The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior – a Centenary

The coffin of the Unknown Warrior in state in the Abbey in 1920, before burial. Photograph Q 31514 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

Today marks the centenary of the burial of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. I must confess it is only recently that I learnt of the very powerful story behind this iconic memorial and having checked Wikipedia, am slightly shamed to confess that I have always known him as the ‘Unknown Soldier’ – nevertheless, on the recording of 100 years after this unknown individual was laid to rest in the Abbey, the story is, once again worth re-telling……………

The British grave of ‘the Unknown Warrior‘ (often known as ‘The Tomb of The Unknown Warrior’) holds an unidentified British soldier killed on a European battlefield during the First World War. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, London on 11th November 1920, simultaneously with a similar interment of a French unknown soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in France, making both graves the first to honour the unknown dead of the First World War. It is the first example of a tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Origins
The idea of a Tomb of the Unknown Warrior was first conceived in 1916 by the Reverend David Railton, who, while serving as an Army Chaplain on the Western Front, had seen a grave marked by a rough cross, which bore the pencil-written legend ‘An Unknown British Soldier’.

He wrote to the Dean of Westminster, Herbert Ryle, in 1920 proposing that an unidentified British soldier from the battlefields in France be buried with due ceremony in Westminster Abbey “amongst the kings” to represent the many hundreds of thousands of Empire dead. The idea was strongly supported by the Dean and the Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

Selection, arrival and ceremony
Arrangements were placed in the hands of Lord Curzon of Kedleston who prepared in committee the service and location. Suitable remains were exhumed from various battlefields and brought to the chapel at Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise near Arras, France on the night of 7th November 1920. The bodies were received by the Reverend George Kendall OBE. Brigadier L.J. Wyatt and Lieutenant Colonel E.A.S. Gell of the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries went into the chapel alone. The remains were then placed in four plain coffins each covered by Union Flags: the two officers did not know from which battlefield any individual soldier had come. Brigadier Wyatt with closed eyes rested his hand on one of the coffins. The other soldiers were then taken away for reburial by Kendall.

The coffin of the unknown warrior then stayed at the chapel overnight and on the afternoon of 8th November, it was transferred under guard and escorted by Kendall, with troops lining the route, from Ste Pol to the medieval castle within the ancient citadel at Boulogne. For the occasion, the castle library was transformed into a chapelle ardente: a company from the French 8th Infantry Regiment, recently awarded the Légion d’Honneur en masse, stood vigil overnight.

The following morning, two undertakers entered the castle library and placed the coffin into a casket of the oak timbers of trees from Hampton Court Palace.[1] The casket was banded with iron, and a medieval crusader’s sword chosen by King George V personally from the Royal Collection was affixed to the top and surmounted by an iron shield bearing the inscription ‘A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914–1918 for King and Country’.

The casket was then placed onto a French military wagon, drawn by six black horses. At 10:30 a.m., all 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 “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 saluted the casket before it was carried up the gangway of the destroyer, HMS Verdun, and piped aboard with an Admiral’s call. The Verdun slipped anchor just before noon and was joined by an escort of six battleships. As the flotilla carrying the casket closed on Dover Castle it received a 19-gun Field Marshal’s salute. It was landed at Dover Marine Railway Station at the Western Docks on 10th November. The body of the Unknown Warrior was carried to London in South Eastern and Chatham Railway General Utility Van No.132, which had previously carried the bodies of Edith Cavell and Charles Fryatt. The van has been preserved by the Kent and East Sussex Railway. The train went to Victoria Station, where it arrived at platform 8 at 8:32 p.m. that evening and remained overnight. (A plaque at Victoria Station marks the site: every year on 10th November, a small Remembrance service, organised by The Western Front Association, takes place between platforms 8 and 9.

On the morning of 11th November 1920, the casket was placed onto a gun carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery (N Battery RHA) and drawn by six horses through immense and silent crowds. As the cortege set off, a further Field Marshal’s salute was fired in Hyde Park. The route followed was Hyde Park Corner, The Mall, and to Whitehall where the Cenotaph, a “symbolic empty tomb”, was unveiled by King-Emperor George V. The cortège was then followed by The King, the Royal Family and ministers of state to Westminster Abbey, where the casket was borne into the West Nave of the Abbey flanked by a guard of honour of one hundred recipients of the Victoria Cross.

The guests of honour were a group of about one hundred women. They had been chosen because they had each lost their husband and all their sons in the war. “Every woman so bereft who applied for a place got it”.

The coffin was then interred in the far western end of the Nave, only a few feet from the entrance, in soil brought from each of the main battlefields, and covered with a silk pall. Servicemen from the armed forces stood guard as tens of thousands of mourners filed silently past. The ceremony appears to have served as a form of catharsis for collective mourning on a scale not previously known.

The grave was then capped with a black Belgian marble stone (the only tombstone in the Abbey on which it is forbidden to walk) featuring this inscription, composed by Herbert Edward Ryle, Dean of Westminster, 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 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

A year later, on 17th October 1921, the unknown warrior was given the United States’ highest award for valour, the Medal of Honor, from the hand of General John Pershing; it hangs on a pillar close to the tomb. On 11th November 1921, the American Unknown Soldier was reciprocally awarded the Victoria Cross.

When Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (later Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother) married Prince Albert, Duke of York (who became King George VI) on 26th April 1923, she laid her bouquet at the Tomb on her way into the Abbey, as a tribute to her brother Fergus who had died at the Battle of Loos in 1915 (and whose name was then listed among those of the missing on the Loos Memorial, although in 2012 a new headstone was erected in the Quarry Cemetery, Vermelles). Royal brides married at the Abbey now have their bouquets laid on the tomb the day after the wedding and all of the official wedding photographs have been taken. It is also the only tomb not to have been covered by a special red carpet for the wedding of the Duke of York, and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon.

Before she died in 2002, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother expressed the wish for her wreath to be placed on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. Her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, laid the wreath the day after the funeral.

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