Remembrance

The Unknown Warrior: Remembering Those Who Never Came Home From The Battlefield

A place where families can mourn their loved ones who are lost forever

Credit: PA Images / Lt Col Nana Kofi Twumasi-Ankrah, places a bouquet of flowers at the grave of the Unknown Warrior on behalf of Her Majesty The Queen

One hundred years ago this week saw arguably Britain’s greatest act of remembrance – the burial of The Unknown Warrior.  

The Unknown Warrior has come to represent all those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, and in 1920, offered a means for the nation to mourn the hundreds of thousands of soldiers lost during World War One who were never identified.

BFBS Radio broadcaster Jade Callaway enlisted the help of the Royal Air Force’s Principal Roman Catholic Chaplain, Padre Dave Skillen from RAF Odiham to tell this story in the clip above. The Padre was chosen because laying a soldier to rest ‘among the Kings’ was the idea of a military chaplain on the front line in France in 1916.

In a back garden in Armentières in France, the Reverend David Railton noticed a rough cross, bearing the words “An Unknown British Soldier, of the Black Watch”. The reverend later recalled:  

“How that grave caused me to think ... but, who was he, and who were they, his folk? 

“Was he just a laddie? There was no answer to those questions, nor has there ever been yet. 

“So, I thought and thought and wrestled in thought. What can I do to ease the pain of father, mother, brother, sister, sweetheart, wife and friend? 

“Quietly and gradually there came out of the mist of thought this answer clear and strong. 

“Let this body – this symbol of him – be carried reverently over the sea to his native land.” 

This seed of an idea stayed with Reverend David Railton, and it was after the war, when he had taken his post as vicar of St John the Baptist Church in Margate, that he wrote to the Dean of Westminster, Herbert Ryle. The Dean of Westminster gained the support of Prime Minister David Lloyd George, and the approval of His Majesty King George V.

Four servicemen’s bodies were exhumed from key battle sites; in the Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres.  

On the night of November 7, 1920, bearing no name or rank, these servicemen were each draped in a union flag in the chapel at St Pol, around 34km west of Arras.

The General Officer in charge of troops in France and Flanders, Brigadier General L.J. Wyatt, attended the chapel and selected The Unknown Warrior. The body was placed into a simple coffin, and the next morning Chaplains of the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and Non-Conformist churches jointly conducted a service.

On November 9, 1920, the coffin was placed inside another which had been sent over specially from England. This coffin was made of oak from a tree grown in Hampton Court Palace gardens.

It contained a 16th-century crusaders sword from the Tower of London Collection in its wrought-iron bars and it was covered with the flag that Reverend David Railton had used as an altar cloth during the Great War. To this day, the Padre's Flag hangs in St George's Chapel.

The Unknown Warrior represents all those who made the ultimate sacrifice in The Great War, but whose place of death is not known, or whose body remains unidentified. The Unknown Warrior was to be buried ‘among the Kings’, in Westminster Abbey in London, where families could mourn their loved ones who never came home.

On the morning of November 11, 1920, a bearer party from the 3rd Battalion the Coldstream Guards, placed The Unknown Warrior on a gun carriage to be drawn by six black horses of the Royal Horse Artillery. Its first stop was in Whitehall where The Cenotaph was unveiled by King George V.

The coffin of the Unknown Warrior resting in Westminster Abbey, in London 09111920 CREDIT PA
Credit: PA Images / The coffin of the Unknown Warrior resting in Westminster Abbey in 1920

Crowds lined the streets as the carriage made its way to the north door of Westminster Abbey. 

The coffin was borne to the west end of the Nave through the congregation of around 1,000 mourners and a guard of honour of 100 holders of the Victoria Cross from all three services.

As the coffin was lowered into the grave, King George V scattered, from a silver shell, a handful of French earth. 

Over the course of the next week, an estimated one and a quarter million visitors attended the grave of The Unknown Warrior.  

On November 18, 1920, the grave was filled in using 100 sandbags of earth brought from a variety of battlefields. It was covered by stone bearing a gilded inscription: 

“A British warrior who fell in The Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country. 

“Greater love hath no man than this.”