On 11 November 1920, the largest funeral ever held in London took place – and yet the deceased was a man unknown to the hundreds of thousands of mourners who turned out in his honour.
Described as the greatest outpouring of grief the country had ever known, the event was the burial of the Unknown Warrior, whose remains lie at Westminster Abbey alongside kings, princes, and other assorted dignitaries. But the story of how he came to be there – and how his memorial came to represent all of the fallen husbands, sons, uncles, and friends of the Great War – begins with an army chaplain serving on the Western Front.
In 1916, amid the devastation of the frontline, the Reverend David Railton had come across an improvised grave marked with a simple wooden cross and a pencil inscription to ‘A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country’.
Touched by the gesture of one soldier to an anonymous comrade, he wrote to Field Marshal Lord Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, suggesting that the body of another ‘unknown warrior’ be taken to England and buried with military honours.
Though his letter seems at first to have been ignored, Railton was not to be deterred. In August 1920, he wrote again, this time to the Dean of Westminster. Before long, the idea had secured the support of Prime Minister David Lloyd George and finally it was blessed by King George V.
An elaborate plan was devised to ensure the anonymity of the chosen warrior. All that could be known was he was British, his body exhumed
from one of six battle sites in Northern France: Ypres, the Marne, Cambrai, Arras, the Somme and the Aisne.
Six unidentifiable bodies were duly placed in plain coffins and covered with Union flags, before one was selected at random by Brigadier General L J Wyatt, the British commanding officer in France. The chosen body was then transferred to a coffin made of oak from Hampton Court Palace – and carrying an identical inscription – while the others were re-buried in the fields of France.
Amid solemn ceremony, and with thousands of soldiers and civilians saluting along the way, the coffin of the Unknown Warrior began its journey home, leaving Boulogne on 8 November 1920 and travelling by boat and train to London’s Victoria Station, where an honour guard stood vigil until the morning of 11 November.
Passing on Whitehall for the unveiling of the newly created Cenotaph memorial, the cortege advanced to Westminster Abbey, where the coffin was finally buried in soil brought from the French battlefields.
Women who had lost their closest relatives were chosen from thousands who had applied to be part of the ceremony – reinforcing the idea that here was the place of mourning for any one of roughly 300,000 fallen soldiers whose bodies were never identified. In the week following the burial, one-and-a-half million people visited the grave of the Unknown Warrior to pay their respects, and it has remained a place of solemn pilgrimage ever since.
This article appeared in the December 2018 issue of Military History Matters.