Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Globally

Remembrance 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:

                                    

🇬🇧 UNITED KINGDOM

The 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.

The 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)

On 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.

On 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. The 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)

Upon 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.

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.

His 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“.

Then 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.

The 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.

The 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“.

The 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:

A BRITISH WARRIOR WHO FELL
IN THE GREAT WAR 1914-1918
FOR KING AND COUNTRY.
GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN THAN THIS.

On 11th November 1921 the present black marble stone was unveiled at a special service. The stone was supplied and lettered by Mr Tomes of Acton and the brass for the inscription supplied by Nash & Hull.  The Padre’s Flag was also formerly dedicated at this service.

When the Duke of York (later King George VI) married Lady Ellizabeth Bowes Lyons in the Abbey in 1923 she left her wedding bouquet on the grave as a mark of respect (she had lost a brother during the war). Since then, all royal brides married in the Abbey have sent back their bouquets to be laid on the grave.

General Pershing, on behalf of the United States of America, conferred the Congressional Medal of Honor on the Unknown Warrior on 17th October 1921 and this now hangs in a frame on a pillar near the grave.  In October 2013 the Congressional Medal of Honor Society presented the Society’s official flag to the Unknown Warrior which is framed below the medal.

It was Reverend Railton’s intention that all of the relatives of the 517,773 combatants whose bodies had not been identified could believe that the Unknown Warrior could very well be their lost husband, father, brother or son…

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Remembrance Day

🇦🇺 AUSTRALIA

Plans to honour an unknown Australian soldier were first put forward in the 1920s but it was not until 1993 that one was at last brought home.  To mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the First World War, the body of an unknown Australian soldier was recovered from Adelaide Cemetery near Villers-Bretonneaux in France and at Menin Gate at Ypres in Belgium, before being transported to Australia. 

After lying in state for three day in King’s Hall in Old Parliament House, the Unknown Australian Soldier was interred in the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial on 11 November 1993 (the 75th anniversary of the Armistice which ended fighting on the Western front). He was buried in a Tasmanian blackwood coffin, on which were placed a bayonet and a sprig of wattle. Soil from the Pozières battlefield in France was scattered in his tomb. 

It bears the simple inscription ‘An Unknown Australian Soldier Killed in the War of 1914-1918’.

The then Prime Minster of Australia, the honourable Paul Keating, made an powerful eulogy “We do not know this Australian’s name and we never will. We do not know his rank or battalion. We do not know where he was born, nor precisely how he died … We will never know who this Australian was … he was one of the 45,000 Australians who died on the Western Front … one of the 60,000 Australians who died on foreign soil. One of the 100,000 Australians who died in wars this century. He is all of them. And he is one of us.”

The Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier at the Australian War Memorial is a focus for contemplation and for remembering the 100,000 Australians who died in war, and whose names appear on the nearby Roll of Honour.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Remembrance Day

🇳🇿 NEW ZEALAND

On 6 November 2004, the remains of an unknown New Zealand soldier were exhumed from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, and laid to rest in the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, part of the New Zealand National War Memorial on Buckle Street, Wellington, New Zealand. He represents over 18,000 members of New Zealand forces who lost their lives during the First World War. 

The remains, in a copper coffin sealed and placed in a rimu coffin brought from New Zealand, were handed over from the care of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to a New Zealand delegation during a ceremony at Longueval, Somme, France. New Zealand Defence Force chief, Air Marshal Bruce Ferguson, who had the task of repatriating the Warrior’s remains, said of the occasion “I told him [the Warrior] we’re taking him home and that those who are taking him home are soldiers, sailors and airmen, past and present. I asked the Warrior to be the guardian of all military personnel who had died on active service. I then promised that we, the people of New Zealand, will be his guardian for ever”.

The Warrior arrived in New Zealand on 10 November 2004. While he lay in state in the Parliament Buildings an estimated 10,000 people paid their respects. The Warrior was laid to rest on the 86th Armistice Day, 11 November 2004, after a service at St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral and a 2.85 km slow march procession through the streets of Wellington, lined by about 100,000 people. The Tomb was sealed with a bronze mantel at 3:59pm, bearing the words:

An Unknown New Zealand Warrior
He Toa Matangaro No Aotearoa

The Warrior is one of more than 1500 New Zealanders killed on the Somme. Most of them, 1272, remained unidentified and are buried in unmarked graves or remembered on memorial walls. The remains are thought to include an almost complete skeleton, and other belongings that established beyond doubt the Warrior’s nationality.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Remembrance Day

🇨🇦 CANADA

More than 118,000 Canadians have died fighting for their country in overseas wars — including the First World War. About 28,000 of those warriors were lost in unknown graves.  Some lie at the bottom of oceans, some lie, still undiscovered, in farmer’s fields in France and Flanders.

