The unknown soldier's journey from trench to tomb

Tomb of the Unknown Warrior The tomb, in London's Westminster Abbey

The unknown warrior was carried from a French battlefield 90 years ago, to be laid to rest among kings and statesmen in Westminster Abbey. But how did this symbol of the sacrifice of war come to be chosen?

In 1916, a Church of England clergyman serving at the Western Front in World War I spotted an inscription on an anonymous war grave which gave him an idea.

That moment of inspiration would blossom into a worldwide ceremony that is still being replicated in the 21st Century - the grave of an unknown warrior, symbolising those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

The Reverend David Railton caught sight of the grave in a back garden at Armentieres in France in 1916, with a rough cross upon which was pencilled the words "An Unknown British Soldier".

The coffin of the Unknown Warrior being carried out the citadel in Boulogne.

Soldiers salute as the coffin leaves France

In August 1920 Mr Railton wrote to the Dean of Westminster, Herbert Ryle, to suggest having a nationally recognised grave for an unknown soldier. The idea - which had also been mooted by the Daily Express newspaper the year before - was presented to the government and quickly taken up.

Memories of the war, in which a million British people had died, were still raw and the thousands of bodies that lay unidentified were a blight on Britain's conscience.

"Those parents and wives who had lost men to war didn't have anything tangible to grieve at, so the unknown warrior represented their loss," says Terry Charman, a historian at the Imperial War Museum.

But there was a procedure in choosing a single corpse to represent the many unnamed dead. The unknown warrior's body was chosen from a number of British servicemen exhumed from four battle areas - the Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres. These remains were brought to the chapel at St Pol on the night of 7 November 1920, where the officer in charge of troops in France and Flanders, Brig Gen L J Wyatt, went with a Col Gell.

Neither had any idea where the bodies, laid on stretchers and covered by union jacks, were from.

Clues to his identity

"[He was] probably a regular army soldier of the original 'contemptible' British expeditionary force, and therefore a young unmarried man in his 20s or possibly an older married reservist recalled from civilian life to the colours.

"He might have been a Territorial, since the London Scottish and other Territorial units were at the Western Front from September 1914. He was not navy or air force, a 'new army' volunteer, conscript, or dominion soldier."

By National Biography's Roger T Stearn

"The point was that it literally could have been anybody," says Mr Charman. "It could have been an earl or a duke's son, or a labourer from South Africa.

"The idea really caught the public mood, as it was a very democratic thing that it could have been someone from any rank."

Gen Wyatt selected one body - it has been suggested he may have been blindfolded while making his choice - and the two officers placed it in a plain coffin and sealed it. The other bodies were reburied.

The next day the dead soldier began the journey to his final resting place. The coffin was taken to Boulogne and placed inside another coffin, made of oak from Hampton Court and sent over from England. Its plate bore the inscription: "A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country".

This second coffin had a 16th Century sword, taken from King George V's private collection, fixed on top.

The body was then transported to Dover via the destroyer HMS Verdun and taken by train to London.

Start Quote

To have its own unknown warrior, for a country that sent troops to WWI, is part of its own national identity”

End Quote Terry Charman Imperial War Museum

On the morning of 11 November 1920 - two years to the day after the war had ended, the body of the unknown warrior was drawn in a procession through London to the Cenotaph. This new war memorial on Whitehall was then unveiled by George V.

At 1100 there was a two-minute silence, and the body was then taken to nearby Westminster Abbey where it was buried, passing through a guard of honour of 100 holders of the Victoria Cross.

In a particularly poignant gesture, the grave was filled with earth from the main French battlefields, and the black marble stone was Belgian.

And at the exact time Britain was interring its unknown warrior, France was doing the same - burying its Soldat Inconnu at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

But while the coffin in London had been laid with great ceremony, no-one was exactly sure how the public would respond to this new memorial. In the event, they flocked to it. An estimated 1,250,000 people visited the Abbey to see the grave in only the first week.

What is the grave of the unknown warrior?

Ninety years on, the dead soldier continues to be honoured, by the public and royalty alike.

What's more, the symbolism of the act has been mirrored by many other countries around the world. Iraq, the United States, Germany, Lithuania and Poland are just some of those which have created their own memorials.

On 17 October 1921, Britain's unknown soldier was given the US Medal of Honor, America's highest award for bravery, which hangs on a pillar near his grave. On 11 November 1921, the US unknown soldier was reciprocally awarded the Victoria Cross.

