The Great War did not officially end until June 1919
with the final signing of the Treaty of Versailles. As part of the plan to mark the war's
end with a victory parade, Lloyd George proposed a controversial scheme to place 'a
catafalque' somewhere along the route, where the marching troops could salute the dead.
Troops march past temporary Cenotaph June 19th 1919
Sir Edwin Lutyens was given two weeks to
design a non-denominational shrine, made out of wood and plaster. It was Lutyens who
suggested this structure be named the Cenotaph: the empty tomb.
It was the Cenotaph which most captured the public
imagination during the victory celebrations on 19 July, and after the parade many of the
bereaved laid wreaths there. It was evident that a more permanent monument was required,
and Lutyens was commissioned to design a stone Cenotaph for the same site, which would be
unveiled by the King on Armistice Day 1920.
As plans were being drawn up for a simple unveiling ceremony on November 11th
1920, there was a proposal that the body of an unknown soldier be returned to England for
burial at the same time. It is generally agreed that the original idea came from the vicar
of Margate, the Reverend David Railton MC (pictured right), who had served as a padre in
France in 1916. Years later he wrote:
I came back from the line at dusk. We had just laid
to rest the mortal remains of a comrade. I went to a billet in front of Erkingham, near
Armentieres. At the back of the billet was a small garden, and in the garden only six
paces from the house, there was a grave. At the head of the grave there stood a rough
cross of white wood. On the cross was written in deep 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. I remember
how still it was. Even the guns seemed to be resting.
How that grave caused me to think. Later on I nearly wrote
to Sir Douglas Haig to ask if the body of an "unknown" comrade might be sent
You now have the
chance to hear a short interview with David Railton's son, either
in RealAudio or Windows
In 1920 he wrote to the Dean of Westminster Abbey, Doctor
Ryle, who in turned made the suggestion to the government. Despite initial misgivings, it
was realised that this one symbolic burial could stand for all the hundreds of thousands
missing men with no known grave.
There are a number of different versions of
how the selection of the body was made, but according to the officer in charge
Brigadier-General Wyatt (writing in 1939) one body, identifiable only as a British
soldier, was exhumed from each of the four main battle areas, the Aisne, the Somme,
Ypres and Arras, on the night of 7 November and brought to the chapel at St.Pol.
Each body was covered with a Union Jack and placed on a
stretcher. Those versions of the story which claim that the officer in charge was
blindfolded, seem to be incorrect. Wyatt merely pointed to one of the bodies, which was
placed in a coffin and the remaining three bodies were removed and reburied.
The following day the body was taken to Boulogne
under escort where it was placed in a coffin made of English oak, and a crusader-style
sword presented by the King was fixed to the coffin. On 9th November a French military
escort went with the body to Boulogne, where Marshal Foch (above) paid his own homage.
British troops then took over guard duties and the body crossed the Channel in the
destroyer Verdun, receiving a Field Marshal's nineteen gun salute on arrival at
Dover. Crowds gathered at every station on the way as the Unknown Warrior's train
travelled north from the Kent coat to London's Victoria station.
The train thundered through the dark, wet, moonless night.
At the platforms by which it rushed could be seen groups of women watching an d silent,
many dressed in deep mourning. Many an upper window was open and against the golden square
of light was silhouetted clear cut and black the head and shoulders of some faithful
.... In the London suburbs there were scores of homes with back doors flung wide, light
flooding out and in the garden figures of men women and children gazing at the great
lighted train rushing past.
from the Daily Mail 11 November 1920