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100-years since the burial of the Unknown Warrior

Today, Wednesday 11th November 2020, marks 100-years since the Unknown Warrior was buried at Westminster Abbey.

1920s Britain was extremely unsettled - spiritually, emotionally and politically. Many people were still in mourning for those lost in the Great War and across the fields of France and Flanders, the bodies of those who fought and fell were still being exhumed and taken to the new war cemeteries, many of them never to be identified.

For the families of the fallen it meant that many of them would never know where the final resting places of their loved ones were. And for those that did, the government had already decided that no bodies were to be returned to their families and that, for the time being, travel to the graves in the fields of France and Flanders was not permitted.

It was this that inspired by Rev David Railton, who had also served as a chaplain on the Western Front during World War One, to pitch the idea of the Unknown Warrior. A single grave that represented the many.

After the conflict he wrote to the then-Dean of Westminster, Herbert Ryle, about his proposal which was later supported by King George V and Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Unknowingly, it was to be the single act that would unite a fragmented nation.

The bodies of four unknown British servicemen - exhumed from four different battle areas across France and Belgium - were transported to a chapel in Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise in northern France just before midnight on 7 November 1920.

Brigadier General Louis Wyatt, commander of the British forces in France and Flanders, selected who would become the Unknown Warrior and had him transported back to Britain on board HMS Verdun.

He said on 11th November 1939 in The Times: "The four bodies lay on stretchers, each covered by a union jack, in front of the altar was the shell of the coffin which had been sent from England to receive the remains. I selected one, and with the assistance of Colonel Gell, placed it in the shell; we screwed down the lid. The other bodies were removed and reburied in the military cemetery outside my headquarters at St Pol. I had no idea even of the area from which the body I selected had come; no one else can know it."

On 11 November 1920, the coffin was draped with a union jack and taken on a gun carriage to the Cenotaph, where the Queen's grandfather George V placed a wreath upon it.

During the service at the Abbey the King dropped a handful of earth from France onto his coffin.

Hundreds of thousands of people came to pay their respects at the grave that day. The congregation at Westminster Abbey included 100 veterans who had received the Victoria Cross, the highest possible award for bravery that can be given in the British Honours System. There were also approximately 1000 women who had lost their sons and husbands over the course of the war. In the following week, it’s estimated that around 1,250,000 people visited the grave of the Unknown Warrior.

As a symbol of thanks and gratitude to those who fought, and died, alongside British forces the grave at Westminster was filled with earth from the battlefields of France and the marble tombstone came from Belgium.

Sadly at the time of writing we are once again living in unsettled times. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic England has not long started its second lockdown, which means the streets of London will be empty and the service marking the centenary of the Unknown Warrior being laid to rest will be a slightly less grand affair than it would've been.

However; as we continue to fight our way through this, the largest public health crisis of a generation, we shouldn't forget the sacrifices of those who have given their lives in order that we can live free. And we should also cast our minds towards those who have continued working tirelessly to keep us safe on the modern frontline this past year.

As Laurence Binyon wrote in his poem For the Fallen, "We will remember them."

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