Who is the Unknown Warrior?
In honour of the historic armistice agreement that brought the fighting of the First World War to a close in 1918, people across the United Kingdom come together each year on 11 November in collective memoriam of all those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. 2020 also marks the historic 100-year anniversary of the burial of the Unknown Warrior – the ceremonial burial of a nameless British soldier, paying homage to the millions of servicemen who lost their lives between 1914 and 1918. While the burial of the Unknown Warrior would prove to be profoundly influential and inspire numerous other countries to follow suit in subsequent years, the concept itself originated from humble beginnings and began life as the brainchild of one man.
An unknown British soldier
Reverend David Railton was a military chaplain who served in the 2nd Battalion of the Hon. Artillery Company during the First World War. Stationed in France on the Western Front, the former Folkestone curate would provide support to soldiers in their time of need. As the story goes, Railton returned from the front lines one night in 1916 to discover a makeshift grave in the garden of his billet at Erkingham near Armentières. The basic burial marked the final resting place of an anonymous serviceman, marked by a simple wooden cross. Labelled in black pencil with the words ‘An Unknown British Soldier’, this understated tribute stirred the soul of the clergyman and an idea was born that would come to resonate throughout the nation.
Patience pays off
With the war still ongoing, Railton would begin to develop his initial idea into a bona fide concept: to create a national memorial to an unnamed fallen soldier as a symbolic tribute to all those who died on active service during the First World War. Railton returned to Britain at the conclusion of the war in 1918, settling back into civilian life as a vicar in Margate with the billet garden grave still fresh in mind. With the war now over, the opportunity to turn his idea into a reality had finally become a viable proposition. A letter to Dean Herbert Ryle of Westminster would prove successful and, with the support of the church, the government and the monarchy behind it, the notion was finally approved. With the advocacy of Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Railton’s concept quickly picked up momentum and was subsequently rushed through parliament. With that, the task of finding an ‘Unknown Warrior’ was underway.
A suitable candidate
While the exact figure is unknown, it is believed that approximately 10 million military personnel from around the world lost their lives in the barbaric brutality of the First World War. Most of the dead were left on or near the same battlefields where their lives had ended. As a result of the grim scale of death, those tasked with retrieving a body were left with countless British soldiers to choose from – a stark reminder of the horrors of war. The one proviso for selection was that the chosen bodies must be completely random and totally anonymous. With this in mind, digging parties were sent out to different battlefields and ordered to retrieve the remains of a single British soldier from each location. The exhumed remains were then sequestered at Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise near Arras, France, on the night of 7 November 1920 where they would await the final selection. The individuals were placed in nondescript coffins and each covered with a Union flag. The final decision fell on the shoulders of high-ranking army officials, including Brigadier L. J. Wyatt. To solidify the random nature of the selection, the choice was again made at random, with some accounts even stating that the deciding officer’s eyes were completely shut as he placed a hand on his coffin of choice.
A heraldic upgrade
With the chosen body now confirmed, the Unknown Warrior was moved to the Castle Citadel in Boulogne the following afternoon. On the morning of 9 November 1920, the remains were transferred to its regal casket – a coffin made of two-inch thick oak from trees felled at Hampton Court Palace in England. The stately coffin also featured a medieval sword personally selected by George V from the Royal Collection. Complementing this majestic weaponry was an equally dignified shield, complete with the inscription ‘A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country’. The coffin was then covered with the very flag used by David Railton as an altar cloth during the war. Commonly referred to as the ‘Ypres/Padre’s Flag’, this flag would lie draped over the coffin all the way to the Westminster, where it would remain for more than 30 years before being moved to St George’s Chapel.
A journey to remembrance
The Unknown Warrior’s long journey home began on the morning of 10 November 1920. Escorted by French soldiers and led by a thousand schoolchildren, his coffin was carried to the quayside where the precious cargo was transferred to the destroyer HMS Verdun. For the crew serving on the Verdun, the cargo in question was a priceless package and was treated as such. Flanked by six battleships, the HMS Verdun departed Boulogne just before midday. Arriving at Dover, the procession was greeted by a 19-gun Field Marshal’s salute announcing its historic arrival. Switching to railway transportation, his coffin arrived at Platform 8 of Victoria Station at 20:32 that evening, where it would remain overnight. A plaque remains on display at Platform 8 to this day and a small service takes place each year to commemorate the occasion.
The final march
The following morning on 11 November 1920, the casket began its final journey – a three-mile route from Victoria to Westminster Abbey. The turnout was astounding with thousands flocking to pay their respects bringing central London to a standstill. Placed on a gun carriage drawn by six carefully selected horses of the Royal Horse Artillery, the coffin made its way from Hyde Park. The streets were lined with thousands of mournful onlookers united in remembrance as the cortege went past. The sombre procession passed through The Mall to Whitehall where the newly erected stone Cenotaph memorial was unveiled by George V. The king then laid a wreath of roses on the Unknown Warrior’s coffin and joined the procession, walking behind as Chief Mourner. Flanked by 100 recipients of the Victoria Cross, the casket finally arrived at Westminster Abbey where the nameless hero, a symbol of every serviceman and servicewoman who had made the trip to the front line and never returned home, took its rightful place amongst the kings of Great Britain. Buried at the west end of the Nave, the memorial poignantly bears an adapted biblical verse from 2 Chronicles 24:16, simply stating ‘they buried him among the kings, because he had done good toward God and toward his house’.