It is estimated that across the world more than 19 million people, military and civilian, lost their lives as a consequence of the 1914 – 1918 Great War. This includes over a million men and women from the UK, and another 250,000 from the British Empire of which 62,000 Australians and 18,000 New Zealanders were killed. Before the end of the conflict it was recognised that an enormous task of remains recovery, providing fitting final resting places for the fallen as well as providing lasting monuments and memorials to all who fought and died was required. In the UK the process was led by Fabian Ware and the creation of the Imperial War Graves Commission, subsequently the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Under the supervision of Sir Frederick Kenyon, Director the British Museum, leading architects of the time such as Sir Edwin Lutyens, Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Reginald Blomfield began their designs of the cemeteries and monuments and Rudyard Kipling was tasked as literary advisor to recommend the inscriptions. Along with standards in design and approach, it was decided that the dead were to be buried where they fell and there would be no repatriation of remains.
As a result of the static nature of the fighting on the Western Front, the constant shelling and churning of the ground meant that many of the fallen would never be found. For every four British war dead, two would be recovered and buried with a named headstone, one would be recovered but with no identity, and one would be lost forever. It was decided that those with no known grave would be commemorated upon memorials to the missing, such as the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme (photograph above left) which alone commemorates the names of over 72,000 men. The idea of a Tomb of the Unknown Warrior was first conceived in 1916 by the Reverend David Railton, who, while serving as an army chaplain on the Western Front, had seen a grave marked by a rough cross, which bore the pencil-written legend ‘An Unknown British Soldier’. He wrote to the Dean of Westminster in 1920 proposing that an unidentified British soldier from the battlefields in France be buried with due ceremony in Westminster Abbey “amongst the kings” to represent the many hundreds of thousands of Empire dead. The idea was strongly supported by the Dean and the Prime Minister David Lloyd George.
The remains of four British soldiers were exhumed from various battlefields and brought to the chapel at Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise near Arras on the night of 7th November 1920. Brigadier L.J. Wyatt and Lieutenant Colonel E.A.S. Gell of the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries went into the chapel alone. The remains were then placed in four plain coffins each covered by Union Flags. The two officers did not know from which battlefield any individual soldier had come, and Brigadier Wyatt with closed eyes rested his hand on one of the coffins. The other soldiers were then taken away for reburial by the Reverend Kendall.
On the morning of the 10th November the Unknown Warrior began his departure from France (photograph above right), where Marshal Foch saluted the casket at the Boulogne quayside before it was carried up the gangway of the destroyer, HMS Verdun, chosen because it bore the name of France’s most famous battle. The Verdun slipped anchor just before noon and was joined by an escort of six battleships. As the flotilla carrying the casket closed on Dover Castle it received a 19-gun Field Marshal’s salute. The body of the Unknown Warrior was carried to Victoria station in London in South Eastern and Chatham Railway General Utility Van No.132 (photograph left), which had previously carried home the bodies of the executed nurse Edith Cavell and mariner Charles Fryatt.
On the morning of 11th November 1920, the casket of the Unknown Warrior was placed onto a gun carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery and drawn by six horses through immense and silent crowds. As the cortege set off, a further Field Marshal’s salute was fired in Hyde Park. The route followed was Hyde Park Corner, The Mall, and to Whitehall where the newly constructed Portland stone Cenotaph, a “symbolic empty tomb”, was unveiled by King George V. The King placed his wreath of red roses and bay leaves on the coffin. His card read “In proud memory of those Warriors who died unknown in the Great War. Unknown, and yet well-known; as dying, and behold they live. George R.I. November 11th 1920”. The cortège was then followed by The King, the Royal Family and ministers of state to Westminster Abbey.
The casket was borne into Westminster Abbey flanked by a guard of honour of one hundred recipients of the Victoria Cross. The guests of honour were a group of one hundred women. They had been chosen because they had each lost their husband and all their sons in the war. The coffin was then interred in the far western end of the Nave, only a few feet from the entrance, in soil brought in 100 bags from each of the main Western Front battlefields. A temporary stone was placed on top, before the unveiling of the present Belgian black marble stone from a quarry near Namur at the remembrance service a year later.
The Cenotaph is the site of the annual UK National Service of Remembrance led by Her Majesty the Queen, held since the end of the Second World War at 11:00 am on Remembrance Sunday, the closest Sunday to the 11th November Armistice. From 1919 until 1945, the remembrance service was held on Armistice Day itself. In recent years the tradition of holding a ceremony at the Cenotaph at 11am on 11th November has been reinstated by The Western Front Association, a UK charity dedicated to perpetuating the memory of those who served in the First World War.
Having seen the enormous sacrifice paid by his fellow countrymen in Gallipoli and then on the Western Front, Charles Bean, Australia’s official World War I historian, came to the conclusion as early as 1916 for the need to have a major memorial in Australia, particularly given the huge distance for relatives to travel to where the men had died and in many cases buried. So the concept of the Australian War Memorial located in Canberra began, but the building was not completed and opened until 1941 and after the outbreak of World War II. Similarly plans to honour an unknown Australian soldier were first put forward in the 1920s but it was not until 1993 that one was brought home. To mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the First World War, the body of an unknown Australian soldier was recovered from Adelaide Cemetery near Villers-Bretonneux in France and transported to Australia.
The objective was to find a whole skeleton that had no distinguishing marks to which unit he came from. On 2nd November 1993, the randomly chosen grave was completely covered out of view, and to their satisfaction only one grave had to be disturbed (photograph above right). After lying in state in King’s Hall in Old Parliament House, Unknown Australian Soldier was interred in the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra on 11th November 1993 (photograph left). He was buried with a bayonet and a sprig of wattle in a Tasmanian blackwood coffin, and soil from the Pozieres battlefield was scattered in his tomb.
In 1921 William Jennings, the member of Parliament for Waitomo, asked New Zealand Prime Minister William Massey whether Cabinet would consider ‘the advisability of bringing [home] the remains, preferably from Gallipoli, of one of our unknown boys.’ After some deliberation, Cabinet decided not to proceed. The idea resurfaced again after the Second World War, and again in 1999. This time it gained the support of the government and in 2002 agreement was reached with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to repatriate the remains of a New Zealand soldier killed in the First World War.
On 6th November 2004, the remains of an unknown New Zealand soldier were exhumed from the Caterpillar Valley Cemetery and laid to rest in the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Wellington. Back in France a special headstone marks his original resting place in Plot 14, Row A, Grave 27 (photograph above right). The Warrior arrived in New Zealand on 10th November 2004 and was laid to rest on the 11th November 2004, after a service at St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral and a slow march procession through the streets of Wellington. The New Zealand Tomb of the Unknown Warrior is at the National War Memorial in Buckle Street, Wellington (photograph above left).
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
[The fourth stanza taken from the poem ‘For the Fallen’ written by Laurence Binyon and first published in The Times in September 1914.]