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The Unknown Warrior

This is story of how the Unknown Warrior was selected and  finally laid to rest at Westminster Abbey:

Unknown WarriorOn the stroke of midnight on 7 November, 1920, Brigadier General  LJ.Wyatt, General Officer Commanding British Troops in France and Flanders, entered a hut near the village of St Pol, near Ypres in northern France. In front of him were the remains of four bodies, all of them lying under Union flags.

Earlier that afternoon, the bodies had been disinterred from unmarked graves in each of the main battlefields, the Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres. Four blank crosses had been chosen from the forest of crosses that now covered the shell-pocked French landscape.

As well as coming from unmarked graves, the bodies all had to belong to soldiers who had died in the early years of the War. The orders given to the exhumation parties were very clear on this point. The bodies had to be as old as possible in order to ensure they were sufficiently decomposed to be unidentifiable.

Wrapped  in old sacks, the four dead soldiers had been brought to St Pol, where they were received by a British clergyman and two undertakers who had travelled to France for the occasion. There, the remains were examined to make sure they bore no identifying marks, then placed inside the hut for the remainder of the day.

In some reports of what happened  next, Brig Wyatt was described as being blindfolded. There were also reputed   to  have been six bodies rather than four. However, the brigadier makes no reference to being blindfolded in his account of what happened, and   insisted that he saw only the remains of four bodies when he stepped  into the hut as midnight struck.
There, the brigadier lifted up his lantern to take in the scene. Then he simply reached out and touched one of the Union flags. That was it; he had made his choice. He had picked a body to go inside the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.

unknown-soldierIn death, the body was to enjoy a fate that would, in all probability, have been unthinkable in life. Feted by the King-Emperor, attended with the most lavish pomp and solemn ceremony that the country could muster, this anonymous collection of bones was about to become the focus of a nation’s grief.

It was only two months earlier that the idea for a Tomb of the Unknown Warrior had finally been approved. The proposal, however, had been around for some time, floating back and forth from Westminster to Buckingham Palace on tides of nervousness and scepticism.

Although he was to receive little thanks for his initiative, it had originated in the mind of a former Army padre, the Rev David Railton. One evening in 1916, Railton  returned from the front line to his billet near Armentieres having just buried one of his comrades. Outside the billet was a small garden. In one corner of die garden, Railton saw a grave marked with a rough wooden cross.

On the cross was written, in 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,’ he recalled. ‘I remember how still it was. Even the guns seemed to be resting.’
The sight of this unmarked grave made a huge impression on him. ‘How that grave caused me to think,’ Railton wrote later. ‘But who was he, and who were they [his parents]?… So I thought and thought. 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 10 minutes.’

After the Armistice, Railton wrote to Sir Douglas Haig, commander in charge of British Forces, suggesting that the body of an unknown soldier might be buried in Westminster Abbey as a symbol for all those grieving parents and widows who had no grave to visit.

Haig, however, didn’t bother to reply. Railton might have given up there, but his wife, who reputedly told him,’It’s now or never’, encouraged him to have another go. And so he wrote to the Dean of Westminster, the Rt Rev Herbert Ryle.

This time, the response was more positive. Although Ryle rejected Railton’s suggestion that the grave should be known as the Tomb of the Unknown Comrade — this smacked of Bolshevism — he was greatly taken with the idea. So taken that he immediately wrote to George V, David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, and the War Office.

But once again, the plan hit a snag: the King was “Not keen”. In fact, he did not like the sound of it at all. The newly completed Cenotaph, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, was due to be unveiled in Whitehall on 11 November, 1920. Surely that was enough, George noted wearily. And might not, the idea of a symbolic funeral ‘now be regarded as dated?’  Quite apart from anything else, there was ample opportunity for something to go wrong. One false move and there would be a morbid  side-show in the National Shrine.’
Lloyd George, however, was enthusiastic — ‘hereupon the King decided that it might not be such a bad idea after all. But by now it was August 920 and time was running short. The Prime Minister set up a committee to look into it and appointed Lord Curzon, former Viceroy  of India, to be in charge.
As Ronald Blythe observes in his excellent book The Age of Illusion, Curzon was an odd choice to preside over  arrangements for such an egalitarian, socially inclusive monument. Certainly, he was no fan of egalitarianism. Not long before, Curzon had seen a platoon of naked British soldiers bathing in the sea in France and observed, ‘How is it that I have never been informed that the lower orders have such white skins?’

As for the British public, at this stage icy seem to have been even more doubtful than GeorgeV. Although Wyatt thought it was a wonderful  idea, others, as he soon discovered, were less smitten. ‘I attended a large luncheon party at round this time,’ he wrote, ‘and at it I was asked what I thought of the proposal to bring over a body. Only one person out of 24 agreed that it was wonderful idea. The rest said it would never appeal to the British.’

