The Unknown Soldier: a memorial to all

Robin Griffith-Jones marks the centenary of the events leading to the burial of the Unknown Warrior

The Revd William Henry Draper, Rector of Adel near Leeds, in a book of his poems published in 1914, had included ‘The Two Banners, 1914’: the banner of hate; and the banner of love. First for hate:

Can they who their own honour flout, who throw
Truth to the winds, who openly defy
Justice and mercy, and who serve a lie,  
Can such as these, and Love, together grow?

And then, the banner of love:

Rouse! England, rouse thyself! And to the skies 
Unfurl thy nobler banner, make to sound
Freedom’s high trumpet-call that shall confound
Those hosts that threaten all men’s liberties.
Mark how they strive to silence truth with lies,
To trample on a world with iron bound,
To crush thyself and France down to the ground,
To make all Europe a mere Prussian prize.
Therefore forgive them not. But from all lands 
Call thine allies, and let the Prussian know 
One Adversary in the pathway stands
Of insolence, one unrelenting foe,
Who seeing Pride and Tyranny shake hands
Marches with all the world to lay them low.

Four years later, the War was won. 888,000 British troops had been killed in the Great War; over a million wounded. Those who returned had been promised a land fit for heroes. They found a land of unemployment, of civilians who could not understand what they had been through and did not want to know, of mothers in mourning and women who would never be wives. There was an incalculable void, of bereavement and of grief. We have, on Remembrance Sunday, brought to mind those who died in the Great War. We remember as well those who were left behind.

A memorial to all, forever unknown

In August 1920 an Army Padre, David Railton – who himself won an MC for rescuing three men under heavy fire – wrote to the Dean of Westminster. He had seen, in the War, a cross inscribed ‘An unknown soldier of the Black Watch’. Might a memorial be raised to all such soldiers, forever unknown? The Dean took the idea to the Prime Minister (who was supportive) and to The King (who felt at first that the move might be belated and lead to ‘a morbid show’). The King, however, was persuaded. Lutyens’ Cenotaph was due to be unveiled on Armistice Day 1920, in just three months’ time. It was decided to combine this with the burial of the Warrior. His grave would commemorate, as the inscription on the grave records, ‘the many multitudes who during the Great War of 1914-1918 gave the most that man can give.’

In early November four working parties were sent out to the Somme, Aisne, Arras and Ypres. They were to exhume a body of a British soldier, from the early years of the War, with no identification.

The bodies – little more than bones – were sacked up and taken to a hut, a makeshift chapel, at St Pol. The parties arrived and left separately. Each body was laid out on a table, covered by a Union Jack. At midnight, 7 November, all lights in the hut were extinguished. Brig-Gen Wyatt, GOC British forces in France and Flanders, entered the hut and put his hand on one body. The Unknown Warrior had been chosen. The body, still sacked, was placed in a plain deal coffin. A hundred sand-bags were filled with local soil; the soldier would be re-buried in the French soil on which he had fallen. 

The proud return

On 9 November the body was driven to Boulogne. The streets were lined with crowds, wreaths the size of grown-men were carried before the cortege, in every village the local band gathered and escorted the coffin.

At Boulogne the deal coffin was placed within an oak coffin, from a tree at Hampton Court, bound with iron and with a crusader’s sword, given by The King, on its top. The Inscription: ‘A British Warrior Who fell in the Great War, 1914-1918/For King and Country.’ 

On 10 November, at 10.30, the coffin left for the harbour, followed by a cortege a mile long, largely of French soldiers. The French Last Post was sounded. Marshal Foch came, at his own initiative and unannounced, to salute and to follow the coffin.  

The ship to carry the soldier home was HMS Verdun, chosen in honour of the battle at which Britain’s French allies had lost 300,000 men. The ship’s motto was the motto of Marshal Petain at Verdun: On ne passe pas. On that same day, 10 November, the bodies of nine French soldiers were taken to Verdun; one was chosen for burial on 11 November as France’s Unknown Warrior, under the Arc de Triomphe. 

The Verdun left Boulogne accompanied by two French submarines. Mid-way across the Channel a British escort was waiting, of six destroyers. As the ships approached, Dover signalled, Who are you? The reply: Verdun and escort and nation’s unknown son. A 19 gun salute – the salute for a field-marshal – was fired from the heights of Dover Cliffs. All vessels lowered their colours, as they would for The King. The arrival was not merely melancholic. The band at Dover struck up first with Land of Hope and Glory, then Scipio. This was to be a proud return. 

The coffin was transferred to a wagon for the train journey to Victoria: the same wagon in which the body of Edith Cavell had been taken home. Its roof was painted white, so that crowds on the sidings and bridges would know which wagon held the coffin as the train passed. The wagon still exists, still with its white roof. 

On 11 November The Times ran an illustrated supplement, for which the paper commissioned Thomas Hardy to write a poem. The Times did not like what it got. From Hardy’s, ‘And there was a great calm’, its title taken from the story in Mark’s gospel of Jesus stilling a storm (Mark 4.39): 

There had been years of Passion – scorching, cold,
And much Despair, and Anger heaving high,
Care whitely watching, Sorrows manifold,
Among the young, among the weak and old,
And the pensive Spirit of Pity whispered, ‘Why?’

