Britain’s greatest soldier

The Unknown Warrior United Kingdom 1914 - 1918

London’s Westminster Abbey provides the resting place of some of British history’s most iconic names, from monarchs and leaders to pioneers of science and the arts – names that will go down in history. But nestled among them is the tomb of an ordinary man whose name real name will never be known. He’s arguably the most important internment of them all, given that he represents not just the life of one, but of the hundreds of thousands of British and Commonwealth soldiers who died during the First World War. Constantly surrounded by commemorative wreaths lies a stone, inscribed with the words ‘A British Warrior, Unknown By Name Or Rank’ – simply, the Unknown Warrior.

The First World War brought about death and devastation never before seen. Such was the scale of the slaughter at battlefields such as Ypres, the Somme and Verdun on the Western Front that the numbers of men recorded as missing rivalled the astonishing amounts killed or injured. Tens of thousands of bodies were simply never recovered. The cemeteries and memorials of these infamous battles are covered with the names of soldiers whose final resting place was never discovered, and rows of identical headstones that mark the bodies of those impossible to identify, adorned with the inscription ‘A solider of the Great War, Known unto God.’

This loss was felt by all corners of Europe, whose sons had gone off to fight en masse and failed to return, leaving many unsure where their loved ones rested. This pain was understood by British chaplain David Railton who in 1916 was moved by the sight of a makeshift grave on the battlefield of Armentières, which bore the marking ‘An Unknown British soldier’. He wished to know who the fallen soldier was, what became of him, and how his family would his feelknowing that he had paid the ultimate sacrifice only to be unceremoniously buried in the mud of a French battlefield.

Four years later and with a Military Cross to his name for bravery in France, Railton wrote to the Dean of Westminster, Bishop Herbert Ryle, with the suggestion that one such anonymous casualty of the conflict should be afforded the same honours and ceremony of a Westminster burial that was often the preserve of kings and queens. This gesture would represent all those who had fallen, regardless of rank or distinction. His idea was accepted by Parliament, who set his honourable plan in motion.

On 7th November, four bodies of unknown British soldiers were exhumed from their graves in France and Belgium and placed in plain coffins. To ensure that not even the area where the soldier had fallen would be known, one of these coffins was chosen at random by Brigadier LJ Wyatt, bestowing upon it the title of the Unknown Warrior, who was to represent all those who fell in every theatre of the war, from the Atlantic to Gallipoli.

The Warrior’s body was transported from France to Britain in a coffin made using wood from Hampton Court Palace, accompanied by a medieval sword personally chosen by King George V. The journey was solemnly accompanied at every stage by church bells, military salutes and processions of civilians, until it reached London’s Victoria Station on 10th November. The next day, marking two years since the guns fell silent on the Western Front, a horse-drawn carriage carried the Unknown Soldier through London to Whitehall where the permanent stone Cenotaph was unveiled. To this day this tribute to the fallen acts as the focus of British remembrance on Armistice Day.

Accompanied by the king and his family, parliament ministers and a congregation of 100 women who had lost their husbands and sons in the war, the Unknown Warrior was taken into Westminster Abbey. As the body was interred, buried underneath soil brought from the Western Front battlefields, thousands of mourners filed past to pay their respects.

The funeral was a major event in Britain in 1920 – France buried its own hero on the same day under the Arc de Triomphe – but it’s the legacy of the Unknown Warrior that has ensured its place in both the national and international consciousness throughout the century since. The commemoration inspired dozens of other countries to memorialise their war dead in the same way, ultimately symbolising the bravery of so many and the loss felt by their loved ones, not only during the First World War but in conflicts since.

And while scholars may debate the relative merits and faults of the famous figures who are interred around him in Westminster Abbey, the Unknown Warrior remains unblemished, simply representing an extraordinary sacrifice made by millions and the need for their efforts to be remembered.

We will remember them

The Unknown Warrior United Kingdom 1914 - 1918
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