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Painting of the burial of The Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey

The secret mission to select the Unknown Warrior

Burial of The Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, with King George V in attendance by Frank O. Salisbury

On November 11 1920 the body of an unknown British soldier was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. He lies amongst the kings of England in one of the countries most sacred religious sites. The great and the good attend his funeral, and millions travelled to see his grave in the days following his burial.

The Unknown Warrior became a symbol of remembrance and commemoration copied across the globe. His unique mystery allowed thousands of families from across the land, whose loved ones perished in the terrible fighting on the Western Front during the First World War, to come and stand by the graveside and mourn his loss. For the body lying in the famous abbey could be their own lost husband, father, brother or son.

For the body to be truly unknown and to connect with any family across the land, it needed to be chosen under strict secrecy. When the idea of the Unknown Warrior was first put to the establishment by the Reverend David Railton MC, the authorities needed a way for an unknown British serviceman to be selected completely at random.

Newly discovered orders sent to the commander of British forces in France and Flanders Brigadier General Wyatt dated 22nd October 1920 state that Wyatt 'will exercise his discretion as to the location of which the body is exhumed.' These orders demonstrate for the first time that Wyatt was given a free hand to decide how many bodies would be exhumed and from which battlefield they would be taken from.

Due to the secret nature of the operation, no official public information has ever been released as to how it was carried out, helping to maintain the anonymity of the Unknown Warrior. This has not stopped rumours abounding as to who the body was, and where it had come from.

Brigadier General Wyatt sought to quell these rumours by writing a letter to The Daily Telegraph newspaper on 11th November 1939. Describing in detail his role in the operation, his letter has become the accepted account as to how the Unknown Warrior operation was carried out. Wyatt describes how four bodies were exhumed from four key battle areas, the Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres. The bodies were then conveyed back to his headquarters at St. Pol, arriving at different times so as not to meet each other. The bodies were then individually placed on trestle tables in the chapel at St Pol and covered with the Union Jack, with an armed guard ensuring secrecy.

At midnight, Wyatt along with Lieutenant Colonel E. S. Gell entered the hut. Wyatt then chose one of the four bodies and along with Gell lifted it into a specially prepared coffin which was then screwed down to secure the body. Wyatt then states that the bodies which were not selected were buried in a military cemetery located just outside the St. Pol camp. The chosen body was conveyed to Boulogne and then London, to be laid to rest with huge ceremony as the Unknown Warrior.

Although the letter was designed to be the definitive account, slight inconsistencies with the information contained only added to the confusion and mystery surrounding the Unknown Warrior operation. Wyatt states that the bodies were chosen on the night of the 7th November, however we know from press reports and onlookers that the Unknown Warrior arrived in Boulogne on the 9th November. If the body was chosen on the 7th, this means it would have laid for a full day at St. Pol, to then be conveyed to Boulogne on the 9th. However, no account confirms that the body stayed at the camp for a full day, only that it was chosen at midnight, and then taken the next day to Boulogne.

The historian Andrew Richards in his book The Flag first postulated that the date given by Wyatt in the 1939 letter was incorrect and that the correct date for selection was the night of the 8th of November. Historian and author Mark Scott located a letter in the Imperial War Museum archive that was handwritten and signed by Wyatt four years earlier in 1935. This letter states that the body was selected at midnight on 8 November, thereby correcting the timeline and helping to solve a mystery that has puzzled historians for decades.

The final question, however, concerned the bodies that were not selected as part of the Unknown Warrior operation. Wyatt states that they were buried in the cemetery at St. Pol, however, no burials in the cemetery match the date of the operation. Furthermore, bodies that have been recovered or exhumed from their original burial location will have a Burial Returns document. This document lists grid references indicating exactly where the body was found. If the bodies that were not selected as part of the Unknown Warrior operation were buried at S. Pol, they would not have the required grid references as to where they came from, due to the secret nature of the operation. With the bodies arriving at different times only the men who exhumed them would know exactly where they had come from.

