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Unknown Warrior, the [ the Unknown Soldier] (d. 1914?), an unidentified British soldier of the First World War, was buried in Westminster Abbey as a symbolic representative of the British and dominion servicemen who died in that war. About 9 per cent of British males under forty-five died in the conflict, and some northern towns whose pals' battalions were devastated on the Somme or elsewhere lost an even higher proportion. Mortality rates were highest among junior officers, leaving the social and educational élite heavily depleted; of the undergraduates who matriculated at Oxford University in 1913, 31 per cent were killed. The scale of the slaughter and the nature of the war meant that over 300,000 British and dominion dead had no known grave; large numbers of those buried in war graves were unidentified, hence the words inscribed on headstones, ‘a soldier of the Great War known unto God’.

The war deaths left British society bereaved, trying to come to terms with what had occurred. About 3 million people lost a close relative, and many more lost members of their extended family, sweethearts, fiancés, and friends, including comrades-in-arms. Some historians, more arithmetical than sensitive, later argued against the concept of a ‘lost generation’; to contemporaries it was the reality. Mourning and commemoration took many forms, private and public. Some succumbed to spiritualism but more, like Kipling, refused the road to En-dor. War shrines were improvised, and after the war permanent memorials were erected. The British authorities—for reasons of practicality, expense, and equality—forbade repatriation of war corpses, and in Flanders and elsewhere the Imperial War Graves Commission organized the cemeteries, the ‘silent cities’, to which some of the bereaved went on pilgrimages.

The impetus for the repatriation and reburial of a symbolic unknown serviceman is usually attributed to the , an Anglican army chaplain on the western front. Seeing the inscription ‘An Unknown British Soldier (of the Black Watch)’ on a grave in a garden near Armentières in 1916, he suggested the idea to Douglas Haig, but received no reply. In August 1920 he wrote to Herbert Edward Ryle, dean of Westminster, proposing that a soldier selected from among those with no known grave should be brought back to England and interred in Westminster Abbey ‘to represent all those who fell’ (Gavaghan, 9). Railton asked that such a request be put to the king. Fearing that it would ‘reopen the war wound which time is gradually healing’ (Blythe, 8), George V disliked the idea, and it took the intervention of the prime minister, Lloyd George, to win over the monarch. The matter was then delegated to a cabinet committee chaired by Curzon, who decided on most of the ensuing ceremony.

With the second anniversary of the armistice imminent, the procedure was hurried, and apparently no accurate record was kept. As a result there are conflicting accounts of what was done. On 9 November 1920, army working parties exhumed four (according to some accounts six) bodies of unidentified British soldiers from the areas of the Somme, Aisne, Arras, and Ypres. They were taken to a makeshift chapel at St Pol where, covered and concealed, one was chosen by Brigadier-General Louis John Wyatt, GOC British forces, France and Flanders, and so became the Unknown Warrior. Specially guarded and honoured, he was taken to Boulogne, where he was placed in a casket made of oak from Hampton Court, and taken by HM destroyer Verdun to Dover. There the coffin was placed in the passenger luggage van which had previously carried the bodies of nurse Edith Cavell and Captain Charles Fryatt. Crowds awaited the special train at stations en route and at Victoria Station.

On armistice day, 11 November 1920, draped with a union flag, the coffin of the Unknown Warrior was placed on a gun carriage at Victoria and, attended by Beatty, Haig, and other admirals, field marshals, and generals, processed through immense and silent crowds to the new Cenotaph in Whitehall. The king, as chief mourner, placed a wreath on the coffin. It was taken to Westminster Abbey where, at a short funeral service attended by the king, cabinet ministers, about a thousand war-bereaved women, and a guard of honour of Victoria Cross holders and others, it was entombed just inside the west entrance. The grave was filled with earth from the main battlefields and initially left covered with the union flag. For the Manchester Guardian on 11 November the gathering of holders of the Victoria Cross on that occasion was ‘a little democracy of valour’ (Ayerst, 393). During that day and those following possibly a million people came: the queue was almost continuous until the grave was sealed on the night of 17 November. It was one of the most striking public demonstrations in British history. In 1921 the present black Belgian marble gravestone, its inscription composed by Dean Ryle, was placed over the tomb. Ryle's inscription declared: ‘Beneath this stone rests the body of a British warrior unknown by name or rank brought from France to lie among the most illustrious of the land’.