And then at last: 

Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;
Some could, some could not, shake off misery:
The Sinister Spirit sneered: ‘It had to be!’
And again the Spirit of Pity whispered, ‘Why?’

The Times: ‘Plain duty forbad the free peoples of the earth, and forbade us, above all others, to renounce all justice and all right.’ But the poem was printed, on a full page. 

The funeral procession of the Unknown Soldier 1920

 

Borne away to burial

11 November was a misty but still day. At 9.45, the procession to the Abbey began: from Victoria to Hyde Park Corner, down Constitution Hill, along the Mall to Trafalgar Square and to up Whitehall to the Cenotaph. The Times: ‘it was as if his watching countrymen relaxed at last their hold upon their tears, as the Warrior was borne away to burial.’ 

Vast crowds gathered, six or more deep all along the route, and all silent. The Times: ‘Their hearts were speaking, their tongues were still.’ A military band played Chopin’s Funeral March. The sound of muffled drums, pipes, then horses on sanded roads. The roads were lined with servicemen; at each stretch of road, as the procession approached, the command was given and arms reversed. From Hyde Park the sound of the cannon, as the Field Marshal’s salute was fired. ‘The sense of unity and of Eternity came through eye and ear, when all heads were bared and there were thousands of faces lit by the quiet sunlight, the sense of multitudes none could number set free from time and place.’

At Hyde Park Corner just two flags were flying: on St George’s Hospital and Apsley House. The Times noted one recollection of the military pageant that used to be before the War: a party of Life Guards rode past, clattering and incongruous, into the park. Along each street the cortege came and went; and no one moved.  

At 11.00 the cortege was in Whitehall. The Times: ‘Never can so large a crowd have waited in such silence, so that even a cough or the clatter of a restless horse sounded strangely loud. Then out of the silence grew, as if suddenly, far off, the sobbing music of the Funeral March, infinitely sad and faint it sounded at first, rising somewhere out of the mist above which only one thing, the figure of Nelson, stood clear-cut against the sky.’

On the last note of 11.00 from Big Ben, The King unveiled the new Cenotaph. Two minutes’ silence began. Just before its end, at Admiralty Arch, came ‘one loud ululating shriek from a woman which rose and fell again, like nothing so much as the boding cry of Cassandra in the Greek tragedy.’ On the Warrior’s coffin The King laid a wreath of white flowers. (Poppies were used in such wreaths from the mid-1920s.) The cortege moved off to the Abbey, The King following on foot. 

Lining the nave at the Abbey were 96 servicemen decorated for their courage:  75 held the Victoria Cross. Among the most honoured guests were widows who had lost their husband and all their sons in the War. The Dean read parts of the funeral service. That had not been assured. The Prime Minister had wanted a ‘wholly secular service’ but the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, fought furiously to have at least one hymn.  He got far more.

At Lead, kindly light the helmet and wreath were removed, and the coffin was lowered onto virgin sand, undisturbed even when the Abbey’s nave had been built seven hundred years before. The King sprinkled on the coffin earth from the battlefields of Flanders. The grave was filled with the earth brought in the sandbags from France. At the funeral’s end the congregation sang Kipling’s Recessional, written in 1897 for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee and sung to the tune we know from Eternal Father, strong to save:

God of our fathers, known of old –
Lord of our far-flung battle line –
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine –
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

It was a poignant choice. Kipling had secured his only son, John, a commission in the Irish Guards soon after his 17th birthday. John was killed at Loos in 1915.

There were queues four deep from the Abbey to the Cenotaph, of those wishing to visit the grave. Between 11 and 27 November 1920 one and a half million people passed through the Abbey. 

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What a long shadow that day would cast. On 26 April 1923 Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon married the future King George VI in the Abbey; she laid her bouquet at the grave on her way into the Abbey, in tribute to her brother Fergus who had died at Loos in 1915. Queen Elizabeth requested that the wreath from her funeral be placed there too; and so in 2002, 84 years after the great calm fell, the last Queen-Empress paid her last tribute to her brother and to ‘the many multitudes who had given the most that man can give.’  

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In 1920 a new Master of the Temple was appointed: The Rev William Henry Draper, Rector of Adel (pictured above). Two years later the War Memorial to Temple's own choristers was ready, and on Sunday 2 December 1922, after the evening service, he led the choir and congregation into the practice-room and dedicated the new memorial.

There was no man better qualified to do so. Mr Draper himself had had three sons. Roger Draper, Captain in the Yorkshire and Lancashire Regiment: killed in action at Gallipoli, 22 August 1915. Mark Draper, 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps, killed in action, 7 Feb 1917. William Draper, Private in the King’s Own, Royal Lancaster Regiment. Returned home injured and died of his wounded on 15 May 1918; he was buried in the Churchyard at Addle, within sight of the Rectory windows.

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This article was published on 11/11/20 and is based on a sermon by the Master of the Temple on Remembrance Sunday 2019 at The Temple Church. Temple Church is live-streaming services; each will remain available for five days on the Church’s YouTube Channel
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Robin Griffith-Jones

Robin is the Reverend and Valiant Master of the Temple at the Temple Church and a Reader in Theology at King’s College, London. He is co-editor and co-author of Islam and English Law (CUP, 2013) and Magna Carta, Religion and the Rule of Law (CUP, 2015).