Yet steadily, inexorably, the idea developed a momentum of its own. In late October 1920, it was duly approved. This prompted a great rush of activity. Plans for traffic diversions, for crowd barriers and for a huge military parade were hurriedly drawn up. Meanwhile, oak taken from a tree in Hampton Court was fashioned into a magnificent coffin, specially designed by the British Undertakers Association.

Coffin of the Unknown WarriorOn 6 November, 1920, the two undertakers, Mr Nodes and Mr Sourbutts, travelled to France with the coffin. After Wyatt had made his choice, the body was packed inside the coffin and sealed with two wrought-iron straps topped with a seal, inscribed on the seal were the words: ‘A British Warrior Who Fell in the Great War 1914-1918. For king and Country.’ A sword was also attached to the seal. This was a gift from the King and came from his private collection. By now, George’s attitude had undergone a further change. Far from being lukewarm about the idea, he had  become completely absorbed in it.

On the morning of 10 November, the coffin was taken to Boulogne. With it were six barrels of earth from the fields of Flanders. In Boulogne, the mile-long cortege passed through the streets of the town to the strains of a military band playing Chopin’s Funeral March. Children had been given the day off school and they joined the townspeople lining the streets. On the dockside, Marshal Foch of France gave a speech praising the fortitude and bravery of British soldiers. He also offered to accompany the coffin onto British soil. However, this offer was rejected as being inappropriate.
Along with the six barrels of earth and four wreaths so large that it took four soldiers to lift each of them, the coffin was carried aboard the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Verdun.

hmsverdun2In the middle of the Channel the Verdun was met by another six destroyers. As she approached, the destroyers lowered their Union Jacks and ensigns to half-mast, an honour usually reserved for the King. Then the seven ships headed for Dover.

At 3.15 in the afternoon, as the ships came into view, a 19-gun salute was fired and a band played Land of Hope and Glory. Shops had been closed for die day and the quayside was crammed widi people.

After being brought ashore, the coffin was placed inside South-East Railways Passenger Luggage Van Number 132. This was the same van that in May 1919 had been used to carry the body of *Edith Cavell, the British nurse executed by the Germans for helping Allied prisoners escape from occupied Belgium.
Now the walls of the luggage van had been draped in purple cloth, while the roof had been painted white so that people could see it more easily. With some difficulty — they wouldn’t fit through the doors – the four enormous wreaths were loaded into another luggage van.

As the train made its way to London, every station it passed through was filled to overflowing. People stood in silence and bowed their heads as the white-roofed luggage van went by.

By now it must have been apparent to the most hardened sceptic that Railton’s idea had caught the public imagination to a degree that not even he had dared dream of. The whole country, it seemed, was eager for a sight of the coffin – eager to project onto its anonymous occupant the features of loved ones they would never see again, who would never come home.

When the train arrived at Victoria Station, thousands of people tried to push aside temporary barriers and extra police had to be drafted in to deal with the crowds. That night, the luggage van stood in darkness on one of the platforms. Inside, four guards stood watch — they were relieved at 30 minute intervals.

Having been rather slow to pick up on the mood  of the country, the British press — or sections of it  anyway – now began speculating feverishly about the identity of the body. Since the soldier in question had been killed in the earlier part of the war, could he have been a member of the original Expeditionary Force? In truth, of course, no one had a clue who he was. There were no clues — Brig Wyatt had seen to that. Naturally, this did nothing to dampen speculation. The Daily Express went so far as to claim that it had thought up the whole idea.

Shortly after nine o’clock the next morning, 11 November, a bearer party of eight guardsmen entered the luggage van. The coffin was placed on a gun carriage. Behind it, already assembled in line, were the heads of the Armed Forces and 400 former servicemen, standing four abreast.

At 9.40, in pale winter sunlight, the parade moved off. An enormous crowd — the largest seen in the capital – watched as the coffin was borne through the streets. There was no sound except for people sobbing and the clop of horses’ hooves. As an outpouring of public grief, only the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales nearly 80 years later has ever matched it.

An hour after it left Victoria Station, the coffin arrived at the Cenotaph. There it was met by the King, who placed his own wreath on top.
As the chimes of Big Ben sounded 11 o’clock, the coffin was carried through the north transept door of Westminster Abbey. There, the aisle was lined with 100 recipients of the Victoria Cross. The congregation was made up of 1,000 widows and mothers of the fallen. No representatives of any foreign government had been invited.

According to The Times, the service that followed was, The most beautiful, the most touching and the most impressive… this island has ever seen.’ Recordings of the service, believed to be the first ever made inside the abbey, went on sale several days later at 7s 6d each.

After the coffin had been lowered into the grave, the six barrels of Flanders earth were poured over it. A large slab of Tournai marble was then placed on top — it was replaced by a more elaborately inscribed slab in 1921. By the end of the day, more than 200,000 people had visited the tomb. Writing in his diary that evening, George V noted, The whole ceremony was most moving and impressive… Got home at 12 everything was most beautifully arranged and carried out.’