And the commemorations have continued - Australia's unknown soldier was buried at Canberra in 1993 and a Canadian equivalent interred in Ottawa in 2000. Six years ago, New Zealand exhumed remains from the Somme in France and buried its own unknown warrior.

Mr Charman says the diminishing significance of the Commonwealth may have added to the need for individual nations, which were once part of the British Empire, to create their own memorials.

"Nowadays, the concept of Commonwealth is much diminished. It doesn't mean anything in the same way it did years ago.

"To have its own unknown warrior, for a country that sent troops to WWI, is part of its own national identity."

Below is a selection of your comments

My Granny's brother died near Ypres in 1918 and my Grandad's brothers both died on the Somme in November 1916. They have no graves though they are named on memorials. For many families like them, the Unknown Soldier gives some sense of a resting place.

Liz Blair, Isle of Skye, Highland

As an ex RAF Officer, 11 Nov is very poignant. We should never forget the ultimate sacrifice made by our service personnel, regardless of conflict. This day of Remembrance crosses all boundaries of creed, colour and location and serves to remind us of the lives we enjoy. It is very important for any nation to respect its war dead and the Tomb of an Unknown Soldier is a suitable focal point for national respect.

Fiona Johnstone, Strathaven

Travelling across Northern France and Belgium today, how easy it is to miss the rows of white headstones in the numerous graveyards that pass the car or coach or train. In a moment they are gone, part of the scenery of Flanders, Ypres or the Somme. Yet each headstone marks the known resting place of a young life. Others lie in anonymous quiet beds beneath the soil. No soldier willingly gives his life for his country, the fortunes of war reach down and take it from them along with everything that they would ever be. Perhaps they call from the little headstones and unmarked places - as we the living pause, a momentary thought flickers "It could have been me..."

Terence James, Llandudno Junction, Conwy

I am a mature student on my last year of a history degree and hoping to teach history at a secondary school level. This story moved me to tears, so poignant, in my humble opinion this shows how fresh and relevant history as a subject can be, and how we can all learn lessons from the past. The curriculum needs to reflect this particularly as sadly the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are adding to the honour roll almost everyday.

Annie, Chichester, UK

As I grow older I am still surprised by the things I learn what a wonderful thing to pass on to children and hope that this is passed on for ever.

Liz O'Neill, Barnsley, south Yorkshire

Although I knew of this story, I was not aware of all the facts. It is important to teach this in our schools. Although some young people may not relate to its significance immediately, they probably will at some time in their life. It's one of those things you never forget. My grandmother always had a picture of the Cenotaph hanging in her house. She was about 16 when the war started, and the huge loss of life to her generation was never forgotten.

Teresa Buxton, South Woodham Ferrers, Essex

Quite a story. I believe the ceremony surrounding the unknown soldier's reinternment at Westminster highlights how much we as humans value our lives. To make such a statement that could be taken around the world was almost a necessity to affirm our belief in good and evil and the fight for a cause. May 'remembrance' never be forgotten and if reminders were ever needed, a visit to Tyne Cot Cemetery would break the coldest of hearts.

Nick Whittle, Torquay, UK

I disagree totally with the assertion that the concept of Commonwealth doesn't mean anything... I feel it is true that the concept is much diminished in the UK where our leaders are so obsessed with our relationship with Europe. To many of the other nations within the Commonwealth it remains incredibly important, and perhaps the adoption of each country's own unknown soldier is an indication that those nations no longer feel that Britain, symbolically or otherwise, can represent an organisation that it has rejected.

Michael Bentley, Diss, UK

Like many today marks for me an important focus in the Commonwealth's collective history, as well as those who have chosen not to join. It is important that people today realise the significant contribution our Empire made to defend democracy and ours values over the past 400 years, across many foreign fields, against huge odds and uncertainties.

Rob, Thundersley, Essex

I often think that it could be my grandfather who died at the Somme and who was never identified.

Ruth, West Sussex

As a professional Soldier for 22 years, I always make it a point to visit War Memorials to pay my respects whenever I am traveling to another country, both to allies and former foes. I have learned a lot about each nation by the way they pay tribute to their honoured dead.

M Ledbetter, Clarksville, Tennessee, USA

The brass for the inscription on the Belgian marble came from melted down shell cases, further strengthening the link with the battle fields so hard fought for. Real history.

Bill, Uxbridge

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