An image of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. A black grave set into a tile floor surrounded by poppies and with three poppy wreaths lying in front.
The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. Picture credit.

The Unknown Warrior

Westminster Abbey’s most solemn monument contains the body of an unidentified soldier picked at random from the battlefields of the First World War.

Reverend David Railton had the idea of a national monument to commemorate those who were lost without trace in the First World War when he was serving as a padre on the Western Front in 1916.

Railton was very much at the sharp end of the war, having won the Military Cross for saving two men and an officer whilst under fire. It was whilst serving on the Western Front near Armentières that the seeds of an idea were sown that to led to the tomb of the unknown warrior.

Like all front-line padres, he was the point of contact for relatives seeking information about those reported as “Missing, believed killed”. In response to these heartfelt letters, the only response allowed by the rules was to give a vague map reference. One night, as he returned to his billets from the front, Railton had an inspirational experience. In his own words;

“I came back from the line at dusk,” he later remembered, “We had just laid to rest the mortal remains of a comrade. I went to a billet in front of Erkingham, near Armentieres. At the back of the billet was a small garden, and in the garden only six paces from the house, there was a grave. At the head of the grave there stood a rough cross of white wood. On the cross was written in deep black-pencilled letters, ‘An Unknown British Soldier’ and in brackets beneath, ‘of the Black Watch.’ It was dusk and no one was near, except some officers in the billet playing cards. I remember how still it was. Even the guns seemed to be resting.”

The image struck him hard and he began to wonder who this anonymous soldier was and to consider whether there was more that could be done. Once again, in his own words.

“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.”

Over the following years, the seed planted by seeing that grave was to develop within his mind. He thought that some form of commemoration for those who had gone missing would be of comfort to the relatives and the best way to achieve this would be to repatriate an unknown soldier’s body and create a single representative grave for those who grieved.

After the war he decided to take his idea forward; but who to talk to about his idea? He considered Field Marshall Haig, the King and wondered if maybe the newspapers could help. In the end he wrote to the Right Reverend Bishop Herbert Ryle who was the Dean of Westminster Abbey.

He received a polite response from the Dean, not really committing to anything, but the Dean was taken with the idea and pursued it. On the 19th of October 1920, Railton received a response.

“Dear Mr Railton, the idea which you suggested to me in August I have kept steadily in view ever since. I have been occupied actively upon it for the last two or three weeks. It has necessitated communication with the War Office, Prime Minister, Cabinet and Buckingham Palace. The announcement, which the Prime Minister will, or intends to make, this afternoon will show how far the government is ready to cooperate. Once more I express my warm acknowledgement and thanks for your letter.

Yours sincerely, Herbert E Ryle, Bishop.”

Further ideas emerged as the concept of the unknown warrior was discussed. Bishop Ryle suggested that French soil should be brought back to fill the grave, along with the body. He also agreed to Railton’s suggestion that the flag that he had used when he was a Padre could be used to cover the unknown warrior’s coffin. This point was important to Railton. As he explained later, in his own words.

“The flag which is now in the Abbey was used during the war at Holy Communion, as a covering for the rough box or table altars. It was used at church parades and ceremonial parades. It was the covering, often the only covering, of the slain as their bodies were laid to rest. For all I know it may have been used in Belgium or France when the actual unknown warrior was slain, for the unknown received exactly the same attention as the known. It is not a new bit of bunting bought for the occasion, but a real symbol of every Britons’ life. Indeed, it is literally tinged with the lifeblood of fellow Britons.”

Once the details were ironed out, a body was selected. Four British soldiers’ bodies were exhumed from the four main battle areas along the Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres. On the 7th of November 1920, the four bodies were brought to a Chapel at St Pol. The four bodies lay on stretchers with the union flag draped over the top and Brigadier General L J Wyatt, who was the general officer commanding British troops in France and Flanders, without knowing which body came from which area, selected one of the bodies to become the Unknown Warrior. The other three bodies were reburied.

The selected body was placed into a plain coffin and sealed. The following morning, the chaplains of the Church of England, Nonconformist Churches and the Roman Catholic Church held a service. Then the body was escorted to Boulogne for the night. At this point the coffin was placed inside another specially made coffin, constructed from 2-inch-thick oak from a tree taken from Hampton Court Palace garden, one of the royal palaces. The King had selected a 16th century crusader sword from the Tower of London, and this was fastened to the coffin lid. Within the wrought iron bands that bound the coffin an inscription on the coffin read, “A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914–1918 for King and Country.”