Within five days, more than a million people had paid their respects — the population of inner London at the time was four-and-a-half million. As for the Cenotaph, this was all but buried beneath 100,000 wreaths. On the same day, the French also laid the remains of their Unknown Warrior to rest – they, too, had picked up on Railton’s idea. But somehow the French never took their Unknown Warrior to their hearts in the way the British did.

Amid all the public anguish, no one thought to wonder what had become of the other three bodies that had been disinterred from their unmarked graves. A rather less exalted fate awaited them. After Brig Wyatt had made his choice, the Union flags were folded away. Then the three  bodies were loaded onto the back of a truck, tipped into a shell hole beside the road near the town of Albert – promptly forgotten.


Around the main inscription are four texts:

*Edith Cavell

In the autumn of 1914, after the German occupation of Brussels, Cavell began sheltering British soldiers and funnelling then out of occupied Belgium to neutral Holland. In the following months, an underground organisation developed, allowing her to guide some 200 Allied soldiers to safety, which placed Cavell in violation of German military law. German authorities became increasingly suspicious of the nurse’s actions, which were reinforced by Cavell’s own disregard and outspokenness.

She was arrested on 3 August, 1915 and charged with harbouring Allied soldiers. She was held in St Gilles prison for 10 weeks, the last two in solitary confinement, and court-martialled.

The British government said they could do nothing to help her. Sir Horace Rowland of the Foreign Office said, “I am afraid that it is likely to go hard with Miss Cavell; I am afraid we are powerless.” The sentiment was echoed by Lord Robert Cecil, Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs. “Any representation by us”, he advised, “will do her more harm than good.” The United States, which had not yet joined the war, did not agree. Hugh S. Gibson, First Secretary of the American legation at Brussels, made clear to the German government that executing Cavell would further harm their nation’s already damaged reputation. Later, he wrote:

“We reminded him (Baron von der Lancken) of the burning of Louvain and the sinking of the Lusitania, and told him that this murder would stir all civilized countries with horror and disgust. Count Harrach broke in at this with the remark that he would rather see Miss Cavell shot than have harm come to one of the humblest German soldiers, and his only regret was that they had not ‘three or four English old women to shoot.'”

The German civil governor, Baron von der Lancken, is known to have stated that Cavell should be pardoned because of her complete honesty and because she had helped save so many lives, German as well as Allied soldiers. However, the German military acted quickly to execute Cavell to deny higher authorities the opportunity to consider clemency.

She was not arrested for espionage as many were led to believe, but for treason. Of the 27 put on trial, Cavell and four others were condemned to death, among them Philippe Baucq, an architect in his thirties who was also instrumental in the escapes.

When in custody, Cavell was asked questions in French, with transcripts made in German. This process gave the inquisitor the opportunity to misinterpret her answers. Although she may have been misrepresented, she made no attempt to defend herself. Cavell was provided with a defender approved by the German military governor. A previous defender, who was chosen for Cavell by her assistant, Elizabeth Wilkins, was ultimately denied by the governor.

The night before her execution, she told Reverend H. Stirling Gahan, the Anglican chaplain who had been allowed to see her and to give her Holy Communion, “Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”These words are inscribed on her statue in St Martin’s Place, near Trafalgar Square in London. Her final words to the German prison chaplain, Le Seur, were recorded as, “Ask Father Gahan to tell my loved ones later on that my soul, as I believe, is safe, and that I am glad to die for my country.”

Despite efforts by American minister Brand Whitlock and the Marquis de Villalobar, the Spanish minister to Belgium, on Cavell’s behalf, on 11 October, Baron Von Der Lancken allowed the execution to proceed.

Sixteen men, composed of two firing squads, carried out her sentence along with four Belgian men at Tir National shooting range in Schaerbeek, at 6 am on 12 October, 1915. There are conflicting reports of the details of Cavell’s execution. However, according to the eyewitness account of Reverend Le Seur, who attended Cavell in her final hours, eight soldiers fired at Cavell while the other eight executed Philippe Baucq.

There is also a dispute over the sentencing imposed under German Military Code. Supposedly, the death penalty equivalent to the offence committed by Cavell, was not officially declared until a few hours after her death.

With instructions from the Spanish minister, Belgian women immediately buried her body next to St. Gilles Prison. After the war, her body was taken to England for a memorial service at Westminster Abbey and again transferred to Norwich, to finally be laid to rest at Life’s Green.

Picture shows exhumation of Miss Cavell.

One Response to The Unknown Warrior

  1. Robby G

    December 8, 2010 at 14:34

    I recall my mother relating to these two events. She recalls as a child, watching with hundreds more, the trains of both, passing very slowly through Herne Hill railway station. She said you could here a pin drop, she said it was so quiet and eerie and it seemed ages after the trains had passed that people continued about their normal ways but in a sad way!

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