Many were sailors whose ships were torpedoed at sea. Another 11,285 were killed in France during the First World War, their bodies either blown apart by shells or lost in the mud, mire and rain-filled bomb craters of the Western Front.

Each of those 11,285 names are inscribed today on the massive limestone memorial atop Vimy Ridge, site of Canada’s most famous military victory.

The Unknown Soldier was exhumed in May 2000 from an unmarked Canadian grave at the Cabaret-Rouge war cemetery in France. Cabaret-Rouge holds the graves of more than 7,000 British Empire troops, many of them Canadians who fought and died at Vimy.  The Commonwealth War Graves Commission dug up the nearly-complete skeletal remains from an unmarked Canadian grave at Cabaret-Rouge, also finding some brass uniform badges, clearly identifying the soldier as Canadian, among the bones.

Days later, an official delegation travelled from Ottawa to France to repatriate the remains — Operation Memoria — and to collect a silver cupful of soil from the soldier’s former resting place. Ceremonies were held at the cemetery and at Vimy Ridge itself, and the remains came home to Canada in a flag-draped casket in in a Canadian Forces aircraft.

In the following days, the remains lay in state in Parliament,  then on 28 May, they were interred in a sarcophagus made of granite from the Beauce region of Quebec. Its bronze overlay was created in 2000 by sculptor Mary-Ann Liu of Mission, British Columbia. The tomb’s only inscription reads “The Unknown Soldier” in English and “Le Soldat inconnu” in French. It is positioned directly in the line of sight of the foremost soldier advancing through the arch in the National War Memorial, along with soil from each Canadian province and territory, along with the cup of soil brought back from France.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Remembrance Day

🇫🇷 FRANCE

On the same day the remains of the unknown soldier was interred at Westminster Abbey, a body was buried beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The stone bears the inscription ICI REPOSE UN SOLDAT FRANÇAIS MORT POUR LA PATRIE 1914–1918 (Here lies a French soldier who died for the fatherland 1914–1918).

🇧🇪 BELGIUM

The Belgium Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located at the foot of the Congress Column on the Place du Congrès Congresplein in Brussels, where is buried the remains of five unknown soldiers. The monument was unveiled on 11 November 1922.

🇮🇹 ITALY

The Italian Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located in Altare della Patria, a monument built in honour of the first king of a unified Italy, and is built under the statue of goddess Roma. It contains the body of an unknown soldier killed during World War I.

🇵🇹 PORTUGAL

The Portuguese Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Túmulo do Soldado Desconhecido) is located in the Sala do Capitulo at the Monastery of Batalha, near Leiria. It holds the bodies of two soldiers of World War I — one from the battlefields of Flanders, and one from the African theatre — who were buried there on 6 April 1921.

🇷🇺 RUSSIA

The Russian Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located in Moscow, at the Kremlin Wall in the Alexander Garden. The remains of the unknown soldiers killed in the Battle of Moscow in 1941 were initially buried in a mass grave at the city of Zelenograd, but was relocated to the Kremlin Wall in 1966. The dark red porphyry monument is decorated with a bronze sculpture of a laurel branch and a soldier’s helmet laid upon a banner.

🇬🇷 GREECE

The Greek Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located at Syntagma Square in central Athens. Members of Evzones, the historic elite members of the Greek Army are stationed in front of it. There is a marble picture in the background which is a copy of an ancient warrior grave stele (stone slab) that depicts a hoplite, a citizen-soldier of the Ancient Greek, lying dead on a small slab.

🇮🇶 IRAQ

The Monument to the Unknown Soldier in central Baghdad was built in 1980 when the Iran–Iraq War began. The Monument represents a traditional shield dropping from the dying grasp of an Iraqi warrior. The shield hangs over a cube made from layers of metal. The cube itself is connected to an underground museum by a long shaft with windows that allow light to shine in from above. Inside the museum, visitors can look up at the ceiling and see through the openings leading to the cube above.

🇨🇿 CZECH REPUBLIC

The National Monument on Vítkov Hill in Prague was built from 1928–1938 in honor of the World War I Czechoslovak legionaries, and contains remains of an unknown Czechoslovak soldier fallen at the Battle of Zborov as well as an unknown Czechoslovak soldier fallen at the Battle of Dukla. It includes the third largest bronze rider statue in the world of Jan Žižka, who defeated Catholic forces led by King Sigismund in 1420 in the Battle of Vítkov Hill.

🇪🇬 EGYPT

Egypt has many Unknown Soldier Memorials for Egyptian and Arab soldiers, but the most famous is the one in Cairo. The Unknown Soldier Memorial in Cairo is a pyramid-shaped monument in Nasr City, constructed in 1974 in honour of Egyptians and Arabs who lost their lives in the 1973 October War.  The monument is a magnificent hollow pyramid, 36 meters tall and made of concrete. At the center of the base is a solid basalt cube representing the unknown soldier’s tomb.

