‘Unknown by name or rank’: The grave of the Unknown Warrior

The coffin of the Unknown Warrior in state in the Abbey in 1920 | Wikipedia

Not counting rumours publicised in the press in 1931 about illegal repatriation by Belgian smugglers, the last British serviceman to die in the Great War and be repatriated to Britain was Will Gladstone, who died in France and was reburied in Wales in April 1915.

There was one exception. He was buried on November 11th, 1920 in Westminster Abbey, ‘among the kings’.

He is the Unknown Warrior.

Army chaplain David Railton MC (1884-1955) stumbled across, one quiet evening in a garden in Erquinghem-Lys in France, a crude grave with a pencil inscription on it: ‘An unknown British soldier of the Black Watch.’ This sight had a profound effect on him, and in 1920 he wrote to Herbert Ryle, Dean of Westminster, with his idea for an anonymous grave to honour all those lost.

‘Silent ambassador’: why it was created

The total military dead for the British Empire in World War I was over 1.1 million including missing and prisoners. Ryle persuaded the government that, alongside the Cenotaph, this second national memorial was just what was needed.

The Unknown Warrior (‘warrior’, because he could have been from any branch of the armed forces) is officially a grave, not a tomb, and it represents these ‘many multitudes’ who died during the Great War, as written on the marble stone. It especially represents those unaccounted for. As it says on the ‘King’s card’, presented by the king at the funeral: ‘In proud memory of those warriors who died unknown in the Great War.’

The Times described the Warrior in 1920 as a ‘silent ambassador of the legion dead to the courts of the living’.

‘Boots and buttons’: selecting the body

Great effort was undertaken to ensure that the identity of the man would always be unknowable.

The exhumation parties were instructed to look in four areas: the Somme, Arras, Aisne, and Ypres, to pick out a grave marked ‘Unknown British Soldier’, and to look for evidence of a British khaki uniform, including ‘boots and buttons’.

Reverend George Kendall (1881-1961) double-checked the remains to ensure that they were at least British Empire servicemen. The four bodies were taken to the chapel at St. Pol, near Arras, and covered in Union flags. Guards were posted outside the door. Later that night Brigadier General Wyatt and Colonel Gell entered the chapel. Wyatt selected one and the remains were sealed in a pine coffin.

It was then transferred with reverence and ceremony through France and to London.

Armistice Day

On the chilly yet sunny morning of Thursday, 11 November 1920, the public could barely be held back by the barriers and policemen at Victoria Station in London. They had come to see the arrival of the Unknown Warrior. A horse-drawn gun carriage took the coffin slowly through the crowd-lined streets of central London to Whitehall, where the king unveiled the new Cenotaph.

From here the Royal Family, ministers of state, dignitaries, and twelve senior military officers acting as escorting pallbearers, accompanied the bier to the Abbey.

A thousand mourners and a guard of honour of a hundred Victoria Cross winners watched the procession pass along the nave. As the coffin was lowered into the grave, the king threw on to it soil from the battlefields of France.

A pall was then placed on to the coffin, and then this was covered with the Padre’s Flag - the bloodied Union flag David Railton had used as his battlefield flag and altar cloth in the Flanders mud.

‘Unknown but to God’: Who was the Unknown Warrior?

The slab of Belgium marble that tops the grave clearly states that he was a ‘British Warrior’, but in 1920 ‘British’ was also a catchall term that was used to refer to troops from Great Britain or members of the Imperial forces, and indeed from the very outset the publicized concept was that he could have been from Britain or any British ‘dominion or territory’.

Abbey authorities had insisted that it was a sufficiently decomposed corpse. This meant that older battle graves were targeted by the exhumation parties, leading to speculation that rather than the Unknown Warrior being potentially an airman, sailor, or soldier from Britain or the Empire, it was in fact likely to be a member of Britain’s 1914 professional soldiery. Wyatt recalled that the selected bodies were ‘mere bones’, but this does not however definitely preclude them from having died as late as 1918.

‘You can say with absolute certainty that no one in this world knows where he came from.’

There was speculation in subsequent years that those in power knew who the Unknown Warrior was. While Wyatt and Gell confirmed in later accounts that they’d no idea from which battle area each man was from, George Kendall later wrote, intriguingly, that the ‘knowledge would die with’ him concerning the cemetery from which the chosen body had been exhumed.

However, in a letter of 13 November 1920 from Colonel Bradstock, who was involved in the exhumation process, he says: ‘You can say with absolute certainty that no one in this world knows where he came from.’

