Sunday, 13 November 2022

Imperial War Museums - The Unknown Warrior: A Symbol of Remembrance



The coffin of the 'Unknown Warrior' in Westminster Abbey, London, November 1920
On 11 November 1920, the body of the ‘Unknown Warrior’ was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey.
Exactly two years after the end of the First World War, crowds lined the streets to witness the return of this unidentified British soldier. King George V led the funeral procession.

Most families who suffered loss during the war had been denied the comfort of a traditional funeral or even a nearby grave to visit their loved one. The majority of the dead were left in France and Belgium, and in further flung places such as Gallipoli and Egypt.

For so many there was not even a body. Anguished families were left with no sense of resolution. Their loved ones would remain forever lost and always out of reach.

Many of the unidentified fallen had been buried beneath makeshift gravestones. David Railton, an army chaplain, was deeply affected by this sight. He describes seeing a grave in the garden of a billet near Armentieres:

‘At the head of the grave there stood a rough cross of white wood. On the cross was written… “An Unknown British Soldier.” …How that grave caused me to think!’

(continues below)
The grave of an unknown Canadian soldier marked with a wooden cross, October 1916
In 1916, Railton was serving on the Western Front. Here he found himself continually concerned about the devasting effect of such uncertainty on loved ones back home.

Over the next two years, many more would join the ranks of the unknown dead. Railton conceived the idea of honouring a single unidentifiable body, which would represent all those who had died because of the war.

After the Armistice, Railton returned to England and became vicar of St John the Baptist Church at Margate, Kent. Despite the years that passed, he remained convinced of the validity of his idea. In August 1920, he wrote a letter to the Dean of Westminster. The wheels were set in motion to make the concept a reality.

Initially apprehensive about the idea, George V asked the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, for his opinion on the matter. Lloyd George was in full support and the idea was approved. A Memorial Service Committee was established and tasked with organising the funeral service.

The order was sent across the Channel that an unidentified body was to be returned to England from the former battlefields of the Western Front. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Williams was involved in the process of selecting the body:

‘…we examined (the bodies) very, very carefully to make certain there was no possible identification... other than the fact he was an unknown British warrior.’
The selection of bodies for the Unknown Warrior in France, 1920
A body having been selected, the Unknown Warrior was placed in a casket and repatriated to Britain escorted by a guard of honour. On the day of the funeral, people lined the route of the procession.

The coffin was drawn on a gun carriage from Victoria Station to Hyde Park Corner and onto the Mall. It paused at Whitehall as a permanent stone memorial – the Cenotaph – was unveiled and a two-minute silence held.
After receiving a wreath of roses from the king, the coffin continued its journey to Westminster Abbey, where it was laid to rest among royalty.

In life, the Unknown Warrior could have come from any social class or army rank. The funeral afforded to him, and to all those he represented, was carried out with the highest military honours. During the week prior to his interment, an estimated 1.25 million people visited the tomb.

Over a century later, the site remains among the world's most visited war graves. Along with the symbol of the poppy and the stone structure of the Cenotaph, it is one of our most enduring reminders of the lives lost in war and conflict.

   Visit our website to find out how IWM is marking Remembrance Sunday: 

                IWM London                IWM North                  IWM Duxford
Walking With Ghosts
Folkestone, 11 until 14 November

Featuring First World War film footage, this new immersive multimedia artwork digitally recreates the ‘ghostly army’ who marched through the town of Folkestone from 1914.

A programme of free workshops and exhibitions, part of Imperial War Museums' 14-18 NOW Legacy Fund developed in partnership with the University of Kent. 
Learn More