The Unknown Warrior
The Cenotaph in its new Portland stone embodiment was to be unveiled by King George V on Armistice Day 1920. At this point the Dean of Westminster made a suggestion.
David Railton’s idea
Herbert Edward Ryle (1856-1925), the son of a noted evangelical bishop, had, as Hulsean Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, championed the modern critical study of the Old Testament. After Cambridge he had been Bishop of both Exeter and Winchester, becoming Dean of Westminster in time for the Coronation in 1911.
Dean Ryle had received a letter from the Revd David Railton, the Vicar of Margate. As an army chaplain in France in 1916 he had been moved by the marker on a temporary grave in the garden of his billet, to an Unknown Soldier of the Black Watch. He had at the time considered approaching Field Marshall Haig with the suggestion of an unidentified soldier being taken for burial in England - an ambassador for the unknown dead. Wisely, he waited until the war’s end and wrote to Ryle suggesting that such a burial would complement the unveiling of the Cenotaph. Ryle, seeing Railton’s point, immediately contacted BuckinghamPalace.
King George, though a keen supporter of the Cenotaph, was at first cool in his response, being unwilling to disturb the dead after two years of peace. The Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, ever a shrewd judge of the public mood, was enthusiastic in his support and this may have been a factor in winning the King round.
On 8th November 1920 six working parties, each commanded by a subaltern, set out to disinter one unidentified body from each of the former British sectors of the line, Aisne, Arras, Cambrai, Marne, Somme and Ypres. Although most likely a soldier, the unknown could have been a sailor of the Royal Naval Division, or an airman – and, since ‘British’ was used in its old imperial sense, possibly neither white nor Christian. He was a representative warrior. Placed in coffins, the bodies were taken to St Po (Pas de Calais).
At midnight on 8th/9th November a blindfolded British Officer, Brigadier L.J. Wyatt, director of the Flanders War Graves Commission, was led into the room where the unknowns lay; and one was chosen at random. Those not chosen were re-interred. Following a short ecumenical service, at noon on the following day the body was taken to Boulogne by train, and on the 10th by sea to Dover aboard HMS Verdun, guarded by French soldiers, and thence by train to Victoria Station.
At 10 o’clock on the morning of 11th November te body was taken by gun carriage from Victoria to Whitehall, through crowded streets, with King George and other official mourners following on foot. The cortege paused at the Cenotaph for the unveiling ceremony, then continued to the abbey. The unknown’s grave, near the west door, was lined and filled with earth brought from the French battlefields and was in time to be covered by a slab of black Belgian marble from quarries near Namur. For now the inscription on a temporary covering read only “An Unknown Warrior”.
With hindsight it might have been better had this laconic phrase been kept; but at the time Dean Ryle was surely right to expect that future generations would need some explanation of who was buried there. Hence the black marble and, within its framework from I Cor. 15: 22, II Cor. 6:9, II Tim. 2:19 and John 15:13, the now famous inscription:
BENEATH THIS STONE RESTS THE BODY
THUS ARE COMMEMORATED THE MANY
THEY BURIED HIM AMONG THE KINGS
The last sentence (II Chron. 24:15-16) was not, as Dean Ryle may have thought, an original sentiment. It occurs, no doubt in Latin, on the tomb in the abbey erected by Richard II for his friend John Waltham, Bishop of Salisbury. Even scholarly deans cannot know all about the buildings of which they have care.
On the same day the French buried their own unknown under an eternal flame by the Arc de Triomphe. Many countries have followed since. But the dead of the Great War have their most affecting memorial, not in a monument but in a continuing, living gesture of respect at the Menin Gate.