The idea behind the “Unknown Soldier” is not a unique one, rather it can be found in many nations that have lost vast numbers of soldiers and civilians in war. The Tomb in Westminster Abbey is yet one of the many examples of this memorial to the many who were lost in our great folly called war. The Abbey is a breathtaking building in itself, but this small spot just makes it so much more sombre. Google Earth co-ordinates are: 51.499468° -0.128368°
The idea of a Tomb of the Unknown Warrior was first conceived in 1916 by the Reverend David Railton, who wrote to the Dean of Westminster 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.
Suitable remains were exhumed from various battlefields and brought to the chapel at Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise near Arras, France on the night of 7 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. They 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 remained at the chapel overnight and on the afternoon of 8 November, transferred under guard and escorted by Kendall, It was transported to the medieval castle within the ancient citadel at Boulogne. Troops lining the route, while a company from the French 8th Infantry Regiment stood vigil overnight. The next morning, two undertakers entered the castle library the coffin was placed into a casket of oak timbers of trees from Hampton Court Palace. It was was banded with iron, and a medieval crusader’s sword was affixed to the top, 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 loaded onto a French military wagon, drawn by six black horses. 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 where it was loaded onto HMS Verdun. The ship sailed just before noon, escorted by six battleships.
The casket was landed at Dover Marine Railway Station at the Western Docks on 10 November and then carried to London in South Eastern and Chatham Railway General Utility Van No.132 (aka “The Cavel van”). The train traveled to Victoria Station, where it arrived at platform 8 at 8.32 pm that evening and remained overnight.
On the morning of 11 November 1920, the casket was placed onto a gun carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery drawn by six horses through immense and silent crowds. The cortège, followed by The King, the Royal Family and ministers of state proceeded 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. One hundred women who lost their husband and all their sons in the war were guests of honour.
The Unknown Warrior was finally interred in the far western end of the Nave, only a few feet from the entrance, the grave was filled in with earth from the battlefields, and then covered by a temporary stone with a gilded inscription on it: It was inscribed:
A BRITISH WARRIOR WHO FELL IN
THE GREAT WAR 1914-1918
FOR KING AND COUNTRY.
GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN THAN THIS.
The grave was finally capped with a black Belgian marble stone.
“THEY BURIED HIM AMONG THE KINGS BECAUSE HE
HAD DONE GOOD TOWARDS GOD AND TOWARD
I was fortunate that a helpful door monitor at the abbey allowed me this brief glimpse of the tomb and to grab the image above. A few days later I went to Victoria Station with the intention of photographing the plaques on the station.
I have drawn heavily on the Wikipedia page about the Unknown Warrior to create the text for this post. Realistically there is not much that can be written that is not already public record and the events are well documented. I have another Unknown Soldier post in this blog entitled “Buried Him Among Kings“. The photograph of “The Cavell van” as restored on the Kent and East Sussex Railway is retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cavell_Van and is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The file owner is Michael Roots.
DRW © 2013-2021. Created 10/03/2013. Moved to blog 27/02/2014, updated 15/11/2019, moved to Musings 15/01/2021