War history: The Unknown Warrior... who lies buried among kings

Irish president Michael D Higgins watches with wife Sabina as a solider lays a wreath at the grave o

Irish president Michael D Higgins watches with wife Sabina as a solider lays a wreath at the grave of the Unknown Warrior, during a visit to Westminster Abbey in April. Photo: John Stillwell/PA - Credit: PA

Galloway’s resident military historian, Mike Peters, looks at the story of Britain’s Unknown Warrior

At the west end of the nave of Westminster Abbey is the grave of the Unknown Warrior, containing the body of a nameless soldier brought from France to be buried here on November 11, 1920.

The fallen soldier’s body rests in soil brought from France and is covered by a slab of black Belgian marble from a quarry near Namur. On it is the following inscription, composed by Herbert Ryle, then Dean of Westminster:

BENEATH THIS STONE RESTS THE BODY

OF A BRITISH WARRIOR

UNKNOWN BY NAME OR RANK

BROUGHT FROM FRANCE TO LIE AMONG

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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 burial of an unknown warrior in such an important and sacred place was a highly symbolic action in the aftermath of the First World War.

For years the British and Commonwealth populations had watched the death toll of the war mount almost inexorably. Yet there was little time for grief; nor graves to visit. The war had to be fought and won before the nation could allow itself to mourn.

When the armistice finally came, the majority would find some solace in visiting the war cemeteries and memorials constructed around the world by the Imperial War Graves Commission. However, hundreds of thousands were denied the focal point of a grave: a place where they might find what we know today as closure.

There was also a policy that prevented repatriation of individuals: a well-intentioned policy designed to ensure equality in death. With the war over, and the need to grieve and mourn recognised, the decision was taken to create a focal point and a moment for national mourning.

The notion of the repatriation and ceremonial burial of an unknown soldier became reality.

The idea is attributed to army chaplain the Rev David Railton. In 1916, in a back garden in Armentières, he had come across a forlorn grave with a rough cross on which were pencilled the words “An Unknown British Soldier”.

In August, 1920, he wrote to the Dean of Westminster, Herbert Ryle, suggesting the need for a focal point in Britain where those who had no grave to visit could seek consolation and grieve. The Dean worked tirelessly to bring it about.

A body was chosen from unknown British servicemen exhumed from four different battlefields: the Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres. The remains were brought to the chapel at St Pol on the night of November 7, 1920.

The general in charge of troops in France and Flanders, Brigadier General L Wyatt, accompanied by Colonel Gell, went into the chapel. Inside were four bodies on stretchers, covered by Union flags. The two officers had no idea from which area the bodies had come.

General Wyatt selected one and the two officers placed it in a plain coffin and sealed it. The other three were reburied.

The next morning the body was escorted to Boulogne to lie overnight. The next day the coffin was placed inside another, which had been sent from England. It was made of two-inch-thick oak from a tree that had grown in Hampton Court Palace garden. The new coffin was lined with zinc. Within the wrought iron bands had been placed a 16th Century crusader’s sword from the Tower of London collection. The coffin plate bore the inscription: “A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country”.

The destroyer HMS Verdun transported the coffin to Dover. The body then travelled by train to Victoria station in London.

On the morning of November 11 the coffin was placed on a gun carriage drawn by six black horses and began its journey through crowd-lined streets, making its first stop in Whitehall where the Cenotaph was unveiled by King George V.

The king placed his wreath of red roses and bay leaves on the coffin. Then the carriage, with a pall bearer party comprised of all the senior military commanders in Britain, set off, followed by the king, members of the Royal Family and ministers of state, and made its way to the north door of Westminster Abbey.

The coffin was borne to the west end of the nave through a guard of honour of 100 holders of the Victoria Cross. During the burial service, the king stepped forward and dropped a handful of French earth onto the coffin as it was lowered into the grave.

The elaborate process ensured the body of the Unknown Warrior may be from any of the three services ? Army, Navy or Air Force ? and from any part of the British Isles, dominions or colonies, and represents all those who died and have no other memorial or known grave.

When the Duke of York (later King George VI) married Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon in the Abbey in 1923, as she left she laid her wedding bouquet on the grave as a mark of respect (she had lost a brother during the war). All royal brides married in the Abbey since then have sent back their bouquets to be laid on the grave.