Predictably the popular press speculated on the identity of the Unknown Warrior. The Curzon committee apparently intended that a corpse from 1914 should be exhumed, and the chosen one was probably a regular army soldier of the original ‘contemptible’ British expeditionary force, and therefore a young unmarried man in his twenties 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. Yet the Unknown Warrior transcended his former life: he ‘stood in for all the missing dead’ (Bourke, 237) as a focus of grief and mourning, a surrogate body for those whose beloved one had no known grave.

Railton wanted him called the Unknown Comrade. ‘Warrior’ was chosen, the designation being intended to cover all branches of the services (though he was often called the Unknown Soldier), all ranks, and both British and dominion dead. Contemporary accounts emphasized his classless, rankless inclusivity. The Times stated that he was ‘an emblem of “the plain man”, of the masses of the people’ (Bourke, 250). The vicar of All Hallows', East India Dock, wrote that the Unknown Warrior was ‘a symbol of the highest ideal’ and his grave ‘the glorious tomb of every lad who understands what England in her most exalted and unselfish mood stood and stands for’ (Connelly, 145). The inscription records:
Thus are commemorated the many multitudes who during the Great War of 1914–1918 gave the most that man can give, life itself, for God, for king and country; for loved ones, home and empire; for the sacred cause of justice and the freedom of the world.
Those who paid their respects to the grave were likened to pilgrims journeying to a saint's shrine. Although an afterthought to the Cenotaph, the tomb of the Unknown Warrior fulfilled a need that the latter, inherently empty, could not. Bereaved women were especially attracted to the tomb, though former servicemen apparently felt little towards it.

The idea of reburying a symbolic unknown soldier was not new in 1916. Unknown soldiers had been commemorated after the American Civil War, and there had been proposals in France for such a burial following the Franco–Prussian War. Colonel Clive Wigram, private secretary to the king, wrote in December 1920 that the idea had been in existence for some time, and had originated in France. The French Unknown Soldier was buried on the same day as the British, the American in 1921, and others later. The Americans entombed unknown soldiers from their later wars. The Australian Unknown Soldier was buried at Canberra in 1993, the Canadian Unknown Soldier in Ottawa in 2000. None the less, in Britain the Unknown Warrior remains representative of the British and Commonwealth servicemen who died in the First World War and in subsequent wars.

Roger T. Stearn


M. Gavaghan, The story of the unknown warrior: 11 November 1920 (1997) · A. Gregory, The silence of memory: armistice day, 1919–1946 (1994) · R. Blythe, The age of illusion: England in the twenties and thirties, 1919–1940 (1963) · J. Winter, Sites of memory, sites of mourning: the Great War in European cultural history (1995) · J. Bourke, Dismembering the male: men's bodies, Britain and the Great War (1996) · Annual Register (1920), pt 1, pp. 125–6 · I. F. W. Beckett, The Great War, 1914–1918 (2001) · M. Connelly, The Great War, memory and ritual: commemoration in the City and east London, 1916–1939 (2002) · D. Cannadine, ‘War and death, grief and mourning in modern Britain’, Mirrors of mortality: studies in the social history of death, ed. J. Whaley (1981), 187–242 · T. Wilson, The myriad faces of war: Britain and the Great War, 1914–1918 (1988) · ‘En-dor’, Rudyard Kipling's verse: inclusive edition, 1885–1918, 417–18 · S. C. Hurst, The silent cities: an illustrated guide to the war cemeteries and memorials to the ‘missing’ in France and Flanders: 1914–1918 (1929) · D. Ayerst, ed., The Guardian omnibus, 1821–1971 (1973)