Home People Memorials The Burial of the Unknown Warrior

The Burial of the Unknown Warrior

One evening in 1916 a young padre, David Railton, came back from the line where he had been conducting a burial service. He entered a billet somewhere near Armentieres and in the small back garden, very close to the house, was a grave marked by a rough, white cross. On the cross was inscribed in black pencilled letters: 'An Unknown British Soldier' and in brackets underneath, 'of the Black Watch'. Railton later recalled the stillness of that evening when 'even the guns seemed to be resting', and that quiet scene; that grave made him think to the point that he nearly wrote to Sir Douglas Haig to ask if the body of an unknown soldier could be sent home for burial.

It was not until 1920, a few short months before the anniversary of the Armistice when the Cenotaph was to be unveiled by King George V and dedicated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Davidson, that David Railton, now the Vicar of Margate, finally put those thoughts into action. He wrote to the Dean of Westminster, Bishop Ryle, asking whether he would permit the body of an unknown 'comrade' (sic) to be buried in Westminster Abbey. The Dean responded warmly to the suggestion though substituting 'Warrior' for 'Comrade' and wrote to the King. It was now October. The King's initial reaction was discouraging as was made clear in the letter of reply to the Dean from his Private Secretary, Lord Stamfordham: "His Majesty is inclined to think that nearly two years after the last shot was fired on the battlefields of France and Flanders is so long ago that a funeral now might be regarded as belated, and almost, as it were, reopen the war wound which time is gradually healing."

But the Dean was undismayed. He now wrote to the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, and to the C.I.G.S., Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, who were immediately enthusiastic. Somewhat reluctantly the King gave his assent. An announcement was made in the House of Commons and Lord Curzon, lately Viceroy of India but now Foreign Secretary, was appointed chairman of the cabinet committee responsible for the ceremony.

The scene now shifts to France where the selection of the body was to be made, and it is concerning the method of selection, the number of bodies from which the selection was made and the areas from which they were brought that varying accounts have been given over the years.

In October 1920, H.Q. British Troops in France and Flanders was in St. Pol, some twenty miles west of Arras, and the G.O.C. was Brigadier-General L.J. Wyatt. As such, it was he who was notified by the War Office about the burial; it was he who issued the necessary instructions and it was he who selected the body. It would appear that not till shortly after the outbreak of World War Two, almost twenty years after the event, did he give his account of what took place and that in response to varying and evidently inaccurate versions that were being put about. No doubt the onset of another war had again stirred up interest in the Unknown Warrior.

According to the Brigadier he gave orders for four unidentified bodies of British soldiers to be brought in, one from each of the main battle areas: Ypres. the Somme, Arras and the Aisne. They were brought in on the night of 7th November and placed in the hut which served as the chapel for the St. Pol garrison. The parties that brought the remains in. returned immediately to their respective areas so they had no opportunity of discovering which body had been chosen. At midnight, accompanied by a senior member of his staff, he entered the chapel and selected one of the bodies which lay on stretchers covered by Union Jacks. It was placed in a temporary coffin sent out from England and the lid screwed down. The other bodies were taken out and buried in the nearby British military cemetery of St. Pol-sur-Ternoise.

The next day, 8th November, the coffin or shell was taken under escort to Boulogne where it was placed in the permanent coffin of oak which had been prepared in and despatched from England, and the whole thing was banded by two iron straps through one of which was fixed a crusader's sword from the Tower of London collection.

Ronald Blythe, in his book 'The Age of Illusion', says that six bodies were brought in from the battle-fields of Ypres, Arras, the Somme, The Marne, the Aisne and Cambrai. They were sealed in coffins near where they were exhumed and sent back separately in six motor ambulances to any army hut near Ypres where they were received by the Rev. George Kendall. After they had been laid side by side and every-body concerned with the operation had withdrawn to a distance an officer who had never been inside the hut was brought in blindfolded, and the first coffin he touched became that of the Unknown Warrior. The description of the great oak coffin is the same except that the sword is said to have been the idea of the King who donated it from his private collection. According to Blythe's account the bodies were exhumed and brought in for the selection to be made on 9th November, and the selected body was taken immediately to Boulogne.

In a letter to the Press in April 1972 Mr H.J.M. Williams, writing as 'Late Director, G.R.E. and Imperial War Graves Commission', stated that as the officer in charge of exhumation and the concentration of military graves into war cemetries throughout the whole of France and Belgium he was entirely respon-sible for the arrangements in connection with the selection of the Unknown Warrior. He goes on to say that the officers in charge of the various areas in France and Belgium (he does not specify how many nor what the areas were) were asked to send the body of an unknown British soldier from their part of the battlefields to the War Graves Commission H.Q. (at St. Pol). When they arrived they were 'again personally examined to make sure they were British and that no individual identity could be established'. The G.O.C. was then invited to enter the room and make his selection of the Unknown Warrior.

