The Unknown Warrior – one of our own?
Posted on November 12th, 2015
When the first national service of Remembrance was instituted, on 11th November 1919, the centre piece of the nation’s remembrance observation was Sir Edward Lutyen’s Cenotaph. Made of plaster and wood, this temporary structure had first been placed in Whitehall to feature in the national Victory Parade, held on 19th July 1919. After which, despite the upper parts being dismantled, the base of the memorial continued to be covered in flowers and wreaths, as grieving members of the public continued to visit it.
In the face of this continuing interest, it was proposed that, whilst all the other temporary structures that had been erected around the city were removed, this structure should become a permanent memorial on behalf of the nation. And in due course, hewn from Portland stone, this ‘empty tomb’ was unveiled by King George V on 11th November 1920. This was the same day that the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior was created in Westminster Abbey.
Legend has it that an Army Chaplain, serving on the Western Front in 1916, had come across a single soldier’s grave in the back garden of a house, under a cross bearing the legend ‘An Unknown British Soldier’. Following the huge attendances at both the Victory Parade in July and the first Service of Remembrance in November 1919, the Rev’d David Railton wrote to the Dean of Westminster, suggesting that an unknown soldier from the battlefields of the Western Front should be buried alongside the nation’s Kings ; in recognition of the sacrifice of the hundreds of thousands of men from across the British Empire. It is believed that he had approached Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig with this idea previously, to no avail. Now, in the face of the nation’s overwhelming grief, both the Dean and the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, approved and Lord Curzon – who had sat in the War Cabinet from 1916 – was asked to make the arrangements. Eventually, on the night of 7th November 1920, the remains of six soldiers – whose bodies had been exhumed from the battlefields of The Aisne, The Somme, Arras and Ypres but whose identities were not known – were brought to a chapel at Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise, near Arras. Each of the six plain coffins was draped with the Union Jack and, accompanied by the Rev’d. George Kendall and a senior representative of the Directorate of Graves Registration, the Commander of those troops still serving in France and Flanders, Brigadier General Wyatt, laid his hand briefly upon one of them. Whilst the other five were quietly reburied on the battlefield, the Unknown Warrior remained at rest that night in the chapel before beginning his journey back to London. Newspaper reports of the time record that the entire route, from the coast to Victoria Station, was lined with grieving people, many of them no doubt hoping that the train was carrying their loved one to his final rest?
Eventually, on the morning of 11th November 1920, the plain coffin having been placed within a second one – made from an oak tree grown in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace – the coffin was loaded onto a gun carriage. Drawn by six black horses, it made its way to the Abbey via the Cenotaph in Whitehall where, following the unveiling of the Cenotaph, the King placed his wreath of red roses upon the gun carriage.
When Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon married the Duke of York barely two years later – her brother Fergus and three cousins having been killed during the war – she laid her wedding bouquet upon the grave, by then topped resplendently in black marble and this tradition has been carried on faithfully by all royal brides as they leave Westminster Abbey.
No doubt most amongst my readers will have been to Westminster Abbey at some point in your lives and will have stopped to look at the tomb of the Unknown Warrior? Just as at some point, most of you will have looked at the list of names engraved upon your local War Memorial ; each name recording both a loss to a family as well as the local community? Of the names on my own local Parish Memorial in Welwyn, research has shown that, of those young men whose bodies were never found and who now are commemorated by their name being engraved on a memorial panel somewhere on the Western Front, at least one is recorded on each of the Memorials to the Missing from the Battles of the Aisne, Somme, Arras and Ypres!
Being no mathematician, I can’t calculate the likely odds. Nevertheless, being a mother, a member of the Welwyn congregation – with whom so many of those named on the Welwyn memorial also worshipped – as well as being possessed of a healthy imagination, I know that the next time I look upon the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior I will be considering the chances that one of those whose names I see on the Welwyn War Memorial panels may yet lie within the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior?