The story of the “Unknown Warrior”


Humankind has been subjected to tormenting wars since the inception of civilization. Wars have forever plagued humankind and still does it’s job. Whenever the word WAR is thrown at someone, the first thing they remember are the World Wars. Two wars fought, over the continents nearly proved fatal to the very continuation of humankind on the face of this planet.

French 87th Regiment near Verdun, WikimediaCommons

Over 40 million people died as a result of the 1st World War. It was one of the few battles in which humankind has witnessed bloodshed of this extent. Many million were marked M.I.A or Missing In Action, those who never came back home-dead or alive. Of the millions of K.I.A, many were left out , unidentified by anyone. Dead and left to rot. To honor the services of the unknown dead of the World War I, their lies a grave of an Unknown Warrior of WWI in Westminster Abbey, whose body was brought from France to be buried there on 11th November 1920. The grave, which contains soil from France, is covered by a slab of black Belgian marble. Families of soldiers flock here to see the grave as one of their family member’s who never returned home after the war. It provides condolence to many grieving family who were pushed to grief by the loss of their kin to the war.

Rev. David Railton in 1918, WikimediaCommons

The idea of the grave came to a British Army Padre, Reverend David Railton, when he was returning to his quarters from the front after burying one of his fellow soldier in 1916. He noticed in a back garden at Armentières, Northern France, a grave with a rough cross on which were the words “An Unknown British Soldier” and beneath in brackets, “of the Black Watch” (Black Watch, 3rd Battalion is an infantry battalion of Royal Regiment of Scotland).

Black Watch soldiers firing rifle grenades, Bain/Library of Congress,WikimediaCommons

Rev. David was moved by this sight. He wished to soothe the pain of father, mother, brother, sister, sweetheart, wife and friend? of that fallen soldier. He wrote later, “Let this body – this symbol of him – be carried reverently over the sea to his native land.”

After the war ended and the Armistice, in 1920 he wrote to Sir Douglas Haig, commander in charge of British Forces to bury a body of an unknown soldier in Westminster Abbey as a symbol for the grieving parents and wives who had no grave to visit. However, he got no response and after his wife’s encouragement wrote to Herbert Ryle, Dean of Westminster Abbey, who was greatly inspired by the idea wrote to the King-George V, Prime Minister  David Lloyd George, and the War Office.

Although the response from the King was lukewarm, the idea gained momentum with the interest of the PM. A committee was formed headed by Lord Curzon, former Viceroy of India, to look into it. And finally by late October, the idea was approved.

Soldiers bow as the coffin carrying the remains marches through Dover, credits to owners

On 6 November, 1920, the two undertakers, Mr Nodes and Mr Sourbutts, traveled to France with the coffin. On the stroke of midnight on 7 November, 1920, Brigadier General L.J. Wyatt, General Officer Commanding British Troops in France and Flanders, entered a hut near the village of St Pol, near Ypres in northern France. The hut housed the remains of four fallen soldiers of the war, draped in the Union Jack. The bodies were retrieved from unmarked graves each of the main battlefields, the Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres. There were strict orders from the upper echelon to chose bodies that were sufficiently decomposed to be unidentifiable and bore no identification marks.

Brig. Gen. Wyatt simply chose one and that was it. The choice had been made.The remains received the kind of treatment that royal members could only wish for.

The body was placed inside the coffin and sealed with two wrought-iron straps covered with a seal. The seal bore the words: ‘A British Warrior Who Fell in the Great War 1914-1918. For King and Country.’ The King gifted a sword from his private collection to go with the coffin. Six barrels of soil from the field of Flanders accompanied the coffin. the French took part in the grand ceremony, parading the coffin through the streets and French leaders giving speech on the bravery of soldiers.

The Unknown Warrior’s coffin being carried to HMS Verdun, GettyImages

By 10th November, the coffin was aboard the HMS Verdun, a Royal Navy Destroyer, along with 4 large wreaths. The Verdun was received midway by another six destroyers. In honor, the ships lowered their Union Jacks and ensigns to half-mast, an honor usually reserved for the King.

When the ships came into view, 19-gun salute was fired and a band played Land of Hope and Glory and on reaching the mainland it was then taken by train to Victoria station in London where it rested overnight.

The bell of HMS Verdun hangs near to the final resting place of the Unknown Warrior,

An hour after it left Victoria Station, the coffin arrived at the final resting place. There it was met by the King, who placed his own wreath on top. The aisle of Westminster Abbey was lined with 100 recipients of the Victoria Cross. The congregation was made up of 1,000 widows and mothers of the fallen. No foreign dignitaries were invited.

The Engraved marble atop the burial site, WikimediaCommons

The coffin was lowered and the six barrels of Flanders earth were poured over it and a an elaborately inscribed slab was placed on top of it. There lies an unknown soldier, a symbol for many grieving families. The French too did their unknown Warrior ceremony following this incident.

Information credits:

  3. Wikipedia