The Unknown Soldier
Remembrance Day is observed as a reminder that any conflict is greedy of human life. For example, of the estimated sixty million soldiers who fought the First World War, over nine million were killed. This equates to 6,000 deaths per day for the duration of hostilities.
Then, the remains of the dead that could be identified were buried as decently as circumstances allowed in a marked grave. For some years after the First World War, grieving relatives could book through Thomas Cook an itinerary to include a chosen war cemetery in France and Belgium. There the bereaved found some solace visiting a grave identified by name.
In other cases, the pace of fighting proved too rapid to allow proper interment. Despite best efforts, there was little alternative but to abandon the dead to the mire and detritus of battle. In such case, next of kin would be informed that their loved one was ‘Missing believed dead’. There would be no place for them to visit and grieve.
The poignancy of loss in such circumstances was not lost on the Reverend David Railton, an army chaplain serving on the Western Front. The discovery one day of a grave marked by a rough cross, bearing the pencil-written legend ‘An Unknown British Soldier’ prompted him to write to the then Dean of Westminster. Railton proposed that an unidentified British soldier from the Western Front be buried with due ceremony in Westminster Abbey “amongst the kings” to represent the many hundreds of thousands of anonymous servicemen killed in battle. The letter was forwarded by the Dean to the then Prime Minister David Lloyd George who warmly embraced Railton’s proposal So it was a century ago on Remembrance Day, that the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior was first unveiled in London’s Westminster Abbey.
The arrangements prior to unveiling were both painstaking and dignified. Suitable remains of unidentified personnel were exhumed from various battlefields and brought to a chapel near Arras in France on the night of 7 November 1920. The remains were placed in four plain coffins each covered by a flag. A senior officer present closed his eyes and at random rested his hand on one of the coffins. The other coffins were removed for reburial, whilst that chosen remained in the chapel overnight. On the next afternoon, it was transferred under guard to Boulogne where members of the French 8th Infantry Regiment stood vigil overnight.
The following morning, the coffin was placed in a special casket fashioned from oak trees grown in Hampton Court Palace. The casket was then banded with iron, and a medieval crusader’s sword from the Royal collection and chosen by King George V, was affixed to the top. An iron shield bearing the inscription ‘A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914–1918 for King and Country’ completed the casket.
It was then collected by a military wagon drawn by six black horses. At 10:30 a.m., the church bells of Boulogne tolled; the massed trumpets of the French cavalry and the bugles of the French infantry played Aux Champs, the French equivalent of the Last Post. Then, the mile-long procession—led by one thousand local schoolchildren and escorted by a division of French troops—made its way down to the harbour.
At the quayside, Marshal Foch, the French Supreme Allied Commander saluted the casket before it was carried up the gangway and piped aboard the destroyer HMS Verdun. The Verdun slipped anchor just before noon and was joined by an escort of six battleships to cross the Channel. As the flotilla neared Dover Castle it received a nineteen gun salute.
The casket was landed at Dover Marine Railway Station at the Western Docks and carried to London. The railway wagon in which it travelled had previously carried the body of Edith Cavell, a nurse who became a posthumous heroine having been executed for assisting wounded soldiers on both sides of the conflict. That evening the casket arrived at London’s Victoria Station, where it remained overnight.
On the morning of 11 November 1920, the casket was placed onto a gun carriage and drawn by six horses through immense and silent crowds to Whitehall’s Cenotaph. From there, the cortège was followed by the Royal Family and ministers of state to the west nave of Westminster Abbey.
The guests of honour in the congregation were a group of about one hundred women. Each had been invited in recognition of their loss of an unidentified husband or son in the conflict.
The coffin was interred into soil collected from each of the main battlefields. It was covered by a silk pall. Servicemen stood guard as tens of thousands of mourners filed silently past.
The grave was capped with a black Belgian marble stone with this inscription engraved with brass from melted down wartime ammunition
Beneath this stone rests the body
Of a British warrior
Unknown by name or rank
Brought from France to lie among
The most illustrious of the land
And buried here on Armistice Day
11 Nov: 1920, in the presence of
His Majesty King George V
His Ministers of State
The Chiefs of his forces
And a vast concourse of the nation
Thus are commemorated the many
Multitudes who during the Great
War of 1914 – 1918 gave the most that
Man can give life itself
For King and country
For loved ones home and empire
For the sacred cause of justice and
The freedom of the world
They buried him among the kings because he
Had done good toward God and toward
When Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the late Queen Mother, married the future King George VI on the 26th April 1923, she laid her bouquet at the Tomb on her way into the Abbey, as a tribute to her brother who had died at the Battle of Loos in 1915. It has since been customary for all Royal brides married at the Abbey to have their bouquets laid on the tomb.
Before her death in 2002, The Queen Mother expressed a wish for her wreath to be placed on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. The Queen duly laid the wreath the day after the funeral.
Railway aficionados will doubtless be pleased to learn various facts in connection with the Tomb. The LMS-Patriot Project, a charitable organization, is building a new steam locomotive that will carry the name The Unknown Warrior. A public appeal to build the locomotive was launched in 2008 and the painstaking work continues. Along with the Tomb, it will, when completed, serve as a permanent memorial to all fallen servicemen and women.
The railway van that carried the Unknown Warrior from Dover to London happily remains in existence, having been restored in 2010.
Finally, a plaque at Victoria Station marks the site where the coffin rested overnight on the 8th November 1920. A small Remembrance service takes place each year between platforms 8 and 9.
Remembrance Sunday will be different this year as public gatherings have been banned by Covid regulation. Attendance at church services and wreath laying ceremonies will be limited for the same reason. The nation has thus been asked to remember the fallen and those who mourn from heart and mind instead.
Richard Grosse, October 2020