The body of an unidentified British soldier was buried in Westminster Abbey on 11 November 1920.
Symbolic of all the dead of the First World War (1914-1918), the soldier was buried in a solemn and profoundly moving ceremony two years to the day after the signing of the Armistice that ended the war with Germany.
King George V led the national mourning, along with members of the British royal family. Among the 1,000-strong congregation was the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, leading politicians and senior members of the British military.
The pallbearers included the First World War chiefs of the three Armed Forces – Field Marshall Douglas Haig, Admiral Lord David Beatty and Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Trenchard.
The guard of honour comprised 96 men decorated for bravery, including 74 holders of the Victoria Cross from the three services. The guests of honour were some hundred British widows who had each lost their husband and all their sons during the war.
How the idea of a symbolic ‘unknown soldier’ evolved
In 1916 a young military chaplain, David Railton, who had been conducting burial services for fallen soldiers in France, saw a solitary grave in a back garden there with a rough white cross pencilled with the haunting words: ‘An Unknown British Soldier.’
After the war, in August 1920, Railton wrote to the Dean of Westminster, Bishop Herbert Ryle, asking whether he would allow an unknown ‘comrade’ to be buried in Westminster Abbey. The Dean was enthusiastic and wrote to the King, substituting ‘warrior’ for ‘comrade’.
The King was reluctant, thinking that the public would not welcome reopening the ‘war wound’ as he put it. But the Dean then wrote to the Prime Minister and senior military who embraced the idea.
Selection of the Unknown Warrior, St. Pol-sur-Ternoise, Northern France
In October 1920, British military headquarters were located in St. Pol-sur-Ternoise. The commanding officer, Brigadier-General Louis John Wyatt, was instructed by the War Office about the Unknown Warrior’s burial.
Wyatt ordered that the bodies of four unidentified British soldiers be brought to St. Pol-sur-Ternoise, one from each of the main French battlefields: Ypres, the Somme, Arras and Aisne. The exhumed bodies, each laid on a stretcher and covered with the Union Flag, were placed in a hut that served as a chapel for the garrison.
At midnight on 8 November 1920 Wyatt, accompanied by a senior member of the Imperial War Graves Commission (later the Commonwealth War Graves Commission), went into the chapel and, with closed eyes, placed his hand on one of the bodies. This was the Unknown Warrior.
The coffin then travelled the following day, under ceremonial military escort, 90 miles away to the port of Boulogne.
The Unknown Warrior’s cortege in Boulogne, Northern France
The Unknown Warrior arrived in Boulogne at 3.30pm on 9 November and was received by representatives of the British Army, the French Army and the French government at the Chateau Boulogne where the coffin was placed in the library that had been turned into a temporary chapel.
A special casket had been sent from England, made from solid oak from a tree in Hampton Court Palace garden, banded with iron and with iron hooped handles.
The following day, 10 November, the coffin – covered with the union flag (now known as the ‘Padre’s flag’) that David Railton himself had used on improvised altars and to cover the bodies of soldiers killed in the war – was taken to the quayside in a mile-long ceremonial procession through the streets of Boulogne, led by French schoolchildren and escorted by a division of French troops, while all the bells of Boulogne tolled. Massed crowds watched silently as the cortege passed by.
Conveyance of the Unknown Warrior by sea to Dover, Kent
The British destroyer, HMS Verdun, was moored at the Boulogne quayside. With due ceremonial, the Unknown Warrior was taken aboard by the military bearer party. The ship cast off with an Able Seaman standing at each corner of the coffin.
Six destroyers of the Royal Navy Atlantic Fleet were waiting at sea to provide a naval escort – three abreast forward and three astern – on the short journey across the English Channel.
The Unknown Warrior arrived at Admiralty Pier, Dover to an honorary 19-gun salute fired from Dover Castle. The cortege, accompanied by officers representing all units of the Dover garrison, along with the Lord Mayor and Corporation of Dover, then proceeded along a route lined with troops, heads bowed and rifles reversed as a mark of respect, to the special train that would convey the coffin to London.
The Unknown Warrior is conveyed by train to Victoria Station, London
On 10 November at 5.50pm the Unknown Warrior began the three hour journey to Victoria station.
At Victoria station, a large crowd waited behind barriers as the Unknown Warrior arrived to a guard of honour from the Grenadier Guards. The silence was deep and profound. Men and women wept.
The Unknown Warrior remained overnight at the station in the funeral carriage until interment at Westminster Abbey the following day, 11 November.
Procession to the Cenotaph and its unveiling
The gun carriage, drawn by six black horses of the Royal Horse Artillery, travelled between lines of troops – heads bowed and rifles reversed – on the short journey from Victoria station.
Thousands came to pay their respects, many in tears. As Big Ben chimed 11 o’clock, the Cenotaph was unveiled as the flags fell away and a two-minute silence across the land began, before the haunting notes of the Last Post rang out.
The Cenotaph – commemorating the 1.1 million British and Empire dead of the First World War – was a hugely symbolic national shrine. There had been an earlier temporary one, made of wood, plaster and painted canvas, designed by the architect Edwin Lutyens for the 19 July 1919 peace parade.
This first Cenotaph immediately caught the public imagination, becoming a powerful focus for the grief of a nation whose dead lay in war graves overseas. Over 1.25 million people visited in the first week, leaving flowers in huge numbers.
Lutyens’ second Cenotaph, in Portland stone and virtually identical, was erected in time to be unveiled by the King, before the burial of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey.
The burial of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey
The iron shield reads: ‘A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country.’ The medieval crusader’s sword was selected from the Tower of London Collection.
The cortege, escorted by the pallbearers and followed by the King, members of the royal family and ministers of state, arrived at the north door of Westminster Abbey. The Cathedral Choir, singing hymns, met the coffin which was then borne up the nave through the congregation, while the choir sang the words from the Burial Service.
After the Unknown Warrior was lowered into the grave, the King scattered French soil on the coffin from a silver shell. A roll of drums reverberated round the Abbey, fading into silence until the bugle notes of Reveille.
The grave was later filled with earth from the First World War battlefields of France and temporarily sealed with a stone inscribed: ‘A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country. Greater love hath no man than this.’
The grave’s inscription, the letters made with brass from melted down ammunition from the First World War, reads:
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, IN THE PRESENCE OF
HIS MAJESTY KING GEORGE V
HIS MINISTERS OF STATE
THE CHIEFS OF HIS FORCES
AND A VAST CONCOURSE OF THE NATION
THUS ARE COMMEMORATED THE MANY
MULTITUDES WHO DURING THE GREAT
WAR OF 1914-1918 GAVE THE MOST THAT
MAN CAN GIVE LIFE ITSELF
FOR KING AND COUNTRY
FOR LOVED ONES HOME AND EMPIRE
FOR THE SACRED CAUSE OF JUSTICE AND
THE FREEDOM OF THE WORLD
THEY BURIED HIM AMONG THE KINGS BECAUSE HE
HAD DONE GOOD TOWARD GOD AND TOWARD
Armistice Day, with its two minutes’ silence, was commemorated nationally every year on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month until the outbreak of the Second World War (1939-1945), after which it was officially replaced with Remembrance Sunday.
Written by Nicky Hughes