The coffin was then escorted by a full French military parade and local school children to waiting a Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Verdun. At the quayside, Marshal Foch saluted the Unknown Warrior as he left France. HMS Verdun completed the short trip across to Dover where the Unknown Warrior received a 19-gun field marshal’s salute and was then transported by train to Victoria Station, where the body stayed overnight. On the morning of the 11th of November, the Unknown Warrior was placed by a bearer party, provided by the Third Battalion Coldstream Guards, onto a gun carriage. 6 black horses drew the carriage to Whitehall and the Cenotaph, which was unveiled by King George V.

It’s interesting to note that the Cenotaph means “empty tomb” and here we can see both sides of the missing being commemorated; the Cenotaph for the thousands of men who’s remains were never found and the Unknown Warrior for those who were found, but never identified. The King lay a wreath of red roses and bay leaves on top of the coffin. Then, escorted by Admirals, including Lord Beattie, Field Marshals, including Lord French and Lord Haig, and the Air Chief Marshal, Sir Hugh Trenchard and followed by members of the royal family, the Unknown Warrior was drawn to Westminster Abbey.

A black and whiteb image of the coffin containing the remains of an unknwon British soldier of the Great War. The coffin rests on a standard draped over a low platform and lies alone in the vaulting hall Westminster Abbey. The photo has a hazy, dreamy quality to it.

At the Abbey, a shortened burial service was held before the coffin was carried into St. George’s Chapel past an honour guard of 100 holders of the Victoria Cross. Once in place, the Unknown Warrior’s coffin lay in state. At each corner of the coffin, a member of the services stood as an honour guard, their heads bowed and rifles reversed. The vigil continued at night, illuminated only by a few candles. On the 18th of November, the Unknown Warrior was interred in the chapel using one hundred sandbags of earth taken from the battlefields. A temporary stone was placed above the grave with the following inscription.

“A BRITISH WARRIOR WHO FELL IN THE GREAT WAR 1914–1918 FOR KING AND COUNTRY. GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN THAN THIS.”

The Unknown Warrior now forms a central part in the way that Britain commemorates its war dead.

The following year, on behalf of the United States of America, General Pershing presented the Unknown Warrior with the Congressional Medal of Honour, America’s highest honour. This honour was to be reciprocated when Britain presented the United States’ Unknown Warrior with the Victoria Cross.

Also in 1921, the temporary stone above the grave was replaced with a black marble stone with the following inscription.

“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”

The concept of an Unknown Warrior has been widely used elsewhere in the world, spreading across the globe during the twentieth century; in marked contrast to the previous eras, where the dead, tended to be rapidly forgotten by any form of institutional memory.

Amongst many other countries who have adopted the practice of interring an anonymous soldier, France has her Unknown Warrior interred in the Arc de Triomphe. Belgium has interred an Unknown Warrior within its congressional column, which celebrates the formation of the nation and its ideals. Germany’s past is a little more troubled, as the Nazi party adopted the concept of fallen warriors and used it as a part of their ideological imagery, however, Germany now has its memorial to the victims of fascism and militarism.

The United States’ Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Arlington. Two soldiers are on guard. A wreath of colourful flowers rests on a stand in front of the tomb.
The United States’ Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Arlington.

The United States commemorates its missing dead at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, and following the initial commemoration for the First World War, has additionally interred other soldiers from other conflicts throughout its history.

However commemorated, the concept of the Unknown Warrior remains a powerful sign of the respect with which missing servicemen are held. The elaborate rituals that surround their graves an enduring sign to their families that the state acknowledges their loss.

The clearest sign of this respect perhaps is that, of all the graves of kings, poets, scientists, and warriors who are interred in Westminster Abbey, the only grave that may not be trodden upon is that of the Unknown Warrior.

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I’m interested in lots of things and write about them. History, nature, environment, business topics, experimental stories and anything else I fancy.

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Chris Stevenson

Chris Stevenson

I’m interested in lots of things and write about them. History, nature, environment, business topics, experimental stories and anything else I fancy.

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