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Westminster Abbey and Coronavirus (COVID-19)

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Buried among the kings

Buried among the kings

In August 1920 the Reverend David Railton, who had served as an army chaplain in France during the First World War, wrote to the Dean of Westminster with a simple but unprecedented suggestion.

4 minute read

Recalling a rough wooden cross in a French garden on which had been written ‘An Unknown British Soldier’, and reflecting on the anguish of bereaved families who would never know the final resting place of loved ones killed in action, he asked the Dean, Dr Herbert Ryle, to consider burying the body of one such ‘unknown comrade’ in Westminster Abbey.

Battlefield grave

The grave and simple wooden marker of an unknown British soldier at Thiepval, seen in September 1916. The cross reads 'R.I.P. In Memory of an Unknown British Soldier Found & Buried 25.11.15'

Image: Imperial War Museum Q 1540

King George V, to whom Dean Ryle presented the idea, was initially cautious lest such an act re-open bitter wounds. But he was soon persuaded of the merits of the idea by the Prime Minister Lloyd George and it was agreed that the burial of an ‘Unknown Warrior’ would take place in Westminster Abbey on the approaching Armistice Day, immediately after the unveiling of the Cenotaph. Once announced, the idea quickly caught the imagination of both the public and the press.

In great secrecy several unidentifiable bodies were retrieved from battle sites in northern France and taken to army headquarters at St Pol where they were placed in a chapel, each covered with a Union Flag. At midnight on 7 November, Brigadier General L.J. Wyatt, the General Officer Commanding troops in France and Flanders, entered the chapel and chose a body at random. Though the details of these procedures were not revealed at the time, official statements stressed the care that had been taken to ensure that the identity of the Unknown Warrior would not be known. He might be a soldier, sailor, or airman and might equally be from the forces of the United Kingdom, the Dominions, or one of the British colonial territories.

Western Front

A team of stretcher bearers struggle through deep mud to carry a wounded man to safety near Boesinghe on 1 August 1917 during the Third Battle of Ypres.

Image: Imperial War Museum Q 5935

The selected body was placed in a specially-made coffin which had rested overnight in Westminster Abbey before being taken to France. From St Pol the cortege travelled with full military ceremonial to the quayside at Boulogne where the coffin was transferred to HMS Verdun for the voyage home. From Dover a train took the coffin to London where it arrived on the evening of 10 November at Victoria Station and rested overnight with a military guard.

On the morning of Armistice Day the coffin was transferred to a horse-drawn gun carriage which proceeded via the Mall and Admiralty Arch to Whitehall where the King placed a wreath of red roses and bay leaves on the coffin.

A King's tribute

George V's handwritten card which was placed on the coffin. It reads: 'In proud memory of those warriors who died unknown in the Great War. Unknown, and yest well-known, as dying, and behold they live'.

Image © 2020 Dean and Chapter of Westminster

After the Cenotaph had been unveiled the procession continued to the Abbey, entering by the north transept, with the King following as chief mourner, together with the Prince of Wales, the Prime Minister, the Speaker of the House of Commons and members of the Government.

The congregation of around a thousand consisted mostly of widows and mothers who had gained places by ballot. Both houses of Parliament had agreed to forgo their own attendance so that those perceived to have the greatest need of mourning might be present in large numbers. One hundred holders of the Victoria Cross lined the nave as the procession approached the grave, and as the Abbey choir sang the hymn ‘Lead, kindly light’ the Warrior was lowered into the ground and the King sprinkled earth from a Flanders battlefield onto his coffin. Reveille was sounded in answer to the Last Post heard at the Cenotaph earlier.

The immense power of David Railton’s simple idea became evident in the following days as thousands of mourners filed by the Grave. Stories abounded of the comfort derived from the possibility, often transformed into an individual conviction, that here were the remains of a much-mourned husband, father or son. One of the Abbey’s own choristers at the service, Bill Wolferstan, later recalled how he had wondered if the Warrior might be his elder brother.

A week after the burial the grave was filled with earth brought from France and was covered by a simple inscribed gravestone, replaced the following year by the present black marble gravestone, with its longer inscription.

Lasting tribute

The Belgian marble gravestone which replaced the original stone in 1921. The inscription was composed by Dean Ryle.

Image © 2020 Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Also on Armistice Day 1921 the Padre’s Flag, David Railton Union Flag which had served as both altar cloth and shroud at the Front, and which had covered the Warrior’s coffin at the funeral, was presented to be hung close by the Grave. A few weeks earlier had come the award of the Congressional Medal of Honor of the United States of America, which hangs on a nearby pillar.

Many other nations have paid a similar honour to the fallen of their wars, often within architectural or landscaped settings designed specially for that purpose. Uniquely it appears, the British Unknown Warrior was buried within an ancient place of prayer, in a church which lies at the heart of both national life and national memory.

They buried him among the Kings because he had done good toward God and toward his house.

It’s a privilege to live and work here – the Abbey really is the heart of the country and its history.

Martin - The Dean’s Verger

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