Tomb of the Unknown Warrior

Tomb of the Unknown Warrior

The ‘Tomb of the Unknown Warrior’ at Westminster Abbey, London was opened in 1920 - two years after the First World War ended.

The idea of dedicating a memorial to those who lost their lives in the war came from Reverend David Railton, who had served as a minister on the Western Front. Specifically, in 1916 while in Armentieres, Railton had seen a wooden cross that was in memory of an unknown soldier and he believed it was right for the families to have a place to grieve back in Britain, whether the burial location of their loved one was known or not.

Railton was also aware that many families had very little in the way of spare funds, which would have made a visit to a war grave in France or Belgium an impossibility.

Railton had the support of many and his only problem was then to decide which body should be repatriated and represent tens of thousands of men “Known Unto God”.

The body of an unknown soldier was exhumed from each of the four major battlefield - including the Somme, Arras, Ypres and Aisne. On 7th November 1920, the bodies were transferred to a chapel at St. Pol in Northern France. Brigadier General L J Wyatt, commanding offering of the British troops across France and Belgium was at the chapel, and was tasked with making a choice.

To ensure the choice was fair, Wyatt had no idea where each of the bodies had come from. Once the body was chosen, it was plained in a plain coffin the was then sealed. The remains of the other three bodies were then sent back to their respective graves.

Tomb of the Unknown Warrior

On 8th November 1920, the coffin began its journey to London. On its way it passed through Boulogne, there it was placed inside another coffin made of oak from Hampton Court. This second coffin featured a plaque that read: “A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country”.

The coffin was also adorned with a sword from George V’s private collection. ‘HMS Verdun’ then transported the coffin to Dover, where it was moved by train to London.

On 11th November 1920, the coffin was drawn through London to the newly unveiled Cenotaph, from which it was moved to Westminster Abbey, passing a guard of honour made up of 100 holders of the Victoria Cross. The grace was then filled with soil from the battlefields in France and the black marble stone - made from materials from Belgium - was placed. Inscribed on the tomb was: “They buried him among the kings, because he had done good toward God and toward his house”.

Although Railton expected the tomb to be popular among those who had lost their relatives, he did not predict how much the fact that the body could be of any rank would resonate with so many. Within the first week of the tomb being commemorated, 1,250,000 people visited to pay their respects.

On October the following year, Congress awarded the Unknown Soldier the Congressional Medal of Honour, and a month later the Unknown Soldier of America was awarded the Victoria Cross.

The fully restored Cavell Van

The body of the unknown soldier was carried to London on a train carriage known as the Cavell Van. This carriage - officially known as Van 132 - was given its name because it was the rail van that carried the coffin of executed nurse Edith Cavell when her body was repatriated o he UK in 1919. It also carried the coffin of the executed merchant seaman Charles Fryatt in the same year.

The carriage was used by a number of rail companies until 1991 but it moved to the Kent and East Sussex Railway based in Tenerden in Kent in 1992 before it was moved to the Rother Valley Railway in Robertsbridge, East Sussex.

The Cavell Van was moved back to the Kent and East Sussex Railway in 2004, but its condition was significantly worse than when it had left. It was estimated that it would cost around £35,000 to completely restore it back to its original standard and an appeal was immediately launched.

When the help of a Heritage Lottery Fund of £27,000, sufficient money was raised to ensure it was in perfect condition for the 90th anniversary of the commemoration of the Unknown Soldier in November 2010. It was unveiled on 10th November, just in time for the anniversary.

MLA Citation/Reference

"Tomb of the Unknown Warrior". HistoryLearning.com. 2019. Web.