Finally, in a lavishly illustrated article (many taken from the Illustrated London News of the time) the editor of 'After the Battle' reviews the whole affair after researching various published accounts includ-ing that of the G.O.C. which is given prominence. However, it is his conclusion after discussions with others still living who were associated with the events of 1920 that the number of bodies taken to the chapel at St. Pol was only three; there is the reproduction of a photograph showing 'one of the two unknown graves in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at St. Pol.' One thing is certain, no one could have known the identity of the Unknown Warrior nor even the sector of the Western Front from which his body was taken. The one selected from the Ypres sector came from Bleuet Farm Cemetery, near Elverdinghe.

At 3.30 pm on 9th November the body arrived at Boulogne and was taken by ambulance to the chateau where it was received by representatives of the British and French Armies and of the French Govern-ment. It was then borne by eight Warrant Officers/N.C.Os. representing the R.A., R.E., R.A.S.C., R.A.M.C., Infantry (21st Battalion the London Regiment) and the Australian and Canadian Forces into the library which had been converted into a temporary chapel. Here the remains were placed in the special casket brought over from England and a guard was provided by 'poilus' of the 8th Infantry Reg-iment throughout the night. On the coffin was the inscription:

'A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918'

At about 10 am on 10th the coffin, covered with a Union flag known as the Padre's Flag, was placed upon a French wagon drawn by six horses and, escorted by the bearer party, was taken to the tollbar where shortly the King's representative, Lieutenant-General Sir G. Macdonogh. the Adjutant General, and other British officers arrived followed by Marshal of France Ferdinand Foch. After a fanfare salute from the French cavalry the procession moved off, led by children and representatives of local associa-tions, followed by rank upon rank of French cavalry, infantry and marines. Then came the carriage with the coffin and after it wreaths from the French Government and Armed Services and the Corps of Inter-preters. Behind this marched Marshal Foch and Lieutenant-General Macdonogh. Through the crowded but silent streets the procession wended its way to be quayside where the destroyer H.M.S. Verdun, Lieutenant Commander S. Thompson R.N., lay alongside.

Here Marshal Foch made a brief speech and Lieutenant-General Macdonogh replied on behalf of the King. Then, after the two national anthems, the bearer party carried the coffin aboard, as Verdun's white ensign cam down to half mast. The wreaths were placed over the coffin by French soldiers while Foch stood alone by the gangway, his eyes fixed on the coffin. Lieutenant-General Macdonogh then embarked and as the band played 'God Save the King' H.M.S. Verdun cast off with an Able Seaman at each corner of the coffin, head bowed and resting on his arms reversed. Ashore the troops stood at the 'Present'. As Verdun headed into the mist a Field Marshal's ninteen gun salute boomed out; and so the Unknown Warrior began the last stage of his journey home.

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Six destroyers of the Atlantic Fleet, H.M.S. Witherington, Wanderer, Whitshed, Wivern, Wolverine and Veteran were waiting out to sea to provide the naval escort and they took station, three in line abreast forward and three in line abreast astern of Verdun. At 3.30 pm H.M.S. Verdun came alongside at the Admiralty Pier, Dover and as she did so a nineteen gun salute was fired from Dover Castle and the band played 'Land of Hope and Glory'. Six warrant officers representing the various services carried the coffin off the ship and handed it over to six senior officers who acted as pall bearers.

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A guard of honour from the 2nd Royal Irish Fusiliers gave the general salute as the cortege moved off towards the Marine station followed by the Adjutant General, the G.O.C. South East Area and the Officer Commanding Dover Garrison. After them came the Lord Mayor and Corporation of Dover followed by officers representing all units of the garrison. The route was lined by troops and at the station there was a general salute from a guard of honour found by the 2nd Connaught Rangers and the Duke of York's Military School. The body was placed in a special coach which had been previously used to convey the bodies of Nurse Cavell and Captain Fryatt, both victims of German firing squads, and a passenger coach attached for the escort of one officer and fifteen men. At 5.50 pm the special train pulled out.

Three hours later the train drew into Victoria station where a guard of honour from the 1st Grenadier Guards waited. Behind the barriers packed the crowd and as the train drew to a halt, its coach with the escort and the other with the coffin seemingly covered in wreaths and flowers, there was a deep silence broken only by, as The Times described it, 'the smothered sound of weeping.' Men as well as women wept at the sight of that coach where the dead warrior lay. The body remained in the station in the funeral coach that night, watched over by a guard from the Grenadiers.

November 11th was a lovely autumn day. Early morning mist gave way to mellow sunshine as the crowd began to gather along the processional route and at the shrouded Cenotaph. Troops taking part in the procession and lining the route were from the five regiments of Foot Guards and in addition there were detachments from the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force: the troops wore khaki.