🇺🇦 UKRAINE

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Могила невідомого солдата) is located in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, dedicated to the soldiers of the Red Army killed in the Second World War. The memorial is a 27 meters high obelisk, with an eternal flame burning at the tomb. The Alley of Heroes leads to the tomb. The tomb was opened on 6 November 1957.  In August 2016, neo-Nazis destroyed the the grave of the unknown soldier. Then, the day after the monument’s 60th anniversary on 7 November 2017, vandals filled the eternal flame with wet cement, thus ceasing the flame for the first time since its inception. 

🇷🇸 SERBIA

Monument to the Unknown Hero (Споменик Незнаном јунаку / Spomenik Neznanom junaku) on Mt. Avala near Belgrade was built in 1934-1938 on the place where an unknown Serbian World War I soldier, with no ID badge, who was drafted immediately prior to the battle in October 1915, was buried. An exhumation on 23 November 1921 found parts of a grenade under the skull, while the skeleton had the blown left side of the chest, so it is estimated that he was killed by an Austro-Hungarian howitzer. He was apparently buried in the crater formed by the explosion of the very grenade that killed him.

🇧🇬 BULGARIA

The Monument to the Unknown Soldier (Паметник на Незнайния воин, Pametnik na Neznayniya voin) is in the centre of Sofia, Bulgaria and commemorates the hundreds of thousands of Bulgarian soldiers who died in war. The opened on September 22, 1981, the 1,300th anniversary of establishment of the Bulgarian state, and features an eternal flame, turf from two of the most important battlefields of the Russo-Turkish War of Liberation (Stara Zagora and Shipka Pass), a sculpture of a lion (a national symbol of Bulgaria) as well as a stone inscription of a stanza by the national writer Ivan Vazov.

🇩🇪 GERMANY

King Frederick William III of Prussia approved construction of the Neue Wache (New Guardhouse) which is on Unter den Linden boulevard in the centre of Berlin. Completed in 1818 it served as a royal guard house until the end of World War I. Since 1931 it was redesigned many times to memorialize different political perspectives. In 1969 the remains of an Unknown Soldier and of a nameless Nazi concentration camp victim were interred in front of a glass prism with an eternal flame in the centre of the hall.  In 1993, the prism was removed and a stage of “mother with dead son” took its place.  Two soldiers of the Friedrich Engels Guard Regiment serve as permanent honor guards.

🇷🇴 ROMANIA

Built in 1923 to commemorate the Romanians who died during World War I, Mormântul Soldatului Necunoscut is in Bucharest.  The Ministry of War chose a war orphan from the 1st grade of a military school to choose the Unknown Soldier.  The 12-year old war orphan Amilcar Săndulescu, tudent from the “Dimitrie Sturdza” Military High School in Craiova whose father died on the front in 1917, was selected.  10 unidentified soldiers bodies were exhumed and laid in oak coffins, doubled with zinc, inside a church in Mărășești.  On May 14, 1923, Amilcar knelt in front of the 4th coffin and said: “This is my father“. After the Unknown Soldier had been chosen, the other 9 coffins were buried with military honors in the Heroes’ Cemetery in Mărăşeşti.

🇺🇸 USA

The US Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, USA. The tomb was unveiled in November 11, 1921. The monument is guarded all round the clock, all round the year, no matter what the weather, is by soldiers of the United States Military. To serve as a Tomb Guard is considered one of the highest honors. When watching over the tomb, the Tomb Guards follow a very elaborate ritual that involves marching down a precise path, waiting, shifting weapon to the other shoulder, and then marching back down the same path, all clocked precisely to the last second.  

🇵🇭 PHILIPPINES

Libingan ng mga Bayani (Cemetery of the Heroes) is a national cemetery in Metro Manila where in the center of the cemetery, is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Inscribed on the tomb are the words: “Here lies a Filipino soldier whose name is known only to God.” Behind the tomb are three marble pillars representing the three main island groups in the Philippines: Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao.

🇵🇱 POLAND

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Grób Nieznanego Żołnierza) is in Warsaw, Poland, dedicated to the unknown soldiers erected after World War I.  Located at Piłsudski Square, is the only surviving part of the Saxon Palace that occupied the spot until World War II. Since 2 November 1925 the tomb houses the unidentified body of a soldier who fell during the Defence of Lwów. The Tomb is lit by an eternal flame

🇮🇳 INDIA

The New Delhi war memorial was inaugurated by Indira Gandhi in 1972, burning in a shrine under the arch of India Gate since 1971 is the Amar Jawan Jyoti (the flame of the immortal soldier) which marks the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The shrine itself is a black marble cenotaph with a rifle placed on its barrel, crested by a soldier’s helmet. Each face of the cenotaph has inscribed in gold the words Immortal Warrior in Hindi Devanagri script (अमर जवान).

Lest We Forget