The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior Sealed

The Times, 19 November 1920:

Last night the tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey was sealed, and there was an end of the great pilgrimage of the public to see the coffin that has become a memorial to all the British dead. The pilgrimage started soon after the Burial Service finished on Armistice Day.

Altogether about a million people must have passed through the Abbey. The queue yesterday was again very large. For the greater part of the day people stood six abreast, and although they passed through the Abbey at a quicker rate than on preceding days the queue steadily grew longer. It was intended to close the doors at 3.45, but there was a quarter of an hour’s grace, and even then there were still many people unable to pass through.

At the very last moment a lady came to the Deanery bringing a maple leaf that had been sent from Canada by a soldier who had earned the Victoria Cross at Lucknow. She asked that this should be placed on the coffin before the grave was sealed up, and her wish was carried out.

The grave was filled with soil brought from the battlefields of France and Flanders.

Within half an hour the nave had been cleared of people. The Abbey was nearly in darkness, and the Unknown Warrior was at last alone. For three hours the coffin was not touched. An organ recital had been arranged, and it was decided not to close the grave until this had finished. For nearly two hours the organ pealed out, and the Warrior received a fitting last requiem.

The recital over, a beginning was made with the work of burial. The grave was filled with soil brought from the battlefields of France and Flanders. The inscription on the temporary slab has been printed in The Times. It will now be possible to get close enough to the grave to read it. The barriers have been narrowed, and the procession of mourners will in future pass directly by the grave. The Dean of Westminster hopes that it will be possible to reopen this part of the Abbey to the public today.

The queues at the Cenotaph were very little smaller yesterday than on preceding days. It is now a week since the memorial was unveiled, and in that time quite a million and a quarter people must have filed past it. During the afternoon a number of men on wheeled chairs, some of whom had lost both legs, laid wreaths. One of these was inscribed with the words, “Lest we forget”.

From The Times Archive, retrieved 19 November 2020.

Armistice Day 1920

1920 – Westminster Abbey – 4 military sentinels and 4 wax tapers surround the tomb of the unknown warrior.

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.

“Deeply regret to inform you that Pte. A. Parkes, of the Lancashire Fusiliers, was killed in action on 23rd October. Lord Kitchener expresses his sympathy. The War Office London.”

The dreaded GPO telegram

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.

The burial

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.

See how The Guardian covered the story in 1920

75 Years of controversy

And, the controversy continues. The argument against the use of the first atomic bomb runs on set rails. Should such a weapon of mass destruction have been used, or even made? The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was undoubtedly a terrible act. The impact on human life was beyond imagination, causing the death of an estimated 70,000-126,000 civilians and 20,000 military personnel. The military personnel were killed mainly outright, while about 50% of the civilian deaths were as a result of the blast.

Three days later a second bomb was unleashed on Nagasaki causing a further death toll of 80,000. What is not so well known however, is that the USA had an additional seven weapons in preparation with the intent of using them to make the invasion of Japan easier. The invasion plan, operation Downfall, was scheduled to start by 1 November 1945, and the bombs were to be used before the start of the invasion.

So was there a plan to drop the next bomb? Yes, there was, and the next weapon was to be deployed on 19 August 1945, though the final target had not been determined. Japan’s surrender on 15 August halted another nuclear disaster.

While the death toll is deeply lamentable, it is the injuries to survivors who evoke such passion. Their injuries were grotesque, and I do not want to see an atomic weapon used on this planet ever again.

At the time, President Truman was racked by a relatively straight forward calculation. A study of casualties for the invasion of Japan, for the American Secretary of State for War, Henry Stimson, conducted by Quincy Wright and William Shockley, estimated that the invading Allies would suffer 1.7-4 million casualties. Of these between 400,000-800,000 would die, while Japanese fatalities would be between 5 to 10 million. The timescale to bring a surrender of Japan by conventional military means puts the end of the conflict at an estimated 1946 or early 1947.

Today, the focus on the ethical use of atomic weapons rests on the number of Japanese civilian casualties, especially the burns, radiation sickness and the emergence of cancer in the years following. Whilst these effects are truly horrendous and make us squirm today at the sheer horror of it all, President Truman was focussed on the casualties of the Wright and Shockley report.

To the President, using the bomb brought the war to an end by almost two years, and spared at least 5 million lives, Americans and Japanese. What would any of us do? Save lives by sacrificing 150,000 lives at Hiroshima and 80,000 at Nagasaki or let millions die in the invasion of Japan, or do nothing?

On 25 July 1945, President Truman authorised the use of the two weapons already built and two more, then under construction, one more in August and a second that would be ready by early September if the surrender of Japan was not forthcoming.

In the aftermath of the use of the weapons, the Soviet Union (1949), Great Britain (1952), France (1960) and China (1964), developed nuclear weapons. The Cold War brought about a situation where atomic arsenals soon were capable of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). The proliferation of nuclear warheads remains an issue, though two treaties exist to deter aspiring countries from gaining nuclear weapons. Despite this effort to restrain nations building bombs, Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea have acquired them. South Africa is the only country that has developed the bomb and voluntarily dismantled its stockpile and renounced any nuclear weapons intention.

According to the Arms Control Association, the USA and Russia deploy approximately 1,400 weapons each, and Great Britain has about 120 warheads. To date, there around 9,500 are in active military service and a further 4,500 missiles in the process of dismantlement. What started as a means to end World War Two has escalated, something not foreseen in 1945. We are only ever a few minutes away from some presidential idiot twitching his finger over the launch button. Pray for sanity, wisdom, and peace.