Tomb of the unknown soldier.
November 11th every year we British remember our fallen Warriors at cenotaphs all over our nation. From the smallest village to the largest city our people gather around cenotaphs to remember our fallen from every war since the Great War of 1914/1918.
How did this come into being?
Well, the Great War or World War 1 was one of history’s worst wars for loss of life where no family in the UK was untouched by either the loss of someone they loved or someone in the family that was injured. 16 million people died not just in the UK but in the whole of Europe, 704,803 British military personnel died, 2,272,998 British military personnel were wounded so you can see from those figures that the war was a devastating war for families in the UK.
However, there was no indication that this war was going to be as bad as it was in 1914. Many thought it was all going to be all over by Christmas. It was going to be just one of the many wars Britain had fought in. However, it was in 1916 that an Army Chaplain the Reverend David Railton was passing a simple grave with a simple wooden cross marking the grave. On the wooden cross was written in pencil ‘An Unknown Soldier of the Black Watch’.
1916 was the year that saw the brutal battle of the Somme where on the first day of the battle that lasted from July until November the UK had 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 fatalities.
If there is a hell on earth the Somme must have surely been that hell on earth and it was only going to get worse as it this was just the first day. It was at the backdrop of all this that Army Chaplain the Reverend David Railton had the idea that when all this killing was over all this mayhem on this small corner of the planet was over that we should remember our war dead, those brave men who did not ask for this war but had to fight and die in it.
The war dragged on until 1918 with more deaths until at the 11th hour of the 11th month of the year all the guns fell silent which signalled the end of the war.
Our hero of the moment Reverend David Railton had managed to survive the war and was back in the UK when he thought back to the time he saw that simple cross with those words written on it ‘An Unknown Soldier of the Black Watch’.
In 1920 he wrote to the Dean of Westminster with an idea. It was a simple idea but an idea that had a profound effect on the Dean. The simple idea was that a body from one of the graves back in France should be exhumed and the body should be brought back to England and be buried in Westminster Abbey However the body should be one that was not identified. In other words, it should be a soldier that had no name when he was first buried.
The warrior was to be buried with the kings and queens of England. The task of doing all this was given to Lord Curzon of Kedleston. The location of the battle where the soldier died was to be kept secret and even today nearly 100 later it's still a secret. The reason being that the soldier in the tomb should represent not himself but every British and Commonwealth soldier who had died in the war.
The committee responsible for finding a soldier found suitable remains and four were exhumed from six principal battlefields — The Aisne, Marne, Cambrai, Somme, Arras and Ypres — and brought to the chapel at St Pol near Arras, France on the night of 7 November 1920. At midnight Brigadier General L.J. Wyatt and Lieutenant Colonel E.A.S. Gell of the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries went into the chapel alone. Brigadier General L.J. Wyatt closed his eyes and placed one hand on one of the covered bodies and that was the one they chose to be taken to Westminster Abbey.
The remains were taken to from St Pol to the medieval castle within the ancient citadel at Boulogne. For the occasion, the castle library was transformed into a Chappelle ardent and a company from the French 8th Infantry Regiment recently awarded the Legion d’Honoure en masse, stood vigil overnight.
The following morning two undertakers entered the castle library and placed the simple wooden coffin into an Oak Casket made from trees from the Hampton Court Palace back in London. It was sealed with iron, then a medieval crusaders sword chosen by the King personally from the Royal Collection was affixed to the top and surmounted by an iron shield bearing the inscription ‘A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914–1918 for King and Country’.
At 10 30 am all the church bells in Boulogne began to toll as the casket was escorted to the Harbour. the massed trumpets of the French cavalry and the bugles of the French infantry played Aux Champs (the French “Last Post”). 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.
It was placed on HMS Verdun and the ship began its short journey from France to England escorted by six battleships. As the HMS Verdun and its escorts reached Dover it received a 19 gun salute reserved for Field Marshals
When the casket was landed it was escorted to the Train that would take it to Victoria Station by six six Warrant Officers from the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines, the Army and the Royal Air Force, they, in turn, were escorted by two Generals, two Admirals and two Air Marshals.
The following morning, 11 November 1920, the casket, covered with the Union Flag, on which was placed a steel helmet and sidearms, was placed onto a gun carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery drawn by six horses and led by a Firing Party and the Regimental bands of the Brigade of Guards, set off through immense and silent crowds. As the cortege set off, a further Field Marshal’s salute was fired in Hyde Park. The route followed was Hyde Park Corner, The Mall, and to Whitehall where the Cenotaph, a “symbolic empty tomb”, was unveiled by King-Emperor George V.
At the Cenotaph the King placed a wreath of roses and bay leaves onto the Casket as the Poppy flower that we all use today did not come into effect until the following year 1921.
Two minutes of silence followed and then the casket and its escort carried onto Westminster Abbey where a funeral service was conducted. The funeral service consisted of music from only English composers. At the end of the last hymn, the coffin was laid in the tomb. The King scattered earth from a silver shell case and the Victoria Cross holders filed past either side of the grave. The service was the mourning of the nation. The honours that had been paid were those due to a Field Marshall.
Guests of honour were 100 women who had lost husbands and all their sons during the war. No woman who applied were turned away.
The tomb was capped with a black Belgian marble stone (the only tombstone in the Abbey on which it is forbidden to walk) featuring this inscription, composed by Dean Ryle, Dean of Westminster, and engraved with brass from melted down wartime ammunition.
BENEATH THIS STONE RESTS THE BODY
OF A BRITISH WARRIOR
UNKNOWN BY NAME OR RANK
BROUGHT FROM FRANCE TO LIE AMONG
THE MOST ILLUSTRIOUS OF THE LAND
AND BURIED HERE ON ARMISTICE DAY
11 NOV: 1920, IN THE PRESENCE OF
HIS MAJESTY KING GEORGE V
HIS MINISTERS OF STATE
THE CHIEFS OF HIS FORCES
AND A VAST CONCOURSE OF THE NATION
THUS ARE COMMEMORATED THE MANY
MULTITUDES WHO DURING THE GREAT
WAR OF 1914–1918 GAVE THE MOST THAT
MAN CAN GIVE, LIFE ITSELF,
FOR KING AND COUNTRY
FOR LOVED ONES HOME AND EMPIRE
FOR THE SACRED CAUSE OF JUSTICE AND
THE FREEDOM OF THE WORLD
THEY BURIED HIM AMONG THE KINGS BECAUSE HE
HAD DONE GOOD TOWARD GOD AND TOWARD
Around the main inscription are four texts:
THE LORD KNOWETH THEM THAT ARE HIS (top)
UNKNOWN AND YET WELL KNOWN, DYING AND BEHOLD WE LIVE (side)
IN CHRIST SHALL ALL BE MADE ALIVE (base)
GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN THAN THIS (side)
From this, those that wish to do so, and there are millions that do, gather at local cenotaphs throughout the land on either the Sunday before the 11th November or on the 11th November its self. They will hold a short service where they remember those that gave their lives in all wars. They will lay wreaths of poppies and a two-minute silence is held. In many cases, if safety permits traffic will come to a stop when passing a Cenotaph. Supermarkets will come to a stop for two minutes and factories will come to a stop.
Below are a few photos of those who fought in that war on all sides. They are black and white photographs brought to life by today's technology where they can be turned into colour photographs. Young men British, German, Russian, American, Canadian Australian, New Zealand who fought in the Great War. Those that survived the carnage are now long dead, the last surviving veteran Florence Green of the Women’s Royal Air Force died in 2012 at the age of 110.