Monday, November 5, 2012

The Unknown Warrior

On November 11, 1920, the Great War was commemorated in a major way in London. Two monuments were unveiled. These were the Whitehall Cenotaph and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey.

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior © Westminster Abbey.
The two memorials evolved together as part of a major project to recognize the toll of the Great War and to attempt to channel public grief into some kind of symbolic object. Such projects are often fraught with difficulty and the nature of the symbols chosen and constructed are debated intensely.

The idea for Britain's Unknown Warrior (who was originally known as the Unknown Comrade, according to historian Neil Hanson's excellent book, The Unknown Soldier: The Story of the Missing of the Great War) was developed by Chaplain David Railton. Chaplain Railton first thought of the memorial when he saw the grave of an unidentified British soldier while serving in France. The grand and historic Westminster Abbey had a tradition of royalty and noted Britons being buried or memorialized onsite. Railton's "Unknown Comrade" would rest in the company of kings, queens, authors, and musicians

The soldier who would become the Unknown Warrior was chosen from among bodies exhumed from four different battlefields on the Western Front. Brigadier General L.J. Wyatt chose one set of remains at random in a small military chapel at St. Pol in France, near Arras. The Western Front Association's page on the Unknown Warrior considers some alternate versions of the selection process.

The Unknown Warrior's body was sealed in an English-made coffin and brought to Dover aboard the H.M.S. Verdun on November 10th. Later that day, the coffin was brought by train to London's Victoria Station. 

On the 11th of November, Londoners gathered for the unveiling of the Whitehall Cenotaph, which was followed by the Unknown Warrior's majestic funeral service at Westminster Abbey.

S. Burgess. Napkin commemorating Cenotaph and Unknown Warrior, 1920. © IWM,  Item EPH 1754.
In the days following the service, over a million people paid their respects to the Unknown Warrior. The following year, an inscribed slab of black marble was laid over the tomb and it remains there today. 

Upon the Duke of York's marriage to Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon at Westminster Abbey in 1923, the young bride placed her bouquet on the Warrior's grave. Elizabeth had lost a brother in the war and her personal gesture touched citizens across the nation.  The tradition of royal brides' bouquets laid on the grave as a mark of respect continues to this day.

Though he was said to be known only by God, the Unknown Warrior offered many civilians the closest approximation to the hundreds of thousands of individual Britons known, loved, and lost in the war.

© Fiona Robinson

No comments:

Post a Comment