"The small and the great are there..." Job 3. 19
As encouraged, I am sharing Murdo Beaton's moving account of the story behind the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, whose centenary falls today. May it enrich your appreciation of this occasion, of the preciousness of life, of the outrage of war and suffering and of the goodness of God whose plan of redemption offers hope to us all:
Precisely 100 years ago on 11th November 1920 an event took place which brought this nation to a standstill. The whole nation mourned, and this unknown warrior brought people out in their hundreds of thousands to pay their respects. It was the greatest outpouring of grief this country has ever known.
The idea of taking an unidentified body home as a representative of all the fallen was first proposed by a former army chaplain, Rev. David Railton, who saw action on the Western Front and was awarded a Military Cross for gallantry when he rescued, under fire, an officer and two men on the Somme . He was appalled by the horrific carnage he had witnessed and greatly troubled by thoughts of the grieving families at home, particularly those of the huge number of casualties who have no known grave. One day he came across a grave in a back garden near Armentieres with a wooden cross on which was scratched in pencil “An Unknown British Soldier – Black Watch”.
The memory of that grave stayed with him and he later wrote:
“How that grave caused me to think ….. Who was he ? Who were his folk ? There was no answer to those questions so I thought and thought and wrestled in thought. What can I do to ease the pain of his father, mother, brother, sister, sweetheart, wife, friends ? Quietly and gradually there came out of the mist of thought the answer clear and strong.”
After the war Railton wrote to General Haig outlining his idea but got no reply. This made him think that no-one in authority would pay any attention to a humble cleric, so he wrote to the Dean of Westminster, Rev. Herbert Ryle, who was enthusiastic about it and was mainly responsible for making arrangements to have the body buried in the Abbey.
Once the project had been approved by those in authority, ( including King George 5th), work parties were sent to exhume bodies of unidentified British casualties scattered around the battlefields on the Western Front. The whole operation was shrouded in mystery and we cannot be sure how many bodies were exhumed although most experts now believe it was four, one from each of the battlefields at the Somme, Ypres, the Aisne and Arras. Each work party was unaware of the others and they were instructed to exhume a casualty from early in the war so that decomposition of the body would make recognition impossible.
The bodies were placed in sacks and transported on stretchers to a small chapel at St. Pol in Northern France where they were laid out with a Union Jack covering each one. Just before midnight on 7th November a senior officer, who had nothing to do with the exhumations, was taken into the chapel and asked to touch just one of the flag draped bodies. This was how the unknown warrior was chosen – it was as simple as that. (Note: Railton’s preference was to use the word COMRADE rather than WARRIOR but he was over-ruled. They could not use SOLDIER as the chosen body could have been Royal Navy (The Royal Naval Division fought on land alongside the army) or an airman.)
On 9th November the warship HMS VERDUN was sent to Boulogne to collect the body and bring it back to Dover. On board were two undertakers and a plain oak coffin, made from a tree which grew in the garden of Hampton Court Palace. The following morning, with the coffin draped in a Union Jack, the body was transported to VERDUN and placed on the quarter deck with a naval guard of honour. Approaching Dover, accompanied by its escort of 6 destroyers all with flags at half mast, VERDUN received the signal “WHO ARE YOU?” and flashed back the memorable reply “VERDUN AND ESCORT AND THE NATION’S UNKNOWN SON”.
The coffin was disembarked at Dover to a 19 gun salute, normally reserved for royalty, and placed on a train for London with the roof of the carriage painted white for easy identification by the crowds along the route. At 8.32 pm on 10th November it arrived at Platform 8, Victoria Station - a memorial now stands near this platform commemorating this unique arrival. The next day was to see the most remarkable funeral ever witnessed by our nation.
The coffin was placed on a gun carriage and set off from Victoria station, arriving at the Cenotaph at 10.58. Huge crowds lined the route and men and women wept openly, sobbing in genuine grief as the cortege passed. At 11.00 the two minute silence was observed, following which the procession moved off to Westminster Abbey followed by the Royal Family and Ministers of State. The coffin, borne on the shoulders of six men of the Coldstream Guards was slow marched with impeccable precision into the Abbey past two lines of a truly unique Guard of Honour – 96 men, all decorated for gallantry, 75 of whom were holders of a Victoria Cross. The Abbey, in all its long history, had never before seen such an illustrious guard of honour and will surely never see its like again. The Guests of Honour were a group of around 100 women who had been chosen because they had each lost their husbands and all of their sons in the war. All the women in the country who were so bereft were sent an invitation but many did not attend as they felt they could not face the emotional ordeal.
The grave is only a few feet from the entrance and the coffin was interred there, covered by soil taken from France and Belgium so that he would rest in the same soil as his comrades. A slab of black Belgian marble was placed on top of the grave with an inscription in brass made from melted shell casings ; it is the only tombstone in the Abbey on which it is forbidden to walk. The inscription reads:
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 God 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 His house
The Prime Minister, Lloyd George, addressed the nation thus:
“THIS IS NO TIME FOR WORDS. OUR HEARTS ARE TOO FULL OF GRATITUDE TO WHICH NO TONGUE CAN GIVE ADEQUATE EXPRESSION”.