The Story of the Grave of the Unknown Warrior

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.

Black and white photo looking along the central aisle of the abbey where a memorial stone is cordoned off by ropes and surrounded by wreaths
The grave of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey, London. Archive postcard © IWM LBY/K16/2219

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.

A painting depicts a group of men, most in military uniforms, gathered to pay their respects around a coffin draped with a union flag
‘The Burial of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey, 1920.’ (King George V is portrayed fifth from right). The oil painting, by Frank O. Salisbury, is held within the Parliamentary Art Collection. Image in the public domain.

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

Alt text could read: Black and white photo of ruined landscape with war damaged trees, unkept grass and a stretch of wooden crosses of varying size, design and uprightness.
War graves erected after the Battle of the Somme (1916), photographed in the ruins of the Chateau Contalmaison, Picardy, France, 2 September 1917 © IWM 2793

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

Black and white postcard showing a French town square on a quiet day. The name of the place given is Place du Palais de Justice in St. Pol-sur-Ternoise.
St. Pol-sur-Ternoise in the early 20th century. Image of archive postcard courtesy of Nicky Hughes.

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.

Black and white head and shoulders portrait photo of man in army uniform.
Brigadier-General Louis John Wyatt. Image in the public domain.

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

A coffin with iron bands and hooped handles rests on a stand draped with a union flag. Three French soldiers form a Guard of Honour.
The coffin containing the Unknown Warrior lies in a temporary chapel accompanied by a French Guard of Honour © IWM Q70592

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.

Soldiers bearing the coffin of the Union Warrior exit a door in a stone building. Outside other army colleagues salute the coffin as it appears.
The coffin of the Unknown Warrior is carried from the Chateau Boulogne © IWM Q98078.

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. 

A carriage bearing the Unkown Warrior’s coffin, drawn by 6 horses and accompanied by an escort of French soldiers, forms a ceremonial procession.
The Unknown Warrior’s coffin is escorted through the town of Boulogne to the harbour © IWM Q47634

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.

Black and white photo of two men standing and saluting with crowds of civilians onlookers behind.
Marshal Ferdinand Foch (left), the French Supreme Allied Commander and Lieutenant-General Sir George Macdonough, the King’s representative, salute the coffin in Boulogne. They marched behind the cortege © IWM Q47635

Conveyance of the Unknown Warrior by sea to Dover, Kent

The cortege, accompanied by French and British guards of honour, waits at Quay Chanzy alongside HMS Verdun before sailing to Dover, Kent © IWM Q70591

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.

A cortege bringing the coffin of the Unknown Warrior ashore walk between train tracks which are lined either side soldiers standing with heads bowed.
The arrival of the Unknown Warrior at Dover, Kent © IWM Q111468

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

Colour photo of an unpainted wooden railway carriage with barred windows.
Pictured above is the original railway carriage (it has since been restored) where the Unknown Warrior’s coffin lay in Dover prior to travelling to Victoria station, London. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

On 10 November at 5.50pm the Unknown Warrior began the three hour journey to Victoria station.

Plaque text reads: 
THE BODY OF THE BRITISH 
UNKNOWN WARRIOR 
ARRIVED AT PLATFORM 8 
AT 8.32pm ON THE 
10th NOVEMBER 1920 
AND LAY HERE OVERNIGHT 
BEFORE INTERMENT 
AT WESTMINSTER ABBEY 
ON 11th NOVEMBER 1920 
Western Front Association
Plaque at Victoria station, on the concourse between platforms 8 and 9, commemorating the location where the Unknown Warrior arrived in the funeral carriage at 8.32pm, 10 November 1920. (Every year, a small remembrance service takes place at this spot). Image via Creative Commons.

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

Cenotaph photographed close up showing its base covered in floral tributes, three flags hanging on flagpoles and a union flag draped over the top.
The temporary Cenotaph covered in flowers, 1919 © Historic England Archive BB75 02205

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.

Black and white photo of military lined up at the Cenotaph as crowds of public look on.
In this light-damaged image, King George V (seen centre bottom) follows the Unknown Warrior’s gun carriage as it makes its way down Whitehall to Westminster Abbey after the unveiling of the Cenotaph © IWM Q31493

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

Wooden coffin with metal bands, sword and shield set standing almost on end with stone column and marble statues behind.
The Unknown Warrior’s coffin resting on a stand at Westminster Abbey © IWM Q31492

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 coffin rests alone in the foreground, with the abbey’s impressive architecture stretching upwards around it.
The coffin of the Unknown Warrior rests on a bier covered with an embroidered silk funeral pall in the nave of Westminster Abbey before the burial © IWM Q31514

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.

Black and white photo post card of the Unknown Warrior’s grave dressed with floral tributes, embroidered funeral pall and union flag in Westminster Abbey.
Four members of the Armed Forces stand watch at each corner of the Unknown Warrior’s grave following the burial as thousands of mourners filed past. Archive postcard © IWM LBY K16 2218

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.’

Aftermath

Colour photo of the grave of the Unknown Warrior framed in paper poppies, with three wreaths at the bottom.
The grave, permanently capped with a stone of Belgium black marble, was unveiled at a special service at Westminster Abbey on Armistice Day, 11 November 1921, exactly one year after the burial of the Unknown Warrior.

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 GOD
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
HIS HOUSE

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

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2 responses to The Story of the Grave of the Unknown Warrior

  1. Margaret Moore says:

    I am so happy to read this, I did not know the whole story ….a wonderful place for an unknown Warrior….someones son, brother or friend….

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