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Behind the Unknown Warrior

Known and yet not well known

Past Grand Chaplain and member of the Supreme Council of the 33rd Degree, Rev Dr John Railton explores the origins of the Unknown Warrior

At the west end of the nave of Westminster Abbey, covered by a slab of black Belgian marble, is the grave of the Unknown Warrior. The body was brought from France to be buried here on 11 November 1920 and, in the week after the burial, it is estimated that over one million people visited the Abbey. Now one of the most visited war graves in the world, my father’s cousin David Railton first conceived the idea when he came across a grave marked by a rough cross, which bore the pencil-written legend ‘An Unknown British Soldier’.

David volunteered as an army chaplain when he was just thirty-one. Leaving his position as a curate in Folkestone, he went out to the Western Front on 11 January 1916 and served with the ‘Tommies’ in the trenches for the duration of World War I. His faith, compassion and courage are all evident from what survives of his wartime correspondence with his wife, Ruby. It was in the late summer of 1916 that he was awarded the Military Cross for his part in saving an officer and two soldiers from certain death in the High Wood action on the Somme. A month later, the idea of a tomb dedicated to an unknown soldier was planted in David’s mind and his vision began to take shape.

Divine inspiration

In an article published in Our Empire in November 1931, David describes vividly how the notion came to him: ‘I came back from “the line” at dusk. We had just laid to rest the mortal remains of a comrade. I went to a billet in front of Erquinghem, near Armentières. At the back of the billet was a small garden, and in the garden, only about six paces from the house, there was a grave. At its head, there stood a rough cross of white wood. On the cross was clearly written in deep black-pencilled letters: “An Unknown British Soldier”, and in brackets underneath, “of the Black Watch”. 

‘It was dusk and nobody was near, except some officers in the billet playing cards. I remember how still it was. Even the guns seemed to be resting, as if to give their gunners a chance to have their tea. How that grave caused me to think! Quietly and gradually there came out of the mist of thought this answer clear and strong: “Let this body – this symbol of him – be carried reverently over the sea to his native land.”’

Plans taking shape

The idea stayed with David throughout the war and after the Armistice, but he was reluctant to do anything about it – mainly because he thought that an idea from a humble padre would be unlikely to find favour with those in authority. After the war, David returned to his curacy in Folkestone and was then appointed vicar of St John the Baptist in Margate. For a long time he contemplated writing to General Sir Douglas Haig, but never did. It was with the encouragement of his wife that eventually, in August 1920, David wrote to Bishop Herbert Ryle, Dean of Westminster Abbey. He suggested that the remains of an unidentifiable serviceman be buried in Westminster Abbey as the representative of the thousands of soldiers who had died in the war.

Ryle appears to have embraced the idea and approached both Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street. Prime Minister David Lloyd George received it enthusiastically because it fitted so well with his own vision of a ‘national memorial’, which Sir Edwin Lutyens had been commissioned to design and which we all now know as the Cenotaph in Whitehall. 

Once the proposal had been adopted and a formal announcement made on 19 October, a Memorial Service Committee under the Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon was established, arrangements were made swiftly and orders were issued. 

On Sunday, 7 November 1920, four individual parties of soldiers were sent out to the four principal battlefields – Somme, Ainse, Arras and Ypres – to exhume four corpses. They were identified as British by their boots and buttons, but their ranks were unknown. The corpses were sewn into sackcloth, taken to a swiftly built temporary Chapel at St Pol, laid out on trestles and covered with Union Flags under the supervision of Rev George Kendall – an army chaplain who had been sent out from London with two undertakers. 

Brigadier General L J Wyatt had succeeded Haig as General Officer Commanding British Forces in France and Flanders. According to his letter to the Daily Telegraph in November 1939, at midnight on that Sunday night, after the chaplain, the undertakers and the exhumation parties had all dispersed, General Wyatt entered the chapel with a member of his staff, Colonel Gell. He selected one covered body and then, with Colonel Gell, lifted it into a prepared plain deal coffin shell, before securing and sealing the lid. 

The chapel stayed under guard overnight. The coffin shell containing the Unknown Warrior was placed in a coffin of English oak and was prepared for transit back to England by train and a Royal Naval destroyer.

On Thursday, 11 November 1920, the Unknown Warrior travelled by gun carriage from Victoria station via The Mall and Trafalgar Square for the ceremony to unveil the Cenotaph in Whitehall at precisely 11.00am. The Union Flag covering the coffin was the one used by David throughout the war, both as an altar cloth for services on the battlefield and as a shroud at the battlefield burial of soldiers killed in action. After unveiling the Cenotaph, the King laid a wreath on the coffin and then walked in procession behind it to Westminster Abbey. The Unknown Warrior was buried at the west end of the nave and the grave filled with soil brought from France.

Westminster dedication

A year later, David carried his Union Flag to the altar in Westminster Abbey where it was dedicated to, and then laid up over, the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. The flag remained there for thirty-two years until 1953, when it was moved because it was obstructing the view of the cameras filming the Coronation. It has hung in nearby St George’s Chapel ever since.

My father was in the Honourable Artillery Company during World War I, having signed up six months before his eighteenth birthday. However, being sixteen years younger than David, he didn’t get out to France. 

I do know from my conversations with my father that he and David were in frequent touch with each other during the immediate post-war years and met several times, probably during the mid 1920s when David was Vicar of St John the Baptist in Margate and my father was a schoolmaster in Essex. The impression I have is that my father found David to be a role model.

The concept of a Tomb of an Unknown Warrior was picked up almost immediately by France and, later, by the United States along with many other nations. 

But the original idea came from David.

David Railton was born in Leytonstone on 13 November 1884, the second son of George Scott Railton, the first commissioner of The Salvation Army. 

Biography

David graduated from Keble in 1908 and was ordained the same year, taking his first curacy at Edge Hill, Liverpool. It was there that he met his wife, Ruby. They moved to Kent in 1910 and their first daughter was born in 1913. David was appointed curate in Folkestone in 1914. He moved from Margate to take up a post as curate at Christ Church, Westminster, then took incumbencies in Bolton, Shalford and Liverpool, before retiring in 1945 at the age of sixty-one. 

Letters to the Editor – No. 29 Spring 2015

Sir,

As a resident of the Royal Benevolent Institution’s Harewood Court, I am passed a copy of  by one of my colleagues as I appreciate many of the historical inclusions.

I have known the story well of the Unknown Warrior for my father was one of the bearers of the gun carriage in St Pol in 1920. My late husband was a member of City of London Rifles Lodge, No. 5606, and in the late sixties we attended a ladies night at the Russell Hotel. My father was invited to attend, and shortly after arrival he pronounced that he knew one of my husband’s colleagues. The last time they were together was in St Pol in 1920. The colleague was a sergeant in the Royal Engineers burial party. They had plenty to chat about!

Jeanne N H Kick, Harewood Court, Hove, East Sussex