The great unknown
Remembrance Day 2020 marks the historic centenary of the ceremonial burial of the Unknown Warrior. The unidentifiable British soldier represented around one million servicemen and servicewomen from Britain and its empire who lost their lives as a result of the First World War.
While the service would ultimately capture the hearts of a nation, the concept of the Unknown Warrior was the humble brainchild of one man, Reverend David Railton – a military chaplain who served on the Western Front during The Great War.
A notion set in motion.
The Passing of the Unknown Warrior, 11 November 1920 by Frank Owen Salisbury. © Alamy
Inspired by what he had witnessed on the front line, Railton wrote to senior figures in the armed forces with a proposal: to return the unidentifiable remains of a single British serviceman back to Britain for burial with full honours.
The concept was embraced by government decision-makers and Railton’s idea would soon become a reality.
The royal treatment
Along with the French tributes that took place at the Arc de Triomphe the very same day, the service was the first memorial of its kind and was presented as a regal ceremony for the common man. The nameless hero represented all who had fallen during the war and was appropriately commemorated with the pomp and circumstance of a state funeral.
Britain’s Unknown Warrior returned from France in a coffin draped with a Union flag. After arrival at the port of Dover, the coffin travelled by train on a gun carriage to London. Thousands of people crammed into the streets to witness the procession, with many war widows amongst the congregation in the Westminster Abbey where the burial took place.
The selection of bodies for the Unknown Warrior in France.
The coffin containing the body of the Unknown Warrior in a chappelle ardente
HMS Verdun carrying the body of the Unknown Warrior to Dover at Boulogne Harbour.
The arrival of the Unknown Warrior at Dover.
The most that man can give
The Unknown Warrior’s tomb represented a symbolic resting place for servicemen and servicewomen who had died as a result of the war while serving for Britain and its empire.
The unidentifiable remains came to stand for all relatives and friends who had died on active service during the war. It was hoped the burial of the Unknown Warrior would give families a focus for their grief as well as providing comfort.
Many other countries chose to commemorate their war dead in a similar way, including France and the United States.
The tomb of the Unknown Warrior.
From the First World War buried at the west end of the nave in Westminster Abbey, London. © Alamy.
© IWM (Q 111468)