The tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey serves as a poignant reminder of the brave soldiers who lost their lives during World War I. The unidentified body was brought to England from France on 11th November 1920 to be buried in the nave of the abbey in a memorial to the war dead – and in particular those who had no known grave.
The tomb is massively important to ensure that future generations never forget those who died so that we might enjoy the freedom we enjoy today. Members of the public can visit the grave to pay their respects and reflect quietly on the magnitude of the loss of life during World War I.
Around 20 million military personnel and civilians from all nations died during the conflict from 1914 to 1918 and a further 21 million people suffered injuries.
How was the Unknown Warrior chosen?
The idea of the symbolic burial came to a chaplain at the Frontline, Reverend David Railton, who was 30 at the start of World War I – he saw the death and destruction first-hand. In 1916, he saw an unmarked grave in a garden at Armentieres, in northern France.
It had a roughly made cross and the words, “An unknown British soldier,” written on the cross. Railton thought it would be a fitting tribute to have such a grave in Britain and after the war, he contacted Herbert Ryle, the Dean of Westminster, with his idea.
Ryle was very supportive of the idea and thanks to his energy in putting it into practice, the grave of the Unknown Warrior in the abbey became a reality.
Where was the soldier found?
No one knows exactly where the British soldier was found, although it was believed that he had fallen in one of four battle areas: the Somme, the Aisne, Ypres and Arras.
The exact details were shrouded in secrecy, due to the sensitive nature of the operation. It was thought that between four and six bodies of soldiers who had died in the main British battle areas of the Western Front were exhumed on 7th November 1920.
They were taken to the chapel at St Pol, in France, where they were covered with Union Jack flags out of respect. Brigadier General LJ Wyatt, the British commander of troops in France and Flanders, chose the soldier who was to be brought to Westminster Abbey.
Chaplains of the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England and Non-Conformist churches held a service for the fallen at the chapel of St Pol.
The Unknown Warrior was placed in a coffin sent over especially from England. It was made of wood from a large oak tree in the garden of Hampton Court Palace. The coffin had been made jointly by Walter Jackson, of the Harrow firm, Ingall, Parsons and Clive and by Nodes and Son, the undertakers in charge of the arrangements.
A poignant message was inscribed on the coffin plate describing a “British Warrior who fell in the Great War, 1914 to 1918, for King and Country.” The ironwork was made by DJ Williams, of Brunswick Ironworks, of Caernarfon in Wales.
The soldier’s body was taken to Boulogne, with the coffin covered by a flag that Railton had used as his altar cloth during World War I. The flag, known as the Ypres or Padre’s Flag, is now hanging in St George’s Chapel.
The coffin was then carried on the HMS Verdun to Dover. The other soldiers’ bodies were reburied with the proper respect in France, at the St Pol cemetery.
Burial of the Unknown Warrior
On arriving in Britain, the Unknown Warrior was carried through London in a solemn procession to the Cenotaph on the morning of 11th November 1920, the second anniversary of the end of World War I. The coffin was carried on a gun carriage drawn by six majestic black horses. Crowds lined the streets to pay tribute to the war dead.
Designed by Edwin Lutyens, the Cenotaph was a new war memorial, on Whitehall. King George V had officially unveiled it and crowds gathered there to observe a two-minute silence at 11am, the time of the Armistice that ended the war in 1918.
The King laid a wreath of red roses on the coffin, with a card attached which read: “In proud memory of those Warriors who died unknown in the Great War. Unknown, and yet well-known.”
The Unknown Warrior’s body was taken to Westminster Abbey and was buried at the west end of the nave, in the presence of King George, other royals and a number of Ministers of State.
The coffin was carried by pallbearers, including military leaders, through the 1,000-strong congregation and a guard of honour provided by 100 holders of the Victoria Cross from the military services.
The funeral service included the singing of Thou Knowest Lord, by Henry Purcell, and I Am the Resurrection and the Life, arranged by William Croft. The King placed a handful of French earth on to the coffin as it was lowered into the grave.
At the end of the service, Abide With Me, a moving hymn associated with the war, was sung. The grave is so important because it represents the other soldiers who were never found or buried.
In the week after the burial, around 1.2 million people visited the abbey, surprising even the organisers of the tribute. It has become one of the most visited war graves in the world.
Written by Herbert Ryle, the message on the tomb begins with the now famous words: “Beneath this stone rests the body of a British warrior,” and adds Biblical extracts, including the tribute, “They buried him among the kings, because he had done good toward God and toward his house.”
Theories about the Unknown Warrior
Although the identity of the Unknown Warrior will never be discovered, there has been speculation over the years on who he might have been. There have even been conspiracy theories that the British government knew his identity, but these have been refuted.
Rev George Kendall was the army chaplain who had the grim task of exhuming the bodies and choosing one to bring back to Britain in 1920. His son David and grandson Tim Kendall revealed that journalists pursued him until he died in 1961, but he wouldn’t discuss it even with his own family, let alone the press.
David Kendall recalled that throughout his childhood and youth, he was always hearing a knock on the door and it would be another journalist asking the same question about the possible identity of the Unknown Warrior.
George Kendall had written his autobiography, which was finally published 55 years after it was completed. He wrote that the soldier’s identity was the “greatest mystery of the first world war” and that he had been asked many times by the media if he knew the answer.
The chaplain maintained that the Unknown Warrior was one of the “countless unnamed dead” in Flanders and France – a decision taken so that the nation would honour him without any distinction being made for his birth, rank or military service. He wrote that the soldier was “unknown to man but known to God.”
Chaplain’s painful memories
George Kendall, a former Yorkshire steelworker before the war, would visit the tomb at Westminster Abbey every year, standing with a bowed head for a moment, but he told his son nothing about the personal story behind the grave.
All he ever said about it, when pressed, was that the soldier was “British and unknown” and that he may have come from a small village, or a major city, and that he may have been the son of a working man, or a rich one.
It had been the chaplain’s grim task after the war to start exhuming the bodies in Belgium from the ditches, fields and ruined buildings to move them to new war cemeteries and this was something he never discussed with his loved ones.
His autobiography, Daring All Things, went into greater detail about some of the horrific experiences he suffered while checking the abandoned ruins of the once vibrant Belgian villages.
People across the UK will be participating in Remembrance Sunday services on 11th November and paying tribute to those brave individuals who made the ultimate sacrifice for future generations. H&H Van Hire joins the rest of the nation in remembering the war dead who gave their lives so that we could live in freedom.