Reverend David Railton
The concept of the Grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey was inspired by the Reverend David Railton M.C. (1884-1955) who was a curate in Folkestone in Kent before becoming a chaplain to the 2nd Battalion of the Hon. Artillery Company on the Western Front during the 1914-1918 war. In 1916, in a back garden at Erkingham near Armentières in France, he noticed a grave with a rough cross on which were pencilled the words 'An Unknown British Soldier'.
After the war he became vicar of Margate in Kent and in August 1920 he wrote to Herbert Ryle, Dean of Westminster, suggesting a permanent memorial to the fallen of the Great War who had no known grave. King George V and the government, rather reluctantly at first, supported the idea and on 11th November 1920 David Railton saw his dream become reality.
A year later, the Union flag which he had used during the war to drape over his makeshift altars – and over the bodies of soldiers killed in action - was donated to the Abbey. The Padre's Flag, as it is known, now hangs in St George's Chapel close to the Warrior's grave.
Today the Grave of the Unknown Warrior is one of the most famous of the Abbey's memorials. Visiting Heads of State include in their itinerary a wreath laying at the grave.
David was the son of George Scott Railton (died 1913), a Commissioner in the Salvation Army, and his wife Marianne (Parkyn) and was educated at Oxford and Liverpool. He was ordained in 1908 and served his curacy in Liverpool before moving to Ashford in Kent. From 1914 he was curate at Folkestone. In 1916 he was awarded the Military Cross for saving several men under heavy fire. After serving as vicar at Margate he was also vicar of Bolton in Yorkshire, at Shalford in Surrey and St Nicholas in Liverpool. He retired to Inverness-shire in Scotland. His wife was Ruby (Wilson) and they had a son Andrew and four daughters, one of whom, Ruth, was made a Dame for her work with the National Youth Orchestra. On his way home to Scotland in 1955 he accidentally fell from a moving train and died of his injuries.
He wrote his own account of the idea for the Warrior's burial in the magazine "Our Empire" in November 1931.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Remembering David Railton by Josephine Crilly in The Lady magazine, November 1984
The story of the Unknown Warrior by Michael Gavaghan 3rd edition 2003
The Flag. The story of Revd David Railton and the tomb of the Unknown Warrior by A. Richards, 2017
David Railton’s account of the origin of the burial (PDF, 153KB)
This image can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library
Image © 2023 Dean and Chapter of Westminster