Selecting the Unknown Warrior – how this was carried out. Very moving.

The idea of such a burial seems first to have come to a chaplain at the Front, the Reverend David Railton(1884-1955), when he noticed in 1916 in a back garden at Armentières, a grave with a rough cross on which were pencilled the words “An Unknown British Soldier”. In August 1920 he wrote to the Dean of Westminster, Herbert Ryle, through whose energies this memorial was carried into effect.

The body was chosen from unknown British servicemen exhumed from four battle areas, the Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres. (some sources say six bodies but confirmed accounts say four).

The remains were brought to the chapel at St. Pol on the night of 7th November 1920. The General Officer in charge of troops in France and Flanders, Brigadier General L.J. Wyatt, with Colonel Gell, went into the chapel alone, where the bodies on stretchers were covered by Union Flags. They had no idea from which area the bodies had come. Brigadier Wyatt selected one and the two officers placed it in a plain coffin and sealed it. The other three bodies were reburied. Wyatt said they were re-buried at the St Pol cemetery but Lt. (later Major General Sir) Cecil Smith says they were buried beside the Albert-Baupaume road to be discovered there by parties searching for bodies in the area.

In the morning Chaplains of the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and Non-Conformist churches held a service in the chapel before the body was escorted to Boulogne to rest overnight. The next day the coffin was placed inside another which had been sent over specially from England made of two-inch thick oak from a tree which had grown in Hampton Court Palace garden, lined with zinc. It was covered with the flag that David Railton had used as an altar cloth during the War (known as the Ypres or Padre’s Flag, which now hangs in St George’s Chapel). Within the wrought iron bands of this coffin had been placed a 16th century crusader’s sword from the Tower of London collection. The inner coffin shell was made by Walter Jackson of the firm of Ingall, Parsons & Clive Forward at Harrow, north London and the larger coffin was supplied by the undertakers in charge of the arrangements, Nodes & Son.

The coffin plate bore the inscription:

A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country.

The ironwork and coffin plate were made by D.J. Williams of the Brunswick Ironworks at Caernarfon in Wales. The destroyer HMS Verdun, whose ship’s bell was presented to the Abbey and now hangs near the grave, transported the coffin to Dover and it was then taken by train to Victoria station in London where it rested overnight.

The Burial

On the morning of 11th November the coffin was placed, by the bearer party from the 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards, on a gun carriage drawn by six black horses of the Royal Horse Artillery. It then began its journey through the crowd-lined streets, making its first stop in Whitehall where the Cenotaph was unveiled by King George V. The King placed his wreath of red roses and bay leaves on the coffin. His card read “In proud memory of those Warriors who died unknown in the Great War. Unknown, and yet well-known; as dying, and behold they live. George R.I. November 11th 1920”. [George Rex. Imperator meaning King and Emperor of India]

Then the carriage, with the escorting pall bearers (Admirals) Lord Beatty, Sir Hedworth Meux, Sir Henry Jackson, Sir C.E. Madden, (Field Marshals) Lord French, Lord Haig, Lord Methuen, Sir Henry Wilson, (Generals) Lord Horne, Lord Byng, Albert Farrar-Gatliff and Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Trenchard followed by the King, members of the Royal Family and ministers of State, made its way to the north door of Westminster Abbey.

While the Cenotaph unveiling was taking place the Choir inside the Abbey sang, unaccompanied, “O Valiant Hearts” (to the tune Ellers). The hymn “O God our help in ages past” was sung by the congregation and after prayers there was the two minutes silence at 11am. The Contakion of the Faithful Departed was then sung and the choir processed to the north porch to meet the coffin, with the hymn “Brief life is here our portion” being sung.

The shortened form of the Burial Service began with the singing of the verses  “I am the resurrection and the life” (set by William Croft) and “Thou knowest Lord” (by Henry Purcell) during the procession to the grave. 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). They were under the command of Colonel Freyburg VC. The choir sang the 23rd Psalm.

After the hymn “Lead kindly light”, the King stepped forward and dropped a handful of French earth onto the coffin from a silver shell as it was lowered into the grave. At the close of the service, after the hymn “Abide with me” (tune Eventide) and prayers, the congregation sang Rudyard Kipling’s solemn Recessional “God of our fathers” (to the tune Melita), after which the Reveille was sounded by trumpeters (the Last Post had already been sounded at the Cenotaph unveiling). Other eminent members of the congregation were Queen Alexandra, the queens of Spain and Norway, the Duke of Connaught, politicians Lloyd George and Asquith, and Sir Douglas Dawson.

The grave was then covered by an embroidered silk funeral pall, which had been presented to the Abbey by the Actors’ Church Union in memory of their fallen comrades, with the Padre’s flag lying over this. Servicemen kept watch at each corner of the grave while thousands of mourners filed past. Wreaths brought over on HMS Verdun were added to others around the grave. The Abyssinian cross, presented to the Abbey at the time of the 1902 coronation, stood at the west end. The Abbey organ was played while the church remained open to the public. After the Abbey had closed for the night some of the choristers went back into the nave and one later wrote “The Abbey was empty save for the guard of honour stiffly to attention, arms (rifles) reversed, heads bowed and quite still – the whole scene illuminated by just four candles”.

The grave was filled in, using 100 sandbags of earth from the battlefields, on 18th November and then covered by a temporary stone with a gilded inscription on it:


Credit to Westmister Abbey website

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