Just before 10 o'clock the procession started from Victoria led by the massed bands of the Coldstream, Scots, Irish and Welsh Guards and the Pipers of the Scots Guards. The drums were muffled and encased in black. Behind the bands came the Firing Party from the 3rd Coldstream Guards who also provided the bearer party. On either side of the coffin marched the pall bearers: Admirals Meux, Beatty, Jackson and Madden; Field Marshals French, Haig, Methuen and Wilson; Generals Home, Byng and Gatliff (Royal Marines) and Air Marshal Trenchard. The gun carriage, drawn by six horses, came from 'N' Battery R H.A. and on the coffin lay a steel helmet, web belt and bayonet. As the procession moved out of the station along Grosvenor Gardens and into Grosvenor Place a Field Marshal's nineteen gun salute was fired from Hyde Park. Down Constitution Hill, along the Mall and so into Whitehall they went between lines of troops standing with heads bowed and arms reversed. And behind them stood the thousands who had come to pay their last respects, silent, many in tears, the men bareheaded.

proseAt 10.40 am the King came out from the Home Office accompanied by the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York, Prince Henry (later to become Duke of Gloucester) and the Duke of Connaught. He took up his place with his back to the Cenotaph, still shrouded with Union Jacks. Queen Mary, Queen Alexandra the Queen Mother and Queen Ena of Spain watched from the Home Office balcony. As Big Ben sounded quarter to the hour the head of the procession passed the Cenotaph, the bands counter-marching to take up their position on the south side. The gun carriage swung round across the road and stopped immediately in front of the King with the pall bearers drawn up in line behind it. The King stepped forward and laid a wreath on the coffin, bearing a card with the following inscription in the King's handwriting:

'In proud memory of those Warriors who died unknown in the Great War.
Unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and beheld they live.'
George. R.I.

ceno1And now the bands played 'O God, our help in ages past,' while the choir and onlookers sang. It was, wrote The Times, "extraordinarily moving", with the heart-rending roll of the drums rising to a crescendo almost drowning the voices and band. Then the chimes of Big Ben heralded the approaching hour. As the first note boomed out the King turned about and pressed a button which caused the flags to fall away from the Cenotaph. The last note of eleven o'clock died away and everything was still. Throughout the capital, throughout the land, across the Empire and on the seas all stood in silence. The Cornish Riviera express halted near Taplow; the Irish Mail came to a stop near Crewe. The stillness was total, the silence complete.

Then came the clear, haunting sound of the Last Post and as the notes died away the King stepped forward and laid his wreath against the Cenotaph, followed by the Prince of Wales, the Prime Minister (Lloyd George) and representatives of the Empire.

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The procession now began to move towards the Abbey with the King and the Princes marching behind the gun carriage. As the bearer party entered the Abbey with the coffin they passed between two ranks of a guard of honour made up of ninety-six men decorated for gallantry, seventy four of them holders of the Victoria Cross, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Freyberg. Some were now civilians, others still serving.

As the choir sang the words from the Burial Service the procession made its way to the grave where the bearer party lowered the coffin, still covered by "the Padre's flag" with the King's wreath and the solider's sidearms and steel helmet on it. Placing the coffin onto the bars across the open mouth, they then stepped back. The King stood at the head of the grave facing the Archbishop of Canterbury. the Dean and the Bishop of London; the pall bearers stood on either side while Lloyd George with Asquith and the mem-bers of the Cabinet were grouped in rows behind the King. There followed "The Lord's my Shepherd" and a reading, after which the hymn "Lead Kindly Light" was sung. During the singing the bearer party came forward, removed the wreath, side arms and helmet and the Union flag and lowered the coffin into the grave. The service continued, and at the words "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes . . ." the King sprinkled French earth onto the coffin (the grave was later filled in with earth brought over from France). After the Lord's Prayer that moving hymn "Abide With Me" was sung with fervour and heartfelt emotion.

The service was now drawing to a close. After two further prayers the final hymn - Rudyard Kipling's "Recessional" was sung:

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The Captains and the Kings depart;
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget.

The Dean then gave the Blessing. There was a pause and then, very softly at first but growing in intensity came the roll of drums, louder and louder till the Abbey reverberated with the sound, and then it slowly faded to complete silence. Almost immediately the silence was broken by the notes of one of the loveliest of bugle calls, the Long Reveille. The service was ended and as the band of the Grenadier Guards played a march the King, the Queens, the Princes, Dean and Clergy processed out of the Abbey through the West Door. The Times described the ceremony as "the most beautiful, the most touching and the most impress-ive that in all its long, eventful story this island has ever seen".

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Six days elapsed before the tomb was sealed on the night of 17th November with a temporary stone. In that time over a million people filed past the grave, paying homage to the one who represented all the dead of the Great War; their wreaths they left at the Cenotaph, thousands upon thousands of them. Nearly a year later the American Commander-in-Chief. General Pershing, placed the United States Congressional Medal of Honor at the grave; it can be seen today on a nearby pillar. The Victoria Cross was awarded to the American Unknown Soldier, but not to the British.

The final act took place on Armistice Day 1921 when the permanent stone of black Belgian marble was unveiled by the Dean of Westminster. The Padre's Flag now hangs in the Abbey's St. George's Chapel.

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Last Updated ( Tuesday, 08 July 2008 19:36 )  

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