On Thursday, 11th November 1920, an unknown soldier was buried in Westminster Abbey in a poignant ceremony to commemorate the immense loss of life during The Great War. The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior is now known throughout the world, though the soldier’s identity remains a mystery. That the soldier is unknown deeply resonated in 1920 and continues to do so to this day. We are the inheritors of their sacrifice. The British Army lost 886,000 killed during the war. Most died on the battlefields of France and Flanders, and over one hundred years later, they are almost total strangers to us.
We may have one or two servicemen in our family histories who fought in the Great War, who were wounded or killed, as I have, but these are the exceptions, albeit very personal exceptions. And that’s the point of the tomb of the unknown soldier – he is by nature unknown to us and probably will never be identified but represents the loss we all suffered. He is unknown and yet known. Indeed, if we discovered his identity, something of the poignancy of his ‘unknown-ness’ would be lost. Sometimes being unknown is the message.
Let’s back up a little. Armistice Day always falls on 11th November each year and is quite distinct from Remembrance Sunday, held on the second Sunday of November. Armistice Day commemorates the cessation of hostilities of the Great War on the 11th November 1918, at 11:00 am. Remembrance Sunday is our national commemoration of the same event, but because Armistice Day is usually a weekday, a Sunday is more convenient for the nation to remember. Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday work hand-in-hand.
Armistice and Remembrance Days
On Armistice Day in 1920, our nation witnessed the burial of an unknown soldier in Westminster Abbey, London as a permanent memorial to the casualties of the war. Our hero was certainly not the only unknown soldier: sadly, there were many more, too many.
Deeply regret to inform you
Among the killed was my relative Arthur Parkes who died in 1916 in the battles of the Somme; never survived, never found, never buried by his comrades, encased in the mud bogs of Belgium. He was an ordinary man, from the village of Lowdham, Nottinghamshire, and at only five feet three inches tall, he was a small man.
Arthur signed up as a regular soldier in 1912, serving as a Private in the Sherwood Foresters from the start of the war. In March 1916, aged 26, he left the army on completion of his service but was then conscripted the following month. Seven months later, and back in Flanders, this time with the Lancashire Fusiliers, he was killed blown to infinity by an exploding shell.
And that was it. Your son is dead; no coffin, no funeral, no opportunity to say goodbye, and no grave to mark his life. Perhaps a letter to his mother from the Padre a few days later? If so, it has not survived. A loss like this happened to so many families, and the scars live on to this day.
In London: an idea is born
The idea for a lasting memorial to the unknown casualties of the Great War was birthed in August 1920 in London; it’s a fascinating story. But by early November plans to commemorate the vast loss of life started to take shape. (The full story can be found here) On the night of 7th November, the grim task of selecting an unnamed candidate fell to the Commander of the troops in France and Flanders, Brigadier-General Wyatt.
Four exhumed bodies were brought to a chapel at St. Pol, Flanders, on the night of 7th November 1920. Brigadier-General Wyatt and Colonel Gell went into the chapel alone. Union Flags covered the bodies. General Wyatt selected one, and the two officers placed the remains in a plain coffin.
In the morning Chaplains of the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and Non-Conformist churches held a service in the chapel. The body was placed in a specially made two-inch-thick oak coffin made from a tree grown in Hampton Court Palace garden. The casket was covered with the flag used as an altar cloth during the war and known as the Padre’s Flag, which now hangs in St George’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey. The body was then shipped back to London.
On the morning of 11th November, the coffin 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. 11th November 1920”.
The King, now at Westminster Chapel, stepped forward and dropped a handful of French earth onto the coffin from a silver shell as it was lowered into the grave. The hymn “Abide with me” was sung at the close of the service. 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, with the Padre’s flag lying over this. Four sentries kept watch over the grave while thousands of mourners filed past. The Abbey organ played while the church remained open to the public.
The Westminster Abbey service was recorded, but only part of the recording could be used for a record for the public to buy. Although the recording was only partially successful, it was the first electric recording made for public sale in Britain.
The grave was filled, using 100 sandbags of earth from the battlefields, on 18th November.
A powerful symbol of loss
The unknown soldier remains a powerful symbol of the Great War, made more potent by the fact that he is the only repatriated serviceman at that time. The tomb serves as a potent reminder of the grief and loss felt so powerfully across our nation in 1920. It continues to this day. We will remember them.