The Unknown Soldier

At the west end of Westminster Abbey is the grave of the Unknown Warrior, whose body was brought from France to be buried here on 11 November 1920. The grave, which contains soil from France, is covered by a slab of marble and part of the inscription says…

BENEATH THIS STONE RESTS THE BODY
OF A BRITISH WARRIOR
UNKNOWN BY NAME OR RANK
BROUGHT FROM FRANCE TO LIE AMONG
THE MOST ILLUSTRIOUS OF THE LAND
AND BURIED HERE ON ARMISTICE DAY
11 NOV: 1920,

Which made me wonder how was the soldier selected? So after a little research I found the following.

The idea is down to a chaplain at the Front, the Reverend David Railton, who in 1916 had seen grave in a back garden at Armentieres. The grave had a rough cross on which was pencilled the words “An Unknown British Soldier”.  The Rev. Railton was moved by the simple recognition and he suggested something similar to the Dean of Westminster.

It was agreed and the body was chosen from unknown British servicemen exhumed from four battle areas, the Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres and brought to the chapel at St. Pol where they were placed on stretchers and covered by Union Flags. Brigadier General L.J.Wyatt, along with Colonel Gell, had no idea from which area the bodies had come and they selected one and placed it in a plain coffin and sealed it.

The following day a service was held in the chapel before the body was escorted to Boulogne. The body was then placed inside another, which had been sent from England made of two-inch thick oak from a tree, which had grown in Hampton Court Palace. It was covered with the flag that David Railton had used as an altar cloth during the War (which now hangs in St George’s Chapel).

On the morning of 11 November, the coffin was placed on a gun carriage drawn by six black horses and began its journey through the crowd-lined streets, where it stopped at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. The King, George V, placed a wreath on the coffin and a card that 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”. Then the carriage made its way to Westminster Abbey where the King dropped a handful of French earth onto the coffin as it was lowered into the grave.

The annual Field of Remembrance outside the Abbey was started in 1928 by Major George Howson M.C. founder of the British Legion Poppy Factory. He and a few disabled ex-servicemen stood together around a battlefield cross with trays of paper poppies to sell to passersby who could then plant one beside the cross to remember the fallen.

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