The Unknown Soldier

>>  Saturday, November 11, 2017

Nearly 1 million of the British Army died during the First World War.  Everybody lost somebody.

About half are buried as known soldiers, the rest are buried as unknown or have no grave. source

The importance of all of the men who died became very important in terms of the memorial for the lost soldiers.  Previously in the history of battles only important people were buried in individual graves or even taken away from the battle field.  Triumph or glory in defeat belonged only to the higher ranks.

But the memorials for the First World War are mainly alphabetical, no mention of rank or social status. Just men, fought together, suffered together, died together.

After the war, the French allowed families to move graves to local sites but the British decided to leave our graves as they were, and so many men had no grave.   How could those at home grieve fully with no way to out pour?

An army chaplain, the Rev David Railton,  had the idea of the grave of the unknown soldier.  A common grave for all people.

"One evening in 1916, Railton returned from the front line to his billet near Armentieres having just buried one of his comrades. Outside the billet was a small garden. In one corner of die garden, Railton saw a grave marked with a rough wooden cross. On the cross was written, in black-pencilled letters, 'An Unknown British Soldier’, and in brackets beneath, ’of the Black Watch’. ‘It was dusk and no one was near, except some officers in the billet playing cards,’ he recalled. ‘I remember how still it was. Even the guns seemed to be resting.’ The sight of this unmarked grave made a huge impression on him. ‘How that grave caused me to think,’ Railton wrote later. ‘But who was he, and who were they [his parents]?… So I thought and thought. What can I do to ease the pain of father, mother, brother, sister, sweetheart, wife and friend? Quietly and gradually there came out of the mist of thought this answer clear and strong. “Let this body – this symbol of him – be carried reverently over the sea to his native land.” And I was happy for about five or 10 minutes.’ " source

In November 1920 it all came to fruition.  On the 7th of November four (possibly 6) soldier's remains were exhumed from different battle sites, the remains were taken to a chapel at St. Pol. The General Officer in charge of troops in France and Flanders, Brigadier General L.J.Wyatt, with Colonel Gell, went into the chapel, the bodies were covered by Union Flags. They had no idea from which area the bodies had come. General Wyatt selected one and the two officers placed it in a plain coffin and sealed it... it was completely unidentifiable,  It could be anybody, rich or poor, any rank...anyone. (Although wikipedia says it seems highly likely that the bodies were carefully selected and it is almost certain that the Unknown Warrior was a soldier serving in Britain's pre-war regular army and not a sailor, territorial, airman, or Empire Serviceman)

The coffin was brought to England on a destroyer and then taken by train to London.  The carriage had a white painted roof and people stood at every station to see it go through.  There are many special details about the whole course of events such as the train carriage used had also been used to transport the body of Edith Cavell, the sword place on the coffin came from the King's collection in the Tower, the casket was made of oaks from Hampton Court and the earth used to fill in the grave was brought from France.

On the 11th November, it was taken from Victoria to Westminster by Gun carriage and the public numbers and atmosphere is compared to Princess Diana's funeral.  This is the funeral of service. It included the 2 minutes silence at 11 o'clock, the first of which had taken place the year before in 1919.

What I find most important is that there were no foreign dignitaries or government representatives at the service, the guests of honour were women that had lost their husband and all their sons in the war.

Special permission had been given to make a recording of the service but only the two hymns were of good enough quality to be included on the record, the first electrical recording ever to be sold to the public.

The grave is one of the most sacred places in Westminster Abbey.  It is the only part of the floor that the congregation are not allowed to walk on.  It is a tradition that Royal bridal bouquets are laid on the grave.  Started by the Queen Mother who laid her own bouquet in memory of her brother who was killed on the Western Front in 1915, followed by the Queen, Sarah Ferguson the Duchess of York and more recently Kate Middleton the Duchess of Cambridge  by a soldier later in the day after the photos were taken.

Interesting reading:


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