We Will Remember Them – the Story of the Unknown Warrior

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 GOD
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
HIS HOUSE

Inscription on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey

The Western Front, 1916:

The Reverend David Railton is doing his rounds as a frontline chaplain for the British army in France, providing spiritual and pastoral support for the young men in his care, many of whom have been fighting in the trenches for upwards of two years. His is not an easy job, but, as a Church of England clergyman, he feels he has both a calling and a responsibility to look after these soldiers, some of whom are no more than boys.

He is rapidly becoming more and more appalled by the death and destruction he sees around him, and is particularly moved by a simple, makeshift grave he comes across in a garden near Armentieres that day. The grave consists of a rough wooden cross, carefully inscribed in pencil: “An Unknown British Soldier of The Black Watch”. The simple inscription and the care taken in commemorating a fallen comrade sets Railton thinking, and eventually results in one of the most famous and moving war memorials of them all…

After the war:

Much later, long after he had returned to civilian life as vicar of the church of John the Baptist in Margate, Railton recalled his reaction upon coming across the last resting place of this probably young and certainly never identified soldier:

How that grave caused me to think!… But, who was he, and who were [his folk]?… Was he just a laddie… . There was no answer to those questions, nor has there ever been yet.

So I thought and thought and wrestled in thought. What can I do to ease the pain of father, mother, brother, sister, sweetheart, wife and friend? Quietly and gradually there came out of the mist of thought this answer clear and strong, “Let this body – this symbol of him – be carried reverently over the sea to his native land”. And I was happy for about five or ten minutes.

This played on his mind, and he continued thinking about it until after the end of the war, when he wrote to the Dean of Westminster, Herbert Ryle, suggesting that the body of one unknown soldier should be transported back to England and buried publicly with full honours to represent all the men who had been killed during this ‘war to end all wars’.

The tomb of this one, unidentified soldier would, it was argued, also act as a focal point for the grief of the many, many devastated families whose loved ones had died in the trenches of France and Belgium but who had no known graves, or, like the Black Watch soldier who had inspired the idea, who were unable to be identified before burial – one of the most tragic aspects of the First World War.

Dean Ryle agreed that this was a good idea, and set the wheels in motion for official government approval of the project, which was eventually given after some debate. On 7th November 1920, the bodies of four (some accounts say six) unidentified British servicemen were thus exhumed from the four main battlefields – the Aisne, the Somme, Ypres and Arras – and taken, with due respect and ceremony, to the chapel at St Pol.

The bodies were carefully laid out on stretchers and each was covered by a Union flag. The commanding officer, Brigadier-General Wyatt, who had not been told which body was which, then quietly pointed to one of the flag-draped stretchers. The soldier lying beneath the selected Union flag was placed in a plain coffin in preparation for the final journey across the Channel back to Britain. The other bodies were then reinterred.

On 8th November, the Unknown Warrior was escorted to Boulougne by the French military, where he was transferred into another coffin, this time made of English oak (the trees that provided the timber had originally stood at Hampton Court Palace), and a sword taken from the armoury at the Tower of London was placed on the coffin.

The Unknown Warrior made his final journey back to his homeland on the destroyer HMS Verdun. Arriving at Dover on 10th November, the coffin was given a Field Marshal’s nineteen gun salute from the ramparts of the castle before being transferred onto a train to Victoria station in London.

At every station along the route of the train large crowds gathered to pay their respects; many of those who watched the train pass by had lost friends and relatives in the carnage of the trenches. The following day, the Daily Mail reported that:

The train thundered through the dark, wet, moonless night. At the platforms by which it rushed could be seen groups of women watching and silent, many dressed in deep mourning. Many an upper window was open and against the golden square of light was silhouetted clear cut and black the head and shoulders of some faithful watcher
…. In the London suburbs there were scores of homes with back doors flung wide, light flooding out and in the garden figures of men women and children gazing at the great lighted train rushing past.

At twenty to ten on the morning of 11th November 1920, the coffin containing the Unknown Warrior was placed on a gun carriage. Drawn by six horses, and followed by King George V, various other members of the royal family and government ministers, the cortege slowly travelled through the silent, crowd-lined streets of London to Westminster Abbey.

Inside the Abbey, the coffin was given an honour guard of one hundred Victoria Cross holders, before being interred at the west end of the Nave. The grave itself was filled in with bags of earth taken from all the major First World War battlefields. After the funeral service was over, thousands of people quietly filed past to pay their respects, many of them no doubt wondering if the Unknown Warrior was in fact their lost relative or friend.

No-one will ever know the answer to that question.

The Unknown Warrior could be a serviceman from the army, navy or airforce – representatives of all three services fought on the Western Front. He could be English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, or from any of the Dominions or Colonies of the British empire. There are also other Unknown Warriors or Unknown Soldiers in other parts of the world, including Australia, Canada, the United States and various South American and other European countries.

Like them, the Unknown Warrior buried at Westminster Abbey represents and commemorates all the men who fought and died in war who have no other memorial.

We will remember them.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them

Lawrence Binyon, 1914

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2 comments

    • trickygirl

      Thank you. I thought that this story really brings home the human cost of war, which is what Remembrance Sunday is all about.

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