Sunday, 14 November 2010

The Unknown Soldier
Every year we observe two minutes' silence to think of those who died fighting for their country. All over the country people gather at war memorials commemorating the local losses but just as poignant are the services to the Unknown Warrior. As far back as I can remember there has been an Unknown Warrior: but how and when did this term come to be? When I was cycling in France some years ago (where every village also has a war memorial) I often came across small war cemeteries tucked away in clearings in woods, or alongside a farm outbuilding. These sometimes comprised as few as 20 graves of men who had fallen in that place and who had been buried where they fell. I found them more moving than the large cemeteries at Etaples and elsewhere.
The idea for a national monument to commemorate all those who die in battle was first porpoised by an army chaplain, Rev. David Railton to the Dean of Westminster Abbey. In order to ensure that the identity of the body to be interred in Westminster was truly unknown a selection was made from four bodies draped in Union Flags at a chapel in St. Pol, Arras, France. The battlefield from which the bodies had come was not known by the person who made the selection. This was done on 7th November, 1920. The next day the body, now in a simple coffin, was transferred under armed guard to Boulogne where it was guarded overnight by the French 8th Infantry. On the morning of November 9 the coffin was placed inside a casket made from oak trees from Hampton Court. This was banded with iron and crusader's sword from the royal collection was placed on top of the casket along with an iron shield inscribed
A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country
The bier was drawn by six black horses through Boulogne accompanied by a guard of honour provided by French troops whilst The Last Post was played by the trumpets and bugles of the French Cavalry. All the church bells in Boulogne were tolled and the casket was piped aboard the destroyer HMS Verdun and escorted to Dover by six battleships. On arrival at Dover a 19 gun Field Marshall's Salute was fired.
On November 11th a gun carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery carried the casket to Sir Edwin Lutyen's recently completed Cenotaph in Whitehall via The Mall. From the Cenotaph the cortege proceeded to Westminster Abbey followed by George V and other dignitaries. The route was flanked by 100 holders of the Victoria Cross and the guard of honour was proved by 100 women who had lost their husbands and all their sons in the war.
The coffin was buried in soil brought from each of the main battlefields and covered with silk. Some time later a black marble slab was placed over the tomb. It was inscribed with brass melted down from ammunition:
Beneath this stone rests the body of a British Warrior, Unknown by name or rank,brought from France to lie am on the most illustrious of the land.

Wherever and whenever we are we will remember them.

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