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The story of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior

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Taking residence in Westminster Abbey it is a landmark well recognised and respected world wide. But what is the story behind it?

The idea of a Tomb of the Unknown Warrior was first conceived in 1916 by the Reverend David Railton, who, while serving as an army chaplain on the Western Front, had seen a grave marked by a rough cross, which bore the pencil-written legend ‘An Unknown British Soldier’.

He wrote to the Dean of Westminster in 1920 proposing that an unidentified British soldier from the battlefields in France be buried with due ceremony in Westminster Abbey “amongst the kings” to represent the many hundreds of thousands of Empire dead. The idea was strongly supported by the Dean and the Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

On September 7th 1920, in strictest secrecy four unidentified British bodies were exhumed from temporary battlefield cemeteries at Ypres, Arras, the Asine and the Somme.

None of the soldiers who did the digging were told why. The bodies were taken by field ambulance to GHQ at St-Pol-Sur-ter noise.

A French honour guard was selected, and stood by the coffin overnight. In the morning of the 8th (a specially designed coffin made of oak from the grounds of Hampton Court, was brought and the unknown warrior placed inside.

On top was placed a crusaders sword and shield on which was inscribed ‘A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for king and country’.

On The 9th of November the unknown warrior was taken by horse drawn carriage through guards of honour and the sound of tolling bells and bugle.

There it was loaded onto HMS Vernon bound for Dover, the coffin stood on the deck covered in wreaths and surrounded by the French honour guard.

On arrival at Dover the the unknown warrior was greeted with a 19 gun salute, normally only reserved for field marshals. He then traveled by special train to Victoria Station London.

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The arrival of the unknown warrior at the port of Dover on 10th November 1920 – Picture by Dover Mercury

He stayed there overnight and on the morning of the 11th of November he was taken to Westminster Abbey where he was placed in a tomb at the west end of the nave – his grave was filled in using 100 sandbags of earth from the battlefields.

When the Duke of York (later King George VI) married Lady Ellizabeth Bowes Lyons in the Abbey in 1923 she left her wedding bouquet on the grave as a mark of respect (she had lost a brother during the war) Since then all royal brides married in the Abbey have sent back their bouquets to be laid on the grave.

On the tombstone is the following inscription, composed by Herbert 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”

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