In the summer of 1916 the Reverend David Railton who was serving as an Army Chaplain on the Western Front was in the region of Armentieres when he came across a wooden cross with the simple inscription: “An Unknown British Soldier, of the Black Watch.” It gave him pause for thought knowing that this man’s family would never know his fate or be able to mourn at his graveside.
A little later he wrote to the Commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France, Field-Marshal Douglas Haig:
“Let this body – this symbol of him – be carried reverently over the sea to his native land”.
He suggested that the remains of an unknown soldier be repatriated to Britain to form part of a public commemoration but he received no reply.
After the war he was serving as a vicar in Margate when in August 1920 he again suggested his idea this time to the Dean of Westminster who said he would pass it on to the Prime Minister David Lloyd George.
Lloyd George had been in favour of a public commemoration but was aware that there was little appetite in the country for anything that might be construed as glorying in the carnage of the war. When he suggested the idea to King George V he was told him that it was it unwise to rake up bad memories and that things were best left as they were.
Lloyd George remained personally in favour however, and putting the King’s objections to one side proposed it in Cabinet where it was greeted more warmly and in October 1920 the decision was made for a public commemoration to be held on Armistice Day, 11 November. But it remained an issue that would have to be dealt with sensitively.
The First World War had traumatised those involved like no other before it. The industrial scale of its slaughter was unprecedented and the response to its end was mixed, uncertain, and confused.
The shared experience of death in the trenches had gone someway to breaking down class barriers but there remained those who still wished to see social distinctions made clear in the honouring of its war dead and there were arguments in favour of a ceremonial burial of someone from the higher ranks of the military.
There had already been objections to the decision to leave British and Commonwealth War Dead buried overseas and many had wanted the remains of their relatives identified and brought home with those who could afford it wishing to build memorials of their own.
Similarly the inscription “Known Unto God” penned by Rudyard Kipling, who had lost his only son in the war, that appeared on every grave marker of those servicemen whose bodies remained unidentified caused offence for its simplicity and for not indicating the rank of the deceased.
The two minute silence to remember those who died in World War One was inaugurated in 1919 but it was felt by many to be an inadequate response to the great sacrifice that had been made and now it had been decided there would be a ceremony there would also be a monument.
The Cenotaph was designed at the request of David Lloyd George by Edwin Lutyens, the most famous architect of his day who would later also design the Thiepval Memorial in Flanders for the 72,000 dead British and Commonwealth soldiers whose remains were never recovered.
At first a temporary structure it was later reconstructed in Portland stone to serve as a permanent memorial to all those who had lost their lives in the service of their country.
In the first week of November 1920 four squads of British soldiers were despatched to the four main battlefields of the Western Front at Arras, the Somme, the Marne, and Ypres to dig up the remains of a soldier identified only by his British Army uniform.
On 7 November the bodies were then taken to the chapel at Saint Por sur Terroise where they were received by the Reverend George Kendall. The remains were then laid out on a stretcher and draped in a Union Jack.
Around midnight Brigadier-General L.J Wyatt along with another Officer Lieutenant-Colonel E.A.S Gell entered the chapel. All others present were asked to leave before Brigadier-General Wyatt was blindfolded and led to where the bodies were laid out where he placed his hand upon one of the stretchers. The two men then placed the body that had been chosen in a wooden coffin ready for transportation back to Britain. The remaining bodies were then reburied following a brief religious ceremony.
The coffin containing the corpse of the Unknown Warrior was guarded overnight by a unit of French soldiers before being taken to Calais where it was placed aboard HMS Verdun and escorted to England by a flotilla of Royal Navy vessels.
Prior to the ceremony the lead coffin was placed inside another made of oak from a tree grown at Hampton Court and a Crusader’s sword taken from the collection of the Tower of London attached to its lid.
On the morning of 11 November, 1920, two years to the day after the war had ended the coffin of the Unknown Warrior was placed on a gun carriage and drawn in procession through London by six black plumed horses as crowds, many of them ex-servicemen, lined the streets.
Upon its arrival at Westminster Abbey, King George V placed a wreath upon it before it was taken inside past a guard of honour made up of one hundred Victoria Cross winners.
Following a religious ceremony and the singing of hymns and saying of prayers the body was taken to its place of burial where the King sprinkled earth taken from the battlefields of Flanders upon the coffin.
Over the next week more than a million people were to visit the Abbey to pay their respects before on 18 November the Unknown Warrior was at last laid to rest in a grave of French sand under a monument of black marble. The inscription reads:
A British warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-18 for King and Country. Greater love hath no man than this.
Armistice Day, though we know it better as Remembrance Day, continues to be commemorated but unlike the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior the annual ceremony at the Cenotaph remains controversial.
Some claim, as Lloyd George had feared, that it glorifies war and lends justification to the waging of it whilst others criticise it for rather than eradicating class distinctions reinforcing them with those in whose name wars are fought laying their wreaths first, followed by those who order men to war and then those who command men in war, and that is they who risk their lives in battle, working men and women dragged from hearth and home to make the ultimate sacrifice who lay their wreaths last, almost as an afterthought.
Nevertheless, on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month –We Will Remember Them.