On 11 November 1920, two years after the armistice that ended the First World War, the Unknown Warrior was buried in London’s Westminster Abbey in a deeply sombre ceremony that caught the mood of a nation, still reeling in grief following four years of war.
In 1916, the vicar of Margate in Kent, the Reverend David Railton, (a recipient of the Military Cross) was stationed as a padre on the Western Front near the French village of Armentières on the Belgian border when he noticed a temporary grave with the inscription, ‘An Unknown British Soldier’. Moved by this simple epitaph, he initially suggested the notion to the British wartime commander-in-chief, Sir Douglas Haig that one fallen man, unknown in name or rank, should represent all those who died during the war who had no known grave. In August 1920, having received no response from Haig, Railton muted the idea to Herbert Ryle, the Dean of Westminster, who, in turn, passed it onto Buckingham Palace.
Initially, the king, George V (pictured), was not enthusiastic about the proposal; not wanting to re-open the healing wound of national grief but was persuaded into the idea by the prime minister, David Lloyd-George.
On 7 November 1920, the remains of six (some sources state four) unidentified British soldiers were exhumed – one each from six different battlefields (Aisne, Arras, Cambrai, Marne, Somme and Ypres). The six corpses were transported to a chapel in the village of St Pol, near Ypres, where they were each laid out on a stretcher and covered by the Union flag. There, in the company of a padre (not Rev Railton), a blindfolded officer entered the chapel and touched one of the bodies.
The following morning, chaplains of the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and Non-Conformist churches held a service for the chosen soldier. Placed in a plain coffin, the Unknown Warrior was taken back on a train to England via Boulogne. At Boulogne, the coffin was kept overnight in the town’s castle, a guard of honour keeping vigil.
A British Warrior
On the morning of the 9 November, the coffin was placed in a larger casket made from wood, three inches thick, taken from an oak tree in the gardens of London’s Hampton Court Palace. Mounted on the side of the coffin, a 16th century sword from the collection at the Tower of London especially chosen by George V. Draped over the casket, the Union flag, which had been used by Rev Railton as an altar cloth during the war. (The flag, known as the Padre’s Flag, now hangs in St George’s Chapel within Westminster Abbey). The coffin plate bore the inscription: ‘A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country’.