Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Globally

Remembrance Day.  Veterans Day.  Armistice Day.  No matter what you call it, November 11 is a date of utmost historical importance.  At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month each year, most of the world stops, and respect a silence to remember the ultimate sacrifices that were made, not just in the great war, but in every war and conflict where military personnel have fought.  Every year in April, in addition to Remembrance Day, I remember ANZAC Day, for my own family sacrifices and honours.

Throughout history, thousands of wars have been fought and millions of soldiers have lost their lives, but only a tiny fraction of victims had monuments erected, honored or remembered through stories. The majority of them had their remains sent home to their families where they now lie in cemeteries around the world. However, many fallen soldiers remain unidentified.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Around the World

After World War 1, a movement began to commemorate these unknown soldiers with a single tomb, that would contain the body of one such unidentified soldier. That one soldier would then be a representative symbol of the sacrifice of all the unknown soldiers who died in battle.

This is that history of the tombs I compiled, and of many such memorials around the world:

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UnknownSolider Global UKUnknownSolider Rev David RailtonThe idea of a Tomb of the Unknown Warrior was first conceived in 1916 by the Reverend David Railton, who, while serving as an army chaplain on the Western Front during the Great War, had seen a grave marked by a rough cross in a back garden at Armentières, which bore the pencil-written legend ‘An Unknown British Soldier   

Reverend Railton wrote to the Dean of Westminster in August 1920 proposing that an unidentified British soldier from the battlefields in France be buried with due ceremony in Westminster Abbey “amongst the kings” to represent the many hundreds of thousands of Empire dead. The idea was strongly supported by the Dean and the Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

On September 7th, 1920, in strict secrecy, 4 unidentified British bodies were exhumed from temporary battlefield cemeteries at Ypres, Arras, the Asine and the Somme. None of the soldiers who did the digging were told why.  The bodies were taken by field ambulance to GHQ at St-Pol-Sur-Ter Noise. Once there, the bodies were draped with the Union Jack flag.  Sentries were posted.

UnknownSolider UK france departureThe General Officer in charge of troops in France and Flanders, Brigadier General L.J. Wyatt, with Colonel Gell, went into the chapel alone, where the bodies on stretchers were covered by Union Flags. They had no idea from which area the bodies had come. General Wyatt selected one and the two officers placed it in a plain coffin and sealed it. The other three bodies were reburied. 

The body of the Unknown Warrior may be from any of the three services, Army, Navy or Air Force, and from any part of the British Isles, Dominions or Colonies and represents all those who died who have no other memorial or known grave.

A French Honour Guard was selected and stood by the coffin of the chosen soldier overnight.  The Union Jack flag Reverend Railton had used as an altar cloth whilst at the front, was the one that had been draped over the coffin of the Unknown Warrior. (known as the Ypres or Padre’s Flag, which now hangs in St George’s Chapel at Westminster)

UnknownSolider UK france wagon marshall saluteOn the morning of the 8th November 1920, a specially designed coffin made of oak from the grounds of Hampton Court arrived and the Unknown Warrior was placed inside.  On top was placed a 16th century crusader’s sword from the Tower of London collection and a shield.

UnknownSolider UK france quayside wagonOn the 9th of November, the Unknown Warrior was taken by horse-drawn carriage through Guards of Honour and the sound of tolling bells and bugle calls to the quayside. 

There, he was saluted by Marechal Foche and loaded onto the destroyer HMS Verdun bound for Dover. UnknownSolider UK verdun sailingThe coffin stood on the deck covered in wreaths, surrounded by the French Honour Guard.  (the ship’s bell was presented to the Abbey and now hangs near the grave)

UnknownSolider UK dover arrivalUpon arrival at Dover on the 10th of November, 1920, the Unknown Warrior was met with a nineteen gun salute – something that was normally only reserved for Field Marshals.   He was the carried to the train station through the streets of Dover.

A special train had been arranged and he was then conveyed to Victoria Station, London, where he remained overnight.

100 years ago today, on the morning of 11th November the coffin was placed, by the bearer party from the 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards, on a gun carriage drawn by six black horses of the Royal Horse Artillery. It then began its journey through the crowd-lined streets, making its first stop in Whitehall where the Cenotaph was unveiled by King George V. The King placed his wreath of red roses and bay leaves on the coffin.

UnknownSolider UK Kings CardHis card read “In proud memory of those Warriors who died unknown in the Great War. Unknown, and yet well-known; as dying, and behold they live. George R.I. November 11th 1920“.

UnknownSolider UK casket transportThen the carriage, with the escorting pall bearers (Admirals) Lord Beatty, Sir Hedworth Meux, Sir Henry Jackson, Sir C.E. Madden, (Field Marshals) Lord French, Lord Haig, Lord Methuen, Sir Henry Wilson, (Generals) Lord Horne, Lord Byng, Albert Farrar-Gatliff and Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Trenchard, followed by the King, members of the Royal Family and ministers of State, made its way to the north door of Westminster Abbey.

While the Cenotaph unveiling was taking place the Choir inside the Abbey sang, unaccompanied, “O Valiant Hearts” (to the tune Ellers). The hymn “O God our help in ages past” was sung by the congregation and after prayers there was the two minutes silence at 11:00am. 

The coffin was carried to the west end of the nave past the congregation of around 1,000 mourners and a guard of honour of 100 holders of the Victoria Cross (from all three services). They were under the command of Colonel Freyburg VC. The choir sang the 23rd Psalm.

After the hymn “Lead kindly light“, the King stepped forward and dropped a handful of French earth onto the coffin from a silver shell as it was lowered into the grave. At the close of the service, after the hymn “Abide with me” (tune Eventide) and prayers, the congregation sang Rudyard Kipling’s solemn Recessional “God of our fathers” (to the tune Melita), after which the Reveille was sounded by trumpeters (the Last Post had already been sounded at the Cenotaph unveiling). Other eminent members of the congregation were Queen Alexandra, the queens of Spain and Norway, the Duke of Connaught, politicians Lloyd George and Asquith, and Sir Douglas Dawson.

UnknownSolider UK westminster casketThe grave was then covered by an embroidered silk funeral pall, which had been presented to the Abbey by the Actors’ Church Union in memory of their fallen comrades, with the Padre’s flag lying over this. Servicemen kept watch at each corner of the grave while thousands of mourners filed past. Wreaths brought over on HMS Verdun were added to others around the grave.

UnknownSolider UK westminster fallen soliderThe Abyssinian cross, presented to the Abbey at the time of the 1902 coronation, stood at the west end of the coffin. The Abbey organ was played while the church remained open to the public. After the Abbey had closed for the night some of the choristers went back into the nave and one later wrote “The Abbey was empty save for the guard of honour stiffly to attention, arms (rifles) reversed, heads bowed and quite still – the whole scene illuminated by just four candles“.

UnknownSolider UK westminster original stoneThe grave was filled in, using 100 sandbags of earth from the battlefields, on 18th November,1920 and then covered by a temporary stone with a gilded inscription on it:

IN THE GREAT WAR 1914-1918