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H V Morton

Among the Kings
Read H.V.Morton's biography

ONE night not long ago I stood under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris beside the grave of the French Unknown Soldier.

A keen wind from the Champs Elysees whistled through the great arch, driving the flames of the graveside braziers low over the ground like streamers of wind-blown hair. There were pale flowers and shadows. A Caesarian tomb, grand and unforgettable in the centre of a beautiful city, the sound and surge of life ever near, but, it seemed to me, in spite of all, so lonely, so cold, so far from a church, like a solitary grave on a hill-top.

Westminster Abbey ... I stood there recently beside our Unknown Warrior, who lies not only at the heart of London, but also at the heart of England, here in magic earth, in this sacred soil, so warm in love, so safe in honour. No noise of traffic disturbs his sleep, no unkind wind whistles over him -no solitude of night. Instead, the silence of a mighty church, a silence as deep and lovely as though he were lying in some green country graveyard steeped in peace, above him a twilight in which the stored centuries seem to whisper happily of good things done for England.

*

There were few sightseers. It was not the season. Two elderly women sat against the pillars in the south aisle making water-colour sketches of the sweep of the arches above the choir.

Tomb of the Unknown Warrior
Tomb of the Unknown Warrior

In the centre of the nave, free from the barriers that once hedged it, lay the grave of the Unknown Warrior - a large black marble slab, on which a long inscription is inlaid in letters of brass. From a pillar in the north aisle near the grave hung a worn-looking Union Jack. How English! Most other nations would have explained somewhere for all to see that this is no ordinary flag, that it gained those creases, which a woman's careful ironing and pressing have been unable to efface, when it covered a rude Communion table in France with the 141st Brigade of the 47th (London) Division. When they brought the Unknown Warrior through the streets, with the sombre guns booming and the troops slow marching to a wail of brass, this was the flag that covered the coffin; and there it hangs unheralded in the Abbey. In its creases you may see - ah! how many Last Suppers in Flanders fields. ...

*

An official guide, wearing an armlet, came up with two Americans, husband and wife. They read aloud the inscription:

'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 so on to the splendid end: 'They buried him among the kings because he had done good towards God and towards His House....

'That's beautiful,' they said quietly, 'That's the most beautiful thing in London.'

'Those brass letters,' explained the guide,'are made from cartridge cases melted down ... cases picked up in the British lines in France after the war.

They went over to the Union Jack, and beneath it they looked at a small frame, in which is the blue-ribboned Congressional Medal of Valour, the gift of the people of the United States, the highest order in their power to bestow.

*

They went away, lingering here and there under the vast arch of the nave. I stood there thinking. There were flowers - a few tulips, freshly pulled, and daffodils, the first of the year....

This tomb and the Cenotaph bear witness to the greatest emotion this nation has ever felt. Children are brought here every year; and so the memory, without the sharpness, perhaps, felt by us who lived through it, goes on with another generation. In this way a nation keeps alive its holy places. Wonderful to think of this unknown boy, or man, lying here with our kings, our captains, our prophets, and our priests. It is the first time in the history of the world that this has happened. His fame is greater, too; he is Everyman who died in the War. No matter how many mothers believe that he is theirs, they are right; they are all of them right - for he is every mother's son who did not come home from France.

Always, as long as England stands in history, this marble stone will tell the story of the only unknown man to whom the great Abbey of Westminster opened its arms, saying: 'Come in, you Unknown Warrior, among the kings and the great ones of all time, for you too are great, you too spent your life nobly, and you too are for ever holy in the memory of this people.'

*

As I went out, a thin rustle of organ music came whispering down the nave, and far off, like a voice in a cloud, sounded the echo of a prayer.

From The Spell of London (1926)

Also by H.V.Morton CENOTAPHBEHIND THE WINDOW & GHOSTS OF THE FOG

Poppy

See THE UNKNOWN WARRIOR for an account of the ceremony on 11 November 1920

 

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Monday 19 December 2005