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Abbey celebrates Unknown Warrior anniversary

Tuesday, 9th November 2010

Abbey celebrates Unknown Warrior anniversary

Westminster Abbey will this week celebrate the 90th anniversary of one of its most poignant memorials, The Grave of the Unknown Warrior.

On Thursday 11th November at 11.00am, immediately after the nation’s observance of Two Minute Silence, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh will unveil the Abbey’s Field of Remembrance – the huge annual collection of British Legion Poppy crosses on North Green.

The Duke of Edinburgh will then attend a short service to mark the anniversary of the arrival at the Abbey on 11th November 1920 of a coffin containing the body an unidentified member of the armed forces from the First World War battlefields.

The Warrior’s Grave stands as a remarkable tribute not just to the fallen of the First World War but to all those who have died since in international military conflict.

In 1920, the Reverend David Railton, a World War One army padre, wrote to Dean Ryle at Westminster Abbey proposing the idea that an unknown soldier from the battlefield should be brought back to Britain for burial as a representative for all who had died. The Dean favoured the idea, and finally persuaded King George V that the millions of members of the armed forces who died in the Great War should be commemorated in this way. In early November that year, military search parties visited the battlefields of Ypres, Arras, the Somme, and the Aisne and retrieved the unidentified bodies of four soldiers who had been killed in the Great War. Careful precautions were taken to ensure that no one could establish their identity.

The bodies were collected overnight in the chapel of the military headquarters in St Pol in northern France. One was selected by Brigadier General L.J. Wyatt, General Officer Commanding troops in France and Flanders. That body became the 'Unknown Warrior'. It was placed in a new coffin bearing the inscription ‘A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914–1918. For King and Country.’

The destroyer HMS Verdun, whose ship's bell now hangs on a pillar in the Abbey near the Warrior’s Grave, transported the coffin to Dover, from where it was taken by train to London. On the morning of 11 November, at Victoria Station, the coffin was placed on a gun carriage drawn by six black horses and carried in solemn procession along the Mall and down Whitehall. The gun carriage paused at the newly constructed Cenotaph, which was unveiled by King George V. From there the coffin was carried to the north door of Westminster Abbey. It was borne through the Quire and to the west end of the Nave through a guard of honour of more than 100 holders of the Victoria Cross. The congregation was made up of more than a 1000 widows and mothers of those killed in the War.

During the shortened form of the Burial Service, after the hymn Lead kindly Light, the King stepped forward and dropped a handful of French earth onto the coffin as it was lowered into the grave. At the close of the service, after the hymn Abide With Me and prayers, the congregation sang Rudyard Kipling's solemn recessional God of our Fathers, after which the Reveille and Last Post were sounded by trumpeters. Servicemen kept watch over the coffin for the next few days while tens of thousands of mourners filed past to pay their respects, and throw poppies on to the Grave.

The Grave of the Unknown Warrior remains a focus for pilgrimage and a powerful symbol, known across the world, of the sacrifice, suffering and bravery brought by war. Heads of State who visit the UK at the invitation of the monarch come during their stay as part of their formal programme to lay a wreath at the Warrior’s Grave. The Grave was also at the heart of an emotional service in the Abbey last year to mark the passing of the World War One Generation.

The Shrine of St Edward the Confessor is one of the most powerful features of the Abbey. To stand in the presence of a man who is both a saint and a monarch is awe-inspiring.


The Reverend Christopher Stoltz - Minor Canon

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