As with many aspects of the Unknown Warrior story, a vacuum of evidence leads to speculation and uncertainty. However, in December 2019, whilst searching for information concerning the Unknown Warrior, myself and my colleague Peter were handed a small pouch belonging to Captain Albert Fisher which was held in the library of Westminster Abbey.

Several documents were contained within the pouch, including Fisher’s military identity card whilst he served as part of the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries, a forerunner to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Also contained was an envelope marked ‘Secret’ and addressed to Captain Fisher. Inside the envelope was a letter also marked ‘Secret’ and dated 06/11/1920. At the top is listed Cagnicourt B.C. and inside, the letter requests Fisher to arrange for a party of 'four French civilians, equipped with shovels for exhumation work' along with an ambulance capable of travelling to St. Pol and back to meet at Cagnicourt cemetery at 15:15 hours. The letter then goes on to state that at 22:00 hours on the same date 'you will again return to the cemetery with the French labour equipped as before plus lanterns and re-inter in the cemetery 3 bodies.' The letter ends by stating 'the contents of this letter should not be communicated to anyone and you will arrange for the civilian labour yourself.'

We were astounded, did this document indicate the final resting place of the bodies not selected as part of the Unknown Warrior operation? Analysis by the historian Mark Scott further explored in his new book Among the Kings confirms that Fisher was working to reinter bodies at the Cagnicourt cemetery on the 10th November, verifying his authenticity. Mark also carried out an exhaustive analysis of the cemetery, but having met with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, all the graves marked ‘unknown’ within the cemetery have grid references on their Burial Returns, and none were listed as having been buried on the 8th November.

But the nature of the letter stands out, the exhumation and reburial of bodies was a meticulous task and one which Captain Fisher had been especially careful to complete. Many of the Burial Returns, Fisher completed were not handwritten but completed on a typewriter for accuracy. Further research led to us to contact the granddaughter of Captain Fisher who confirmed family memories of his meticulous nature. What was more astounding was that her husband Professor Chris J. Hewitt had written an article highlighting the discovery of the Fisher orders back in 2007 for a local newspaper, but sadly the story had not received wider press attention.

So, are the soldiers that were not selected for the Unknown Warrior buried at Cagnicourt British Cemetery? The Fisher letter is unique in that it is almost the sole surviving official document related to the Unknown Warrior operation. Fisher’s role working in Cagnicourt cemetery re-intering bodies with the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries is beyond doubt.

Detailed analysis of the cemetery by Mark Scott indicates that there is space for three unmarked bodies. But why bury the bodies without headstones? The answer to this may lie with the top-secret nature of the operation. Major General Sir Cecil Smith, who in 1920 was a Captain working at St. Pol, confirmed in letters that the authorities were concerned that the sudden appearance overnight of three new crosses the day after the Unknown Warrior’s selection would have aroused suspicion. If one of these bodies could be identified, there was a potential risk this could lead to the identification of the body that had been buried in Westminster Abbey. But why did Fisher keep the orders? Maybe he was unhappy at bodies being reburied without marked crosses, something that was sacred in his line of work re-intering the bodies of his comrades killed in a brutal conflict that had only just come to an end. Fisher resigned from the D.G.R.E at his own request just weeks later on 19th January 1921.

It is impossible to be certain that three of the bodies chosen as candidates for the Unknown Warrior bodies lie in Cagnicourt Cemetery, but the newly discovered evidence certainly strongly indicates that this is the case. I personally believe this is important for two reasons. Firstly it shines a light on the many people whose methodical top-secret work completed at short notice ensured that the identity of the body that was conveyed to Westminster Abbey remains a secret to this day. The officers who carried out this operation, like Captain Fisher, have remained in the shadows for almost one hundred years and deserve recognition for a job well done. Secondly, and most importantly, because the unselected soldiers served their country both in life and in death. It is comforting to know they lie in a Commonwealth War Grave cemetery, with their comrades with whom they had fought alongside and died. They remain, as the Unknown Warrior, know unto god.