Theories and claims abounded in subsequent years, from a rather grand (and unsupported claim) that the Unknown Warrior was the Queen Mother’s brother Fergus, to a Scottish woman who claimed that a medium had told her that it was her son buried in the grave.

Nowadays many would argue that it is probably more likely that the Unknown Warrior hailed from Sidcup than from Sydney, but really nobody knows. There is simply not enough evidence to support or shoot down the notion that he could have come from anywhere in the British Empire.

Here we look at four other fascinating examples from around the world:

A tomb with a view: Monument to the Unknown Hero, Serbia

Half an hour’s drive from the centre of Belgrade is the 511-metre-tall Mount Avala. Atop this natural landmark sits the spectacular 1938 Monument to the Unknown Hero, which commemorates the fallen of the Balkan Wars (1912-13) and World War I. Over 14 metres tall and 36 metres long, it bears a striking resemblance to such ancient structures as The Tomb of Cyrus the Great in Iran, and some even claim that it is, in fact, a Masonic temple, although this seems unlikely.

The tomb of the Unknown Hero, in a room inside the base of the monument, contains the remains of an unidentified Serbian soldier from World War I, having been transferred here from its predecessor tomb, built in 1922.

The 1921 examination of the soldier’s remains indicated that he was a very young man, possibly as young as 15. A modern study claimed to know his identity, suggesting he was Sulejman Balić, a Bosnian fighting for the Serbian state. This claim is controversial and disputed, however.

The bronze banner: The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Moscow

In front of the Kremlin Wall, featuring an eternal flame originally from the Field of Mars in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), and protected by members of the Kremlin Regiment, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a powerful symbol of the colossal loss of life Russia suffered in World War II (estimates for the military dead range from 8.7 to 14 million, and some higher).

Behind the flame, a banner, helmet and laurel branch, all made of bronze, sit atop a dark red porphyry block. The remains located here are those of an unknown soldier killed in December 1941 during the Battle of Moscow and buried here in 1966 with full military honours to the sound of Chopin’s funeral march. The memorial’s importance can still be seen in the custom of newly-married couples laying flowers on the monument.

Beyond the fact that he was a soldier of the Red Army, it is not known who he was.

The Smoking Snakes: Brazilian Monument and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of World War II, Pistoia, Italy

The Brazilian contribution to World War II is not well known. The only independent South American country to send troops to the European Theatre of World War II, the Brazilian Air Force and Navy had been involved in the Battle of the Atlantic from 1942, with troops fighting in the Italian Campaign with the Allies from 1944.

Nicknamed the ‘Cobras Fumantes’ (‘Smoking Snakes’, complete with insignia depicting a snake smoking a pipe), the Brazilian Expeditionary Force numbered about 25,900 men. The Smoking Snakes captured over 20,000 Axis soldiers in the Boot during the war and played a key part in winning at the mine-ridden, machine-gun hell that was the Battle of Monte Castello, to name one.

The Brazilian Cemetery was established just outside the medieval Tuscan city of Pistoia in August 1945, but in 1960 the remains of all the 463 men buried there were exhumed and re-interred in a war cemetery in Rio de Janeiro, where they remain to this day. Shortly after the transfer, though, the remains of one last, unidentified, Brazilian soldier were found at the cemetery, becoming the new Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Twenty-one seconds: The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington, USA

At Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, an imposing marble sarcophagus overlooking the Potomac. Underneath the tomb is the grave of an unknown American soldier killed in World War I, buried here on 11th November 1921.

Several weeks earlier, US Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger had stood alone in a French chapel with ‘four coffins, all unnamed and unmarked’, and chosen the one that was to be the Unknown Soldier, one of the Western Front combat dead or missing which made up nearly half of the more than 120,000 American men killed, missing or taken prisoner in World War I.

Next to the sarcophagus are crypts containing one Unknown Soldier from World War II and one from the Korean War (both created in 1958). The third crypt (1984) did contain the remains of an Unknown Soldier of the Vietnam War, but in 1998 he was identified as Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, killed in Vietnam in 1972, with the empty crypt now a permanent memorial to the missing of the Vietnam War.

Guarding this monument are the Tomb Guards, from the revered 3rd Infantry Regiment. Being one is considered a great honour. Tomb Guards have been guarding the Tomb all day, every day, since 1937. Their steps – known as ‘walking the mat’ - are all based around the number 21, with a routine consisting of mentally counting to 21 when stationary and then walking 21 paces.

The fact that these Unknowns largely remain unknown is, of course, exactly the point.

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by James Brigden