The Grave of the Unknown Soldier is 100 years old this year. How did this idea originate? And why?
Written by Frank Peters.
This year marks the centenary of the laying of the Grave of the Unknown Warrior, in Westminster Abbey in London. Visitors, who stop, pause, and remember can read the following inscription:
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
These are powerful words. Today, we cannot imagine the consequences of the brutality that was “The Great War 1914 – 1918”. Yes, we see images, perhaps more brutal, flicker across our screens. But at that time, a conflict had never been so violent as this war. Britain and its allies had won. But victory was bittersweet. Millions of soldiers, on both sides, did not come home. Their loved ones remained uncertain of the fate of the men who should have been sitting at their tables. There was no closure. Widows and mothers could not grieve because they did not know when their husbands or sons had fallen, and where, if at all, they might be buried. There was no place to visit. There were no telegrams, nor were there any letters, a medal, or a simple token of remembrance. Nothing. A whole nation’s grief was locked, unable to escape. Healing was almost impossible.
It was Army Clergyman, David Railton, who saw an unmarked grave in France in 1920 that led to the idea of a soldier becoming the representative of all men who had given their lives in battle. On the grave was a cross on which was written “An unknown British soldier.” David Railton wrote to the Dean of Westminster to share his idea which was accepted. King George V warmed less to the thinking, but the Prime Minister did see its merits, and after intense discussions, a plan was drawn up and implemented.
Brigadier-General Lewis John Wyatt was charged with the task. He was commanded to select four individual remains of unidentified British soldiers. Their graves had to be unmarked British graves. Each grave had to be in one of the four major battlefields of the war. The remains, now only skeletons, were placed side by side. With his eyes closed, the Brigadier-General selected a body. This person became the “Unknown Warrior”.
The soldier was escorted from France back to London. Already, public interest was great. The final and delicate journey became a tremendous ceremonial event with people lining the streets, opening the doors of their homes, raising their hats, or bowing, as the body, slowly moving with great dignity, was brought to Westminster Abbey.
Armistice Day (November 11) 1920, two years after the end of the war, was laden with respect and with grief. An entire nation came to a halt for 2 minutes, at 11 minutes past the 11th hour. People stood where they were. Traffic came to a standstill. Trains stopped as all signals switched to red. Ships turned off their engines. Switchboards recorded no telephone calls. A plane flying to Manchester cut its engines and glided through the air for two minutes. The nation, united in grief, fell silent and paid its respects to the one solitary person who gave his life on behalf of all others. The unknown warrior, who could never, be traced, identified, and brought home to his family. Whoever they may be and wherever they may live.
This simple and humble act is still performed today, in public, in private, in schools, on the radio, whether there is a pandemic, or the day is normal.
This was, and still is, immensely powerful symbolism. The fact that the soldier and his circumstances were completely unknown, gave individuals a possibility to seek solace in the thought that, perhaps, just perhaps, it was their loved one who lay in that grave, resting in an English coffin, surrounded by French soil and placed underneath a slab of Belgian marble. This soldier was given a funeral normally reserved for Heads of State. The body lay in state for much longer than was planned as people were given the chance to say a better “goodbye” than before. A nation, so victorious, could slowly start to heal.
This act of coming to terms was repeated in other countries and proved to have the same effect. Grief knows no bias.
As noble as remembering the “Unknown Soldier” may be, science has taken over. Today’s soldiers are made to leave their DNA in databases so that, if necessary, they can be identified at a later stage. One of the “Unknown Soldiers” buried in Arlington, Virginia, and who was killed in the Vietnam War, was identified many years later using DNA records.
The grave is now empty.
Science has progressed. Mankind is still lagging behind. The two words, which emerged from the carnage of the First World War, “Never Again”, still have not caught on, as all the wars after “The War to End all Wars” have confirmed.
The picture was kindly made available by Mr Alex Gear, Headmaster of Oakhyrst Grange School, Caterham, Surrey, England. Visit the school’s website here.