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The Unknown Warrior

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Beneath this stone rests the body
Of a British Warrior
Unknown by name or rank

The idea of burying an unidentified soldier in Westminster Abbey to symbolise the casualties of war, and commemorate those with no other memorial, came from a British Chaplain stationed in France in 1916. Reverend David Railton noticed a grave in a garden in Armentières, marked only with a wooden cross. It bore the inscription 'An unknown British Soldier (of the Black Watch)'.

He wrote to the Dean of Westminster in 1920, suggesting that an anonymous soldier be buried there. The Dean liked the idea, and set it in motion. Four bodies of unknown British servicemen were exhumed1 from the Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres. They were taken to St Pol in Northern France, where the bodies lay covered by a Union Flag2 each. One was chosen at random to be the Unknown Warrior, and was placed in a plain coffin and sealed. The unchosen bodies were reburied.

Travelling Home

A coffin made from oak trees from Hampton Court was sent over by the British Undertakers Association, and the plain coffin was placed inside it. It bore a plaque inscribed 'A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country'. The flag that David Railton had used as an altar cloth (known as the Ypres or Padre's Flag) was wrapped around it, and a 16th Century crusader's sword was brought from the Tower of London and tucked into the wrought iron bands around the coffin.

The coffin was escorted to Boulogne by the French military. It was carried on a wagon drawn by six horses, part of a funeral procession a mile long. Also brought were six barrels of Ypres soil, so that the coffin could lie on soil where so many troops had lost their lives. The coffin was placed on the deck of the warship HMS Verdun, and as the ship set off, it was accompanied by six other warships.

Arriving at Dover, a 19-gun salute was sounded, before six warrant officers from the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, the Army and the Royal Air Force carried the coffin ashore. It was taken by train to Victoria station in London, where it stayed overnight.

The Funeral

The next morning, 11 November, 1920, the coffin was covered with a Union Flag and placed in a gun carriage drawn by six black horses. A steel helmet, side arms and a belt were added, and it travelled through the crowd-lined streets to the newly-built Cenotaph3 in The Mall, Whitehall. King George V unveiled the Cenotaph and placed a wreath of red roses and bay leaves on the coffin. After observing the Remembrance Day two-minute silence, the coffin moved off to Westminster Abbey, followed on foot by the King and his three sons, other members of the Royal Family and ministers of State.

Entering through the north door of the Abbey, it was borne to the west end of the Nave between a guard of honour of Victoria Cross holders, 100 in total. Behind these were the widows and children of the fallen who made up the majority of the congregation. The Dean of Westminster conducted the burial service. During the hymn 'Lead Kindly Light' the bearers removed the helmet and side arms, and lowered the coffin into the tomb. The King scattered earth from the battlefields onto the coffin.

Trumpeters sounded 'Reveille' and 'Last Post', and a silk funeral pall covered the grave, with the Padre's flag lying on top4. The Victoria Cross holders filed past, followed by thousands of mourners over the next seven days as servicemen kept watch. The grave was closed on 18 November and covered with a temporary stone inscribed 'A British warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and country. Greater love hath no man than this'.


The Medal of Honor was conferred on the Unknown Warrior on behalf of the United States of America by General Pershing on 17 October, 1921, and this hangs in a frame on a pillar nearby. The British reciprocated, and presented the Victoria Cross to the American Unknown Soldier.

The temporary stone was replaced a year later with the current black marble stone. The Padre's Flag was formally dedicated at the same service.

They buried him among the kings because he
Had done good toward God and toward
His house

Other Unknown Soldiers

In no particular order, other similar memorials can be found in these cities:

  • Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Virginia, USA
  • National War Memorial, Ottawa, Canada
  • Hall of Memory, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, Australia
  • Arc de Triomphe, Paris, France
  • Alexander Park, Moscow, Russia
  • Syntagma Square, Athens, Greece
  • Colonnade of the Congress, Brussels, Belgium
  • Victor Emmanuel II monument, Rome, Italy
  • Pandu, the Field of Honour in Bandung, Indonesia
  • Pilsudskiego Square, Warsaw, Poland
  • Baghdad, Iraq
  • Unter Den Linden, Berlin, Germany
  • Kiev, Ukraine
1Some accounts state it was six.2The correct name for what is more commonly called the Union Jack.3A large war memorial, it means 'empty tomb'.4This now hangs in St George's Chapel.5This text is more than 500 years old. King Richard II had it inscribed on the tomb of the Bishop of Salisbury, also buried in Westminster Abbey.

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