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‘It could be their son’ – Unknown Warrior represented the mass of ‘vanished lives’

Written by on 10/11/2020

The Unknown Warrior was buried in Westminster Abbey exactly 100 years ago, on 11 November 1920.

Like the two-minute silence, which had originated from a custom started in South Africa during the First World War, the totemic significance of this single unidentifiable corpse, caught public imagination.

The war had decimated the population.

Almost every village, town and hamlet lost young men in the trenches of the Western Front, to German machine guns, gas and artillery shells.

The Queen's Equerry, Lieutenant Colonel Nana Kofi Twumasi-Ankrah, placed a bouquet on the grave
Image: The Queen paid her respects last week in a private visit

Many dead were never found or, if they were, they could not be identified because the British Army used leather identity tags, which rotted.

Mothers, wives, families and friends often had nothing tangible to mourn, but a telegram, some medals and a letter from the king.

It was the Reverend David Railton who had the idea of selecting a single dead soldier to represent the multitude of these vanished lives.

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Railton had been a military chaplain in the war and carried enduring memories of the impact it had on those caught in the fighting. He believed that if the nation accorded the highest honour to one nameless corpse, it did so for them all.

Railton proposed the idea to Bishop Ryle, who was the dean of Westminster Abbey, which was known as the “Parish Church of the Empire”.

The Royal Northumberland Fusiliers near Ypres in 1916 - one of the areas where a body was taken from
Image: The Royal Northumberland Fusiliers near Ypres in 1916 – one of the areas from where a body was taken
The coffin of the Unknown Warrior is carried aboard HMS Verdun at Boulogne
Image: The Unknown Warrior was selected at random and carried from Boulogne on HMS Verdun

The dean took the idea to Lloyd-George, then prime minister, who saw the power of this symbol, and persuaded the reluctant King George V.

Enormous precautions were taken to ensure the soldier could never be identified.

Working parties went to the battlefields of Ypres, Cambrai, Arras, Aisne, Somme and the Marne, recovering a random “unidentified soldier” from each.

The six sorry corpses were taken in plain coffins to a chapel, near Arras.

Blindfolded and at midnight, Brigadier Wyatt entered the chapel and placed his hand upon one of the coffins.

This chosen coffin was transported to Boulogne, where it was placed within an oak casket made with timber from Hampton Court Palace and banded with iron. On top was placed a crusader’s sword, given by the king.

HMS Verdun was prepared to convey the Unknown Warrior to Dover and, all the way to London, the public turned out to salute and show their respect.

The coffin was carried in procession through London
Image: The coffin was carried in procession through London
Field Marshal Haig with the coffin of the Unknown Warrior in London on 11 November 1920
Image: Field Marshal Haig with the coffin as it arrived in London – where huge crowds turned out

On the second anniversary of the Armistice, which silenced the guns at 11 o’clock, on 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, a state funeral for the Unknown Warrior took place in London.

The king walked behind the Unknown Warrior’s gun carriage to Westminster Abbey, as the chief mourner.

This was emblematic because, to any grieving family, this could be their son and here was the king emperor showing the highest respect for their death and sacrifice. After all, the call to join up throughout the war was “for king and country”.

King George V placed a wreath on the coffin at the Cenotaph on Armistice Day.
Image: King George V placed a wreath on the coffin at the Cenotaph on Armistice Day 1920
The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior lying in state in Westminster Abbey
Image: The Unknown Warrior lying in state in the Abbey on 11 November 1920

One hundred holders of the Victoria Cross provided an honour guard and the burial took place just inside the west door of Westminster Abbey.

The grave still dominates the entrance, marked by a slab of black Belgian marble and inscribed with a description in brass letters. Standing on it is forbidden. Its edge is marked with poppies.

To emphasise that this is an ordinary soldier, the final line on the inscription is the most poignant:

Tomb of the Unknown Warrior
Image: The grave symbolises the thousands of men whose bodies never came home

“They buried him among the kings because he had done good toward God and toward this house.”

Nearby still hangs the Union Flag that Reverend David Railton placed over the coffin for its procession from the battlefield to Westminster Abbey.

 Sky News

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