Thursday, 11 November 2010

Armistice Day: The Unknown Soldier

A few feet inside the main entrance to Westminster Abbey is a black marble tombstone, permanently surrounded by a border of greenery and poppies. In a place where monarchs and statesmen, scientific pioneers and composers are buried, it is the only gravestone in the Abbey that may not be walked upon, and contains the remains of an unidentified soldier of the First World War.

The remains of the soldier were laid to rest in a solemn ceremony on Armistice Day 1920, ninety years ago today, in a service attended by King George V and his family. The following year, the US government announced that it was awarding its highest military decoration – the Congressional Medal of Honor – to the man whose remains are buried here. The medal may be seen today in a frame hanging on a pillar a little way from the tomb.

The idea for the commemoration came from Army chaplain David Railton. While serving with the British Expeditionary Force in 1916, he visited a private garden in Armentières, where a rough wooden cross had been erected. Across which had been pencilled “An unknown British soldier”. After the war, Railton suggested to the Dean of Westminster, Herbert Ryle, that a tomb containing the remains of an unidentified British soldier be installed in the Abbey, a symbolic memorial to all who lost their lives in the great conflict, but who lacked any monument.

Selection of a body took place in France in 1920. The remains of four men were exhumed from war graves in four of the principal battlefields in France and Flanders: Arras, the Somme, the Aisne and Ypres. One of the bodies was chosen at random and was placed in a plain coffin.

On 10 November 1920, the coffin was sealed inside another, more ornate one incorporating within its iron bands a 16th century crusader’s sword from the collection at the Tower of London. For the ceremony on Remembrance Day, the coffin was placed on a gun carriage and drawn by six black horses through crowd-lined streets to Westminster Abbey. It was handed towards its final resting-place by a hundred recipients of the Victoria Cross. After it had been lowered into the tomb, King George scattered a handful of earth from a French battlefield over the coffin.

The Westminster Abbey tomb was by no means the first ever to an unknown soldier. The idea seems to have originated with a Danish memorial erected in Fredericia in the 19th century, but it did inspire a whole host of other such memorials throughout Europe and the US. There is an unknown French soldier of the Great War beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Unknown soldiers rest in South Africa and Canada too, and at the US national cemetery at Arlington, Virginia
rest unknown soldiers from several wars.

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