The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior

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.

George VInitially, 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’.

The procession through the town of Boulogne, led by a thousand French schoolchildren and accompanied by solemn military music, took the casket to the town’s harbour. There it was met by Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the Allies’ wartime supreme commander, before being transported across the English Channel to Dover on board the HMS Verdun (named after the French battle).

A train transported the casket from Dover to London. The body was afforded pomp and ceremony at every stage of its journey – processions and gun salutes. Crowds of people, braving the cold and the rain and clad in mourning, turned out at every station to watch the train pass through carrying its precious cargo. Groups of boy scouts played the ‘Last Post’, guards of honour formed on station platforms. Every bridge was filled with silent spectators, saluting as the train passed beneath.

The train pulled into Victoria Station at 8.32 on the evening of 10 November, arriving at platform eight, greeted by a mass of people. Many were in tears. Today, next to platform eight, a plaque (pictured), unveiled in 1998, commemorates the occasion. The coffin remained on the train overnight, under guard, and surrounded by wreaths so large and so heavy that it took four men to lift each one into place.

The Procession

On the morning of 11 November 1920, exactly two years on from Armistice Day, eight soldiers placed the coffin on a horse-drawn gun carriage, borne by six black stallions. A nineteen-gun salute signalled the start of the procession. It was 9.30 in the morning. Dense, silent crowds lined the streets. Cars and all traffic were banned from the roads for the day. Muffled drums accompanied Chopin’s Funeral March as the procession slowly wound its way pass Hyde Park Corner and onto The Mall and into Whitehall, where the king laid a wreath of red roses and bay leaves on top of the casket before unveiling the newly-erected Cenotaph.

The twelve pallbearers included field marshals, air chief marshals and various generals, among them Douglas Haig. The king, as chief mourner, and his entourage then followed the cortège to Westminster Abbey. Behind them, four hundred ex-servicemen walked four abreast, and, behind them, a mass of black-clad mourners, men, women and children. Soldiers lining the roads bowed their heads and reversed arms as the cortège passed. Waiting at Westminster Abbey was a guard of honour consisting of 100 holders of the Victoria Cross and 100 women who had lost both their husbands and all of their sons during the war.

The Service

The brief service, which included at eleven o’clock a two minute silence, was recorded. The recording became the first electrical recording ever sold to the public. (Click for a pdf of the Order of Service). Following the service, the coffin was lowered into the grave, ‘amongst the kings’. The king sprinkled the coffin with earth brought back from the Western Front.

In the week that followed, some 1,300,000 people visited the Abbey to pay their respects to the Unknown Warrior.

On 18 November, a week after the service, the grave was filled in using 100 sandbags of French soil, and covered with a stone slab with the simple inscription, ‘A British warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country. Greater love hath no man like this.’

The following year, on 11 November 1921, the stone was replaced by a slab of Belgium marble, seven feet by four feet three, and six inches thick, and fully inscribed in capitals with text composed by the Dean of Westminster. (Click on the image to read the full text).

On 21 October 1921, General John Pershing of the US army awarded the Unknown Warrior the Congressional Medal of Honor, the USA’s highest military honour. The medal was framed and now hangs on a nearby pillar. In return, the US Unknown Soldier, who was interred in the Arlington National Cemetery on 11 November 1921, was awarded the Victoria Cross.

In 1923, the future Queen Mother married the future King George VI at Westminster Abbey. As the new bride left the Abbey, she placed her wedding bouquet on the grave of the Unknown Warrior, starting a tradition that is still practiced today by all royal brides.

In 1993, Australia buried their unknown soldier, Canada in 2000 and, most recently, New Zealand in 2004.

Rupert Colley

Read more about the Great War in World War One: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.99, and as downloadable audio.

See also articles on Douglas HaigHoratio Kitchener and WWI Memorial Plaques.

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