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The Unknown Warrior

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.

Victory parade 1919
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.

Rev David RailtonAs 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 home...

You now have the chance to hear a short interview with David Railton's son, either in RealAudio or Windows Media format

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.

Battlefield search for bodies
Battlefield exhumation

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.

Marshal Foch salutes WarriorThe 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 watcher
.... 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

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Sunday 12 February 2006