Updated: Nov 13
On 7th November 1920, four bodies were exhumed from various battlefields in France, they were taken to the chapel at Saint-Pol-Sur-Ternoise near Arras. The remains were placed in coffins and covered with Union Flags. Later, Brigadier L.J. Wyatt entered the chapel alone and paced up and down the chapel in deep thought, then with his eyes closed placed his hand on one of the coffins. The other three were removed and reburied.
The coffin of the unknown warrior stayed in the chapel until the next day when it was escorted by guard and troops lining the route to an ancient castle within the citadel at Boulogne. A company from the 8th Infantry Regiment stood vigil overnight.
The following morning two undertakers placed the coffin into a casket made from oak timbers of trees from Hampton Court Palace. The casket was banded with iron and a crusaders sword chosen by King George V from the Royal collection was fixed to its top, along with a shield bearing the inscription ‘A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country’.
The casket left Boulogne as all the church bells rang and the French cavalry played Aux Champs (The Last Post). A mile long procession led by one thousand schoolchildren and a division of French troops made its way to the harbour.
The Unkown Warrior was set aboard the HMS Verdun, as they approached Dover Castle they received a 19-gun Field Marshal’s salute.
On the morning of 11 November 1920, the casket was placed onto a gun carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery and drawn through silent crowds. The coffin was then interred in Westminster Abbey, in soil brought from each of the main battlefields, guards stood by as tens of thousands of silent mourners passed by to pay their respects.
The grave (the only tombstone in the Abbey on which it is forbidden to walk) was capped with a marble stone featuring this inscription composed by Herbert Edward Ryle, Dean of Westminster:
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
But why was this unknown man buried with the highest of respect?
In 1916 the idea of the Unknown Warrior came to Reverend David Railton, who was serving as an Army Chaplain on the Western Front. He had seen a grave marked with a crude wooden cross and pencil inscription ‘An Unknown British Soldier’.
Moved by the experience, he wrote to the Dean of Westminster, Herbert Ryle in 1920 proposing that an unidentified British soldier be buried with due ceremony in Westminster Abbey “amongst the Kings” to represent the thousands of unknown and lost men.
The solemn event acted as something of a catharsis for a wounded Nation and beyond. The symbolism of sacrifices made by unknown people and the gratitude we show has continued to resonate through the ages, to this day we commemorate and give thanks on the 11th November to those who gave all their tomorrows so we may have our own.
Discover more about Remembrance Day in our article here