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The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior represents all who fell in the Great War. The idea of such a tomb came to a chaplain at the Front, the Reverend David Railton, (in peacetime the vicar of Margate in Kent), when he noticed in 1916 in a back garden at Armentieres, France, a grave with a rough cross, on which were pencilled the words 'An Unknown British Soldier'. In August 1920 Railton wrote to Herbert Ryle, Dean of Westminster Abbey. The Dean wrote to the King and received a reply from Lord Stamfordham his private secretary that indicated the King found such a suggestion distasteful. Undaunted, he then wrote to Prime Minister David Lloyd George. He was immensely taken with the idea and talked the King round. A committee was formed chaired by Lord Curzon. The committee chose Westminster Abbey as the final resting-place for the Unknown Warrior.

The remains were chosen from the bodies of unknown British Servicemen exhumed from four battle areas, the Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres. The remains were brought to the chapel at Ste Pol near Arras, France on the night of 7th November 1920. Brigadier General L.J. Wyatt and Lieutenant Colonel E.A.S. Gell of the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries went into the chapel alone. The bodies were on stretchers covered by Union Flags. They had no idea from which area any individual body had come. General Wyatt with closed eyes rested his hand on one of the bodies and chose him who was to receive the Empire's homage. The two officers placed the body in a plain coffin and sealed it. The other bodies were then taken away for reburial. It seems highly likely that the bodies were carefully selected and it is almost certain that the Unknown Warrior was a soldier serving in Britain's pre-war regular army and not a sailor, territorial, airman, or Empire Serviceman.

The next morning, the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Non-Conformist chaplains held a service in the chapel. The coffin plate bore the inscription 'A British Warrior who fell in the Great War'.

On 10th November the coffin lay in the Chapelle Ardente, Boulogne Castle, guarded by a company of French infantry. Under French escort it was transported to Boulogne Quay and taken aboard the British Destroyer HMS VERDUN. Maréchal Foch saluted the coffin on the quayside. The Destroyer, whose bell now hangs near the grave in the Abbey, sailed to Dover with an escort of six Destroyers. The Destroyer HMS VENDETTA met them halfway with her White Ensign astern at half-mast. As the coffin arrived in England at 1300 hours, it received a Field Marshal's salute of nineteen guns from the ramparts of Dover Castle.

On the morning of 11th November 1920, the coffin was placed on a gun carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery drawn by six horses. At 0940 hours the Unknown Warrior began his final journey through the crowd-lined streets, first to Hyde Park Corner and The Mall, thence to Whitehall where the Cenotaph was unveiled by King George V. The cortege followed by the King, members of the Royal Family and Ministers of State then proceeded to the North Door of Westminster Abbey. The coffin was borne by pall bearers to the West End of the Nave through a Guard of Honour of 100 holders of the Victoria Cross. The coffin was interred at the west end of the nave. The grave was filled in with a hundred sandbags of earth from all the main battlefields. It was covered by a silk pall, which had been presented to the Abbey by the Actors Church Union. A Guard of Honour was mounted by the armed services while thousands of mourners filed past. Dean Ryle composed the inscription which reads:

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior

 

"BENEATH THIS STONE RESTS THE BODY
OF A BRITISH WARRIOR
UNKNOWN BY NAME OR RANK
BROUGHT FROM FRANCE TO LIE AMONG
THE MOST ILLUSTRIOUS OF THE LAND
AND BURIED HERE ON ARMISTICE DAY
11 NOV: 1920, IN THE PRESENCE OF
HIS MAJESTY KING GEORGE V
HIS MINISTERS OF STATE
THE CHIEFS OF HIS FORCES
AND A VAST CONCOURSE OF THE NATION
THUS ARE COMMEMORATED THE MANY
MULTITUDES WHO DURING THE GREAT
WAR OF 1914 - 1918 GAVE THE MOST THAT
MAN CAN GIVE LIFE ITSELF
FOR GOD
FOR KING AND COUNTRY
FOR LOVED ONES HOME AND EMPIRE
FOR THE SACRED CAUSE OF JUSTICE AND
THE FREEDOM OF THE WORLD
THEY BURIED HIM AMONG THE KINGS BECAUSE HE
HAD DONE GOOD TOWARD GOD AND TOWARD
HIS HOUSE "

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