s border with Belgium and the Netherlands—where, in 1940, the next German attack would come. Maginot had the correct vision, yet the Maginot Line’s geographic limitations could not protect France from another German invasion.
André Maginot dedicated himself to France, to the soldiers who fought to defend the country, and to the remembrance of those who sacrificed all in the endeavor. To many American veterans, he embodied France’s role in the war. It was only fitting, then, that Maginot was among the French dignitaries to bid farewell to the Unknown Soldier before his journey home. This simple yet poignant action reflected his significance in commemorations of World War I, both in France and the United States.
Selected Sources Consulted
• Arlington National Cemetery Historical Research Collection, Box 12.
• Encyclopedia Britannica, “Andre Maginot.”
• Hughes, Judith M. To the Maginot Line: The Politics of French Military Preparation in the 1920s. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.
• Mossman, B.C. and M.W. Stark, The Last Salute: Civil and Military Funerals, 1921-1969. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 1991.
• Poole, Robert M. On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery. New York: Bloomsbury, 2009.
• Newspapers.com, articles on Maginot, 1921-1932.