The First World War – The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier


In the course of The First World War, the death over the fields of Flanders was on an awful scale with a large number of bodies never identified or retrieved. On 11th November 1920, simultaneously ceremonies were held both in London and Paris to unveil tombs of unknown soldiers.

The tomb of the unknown soldier came to represent the loss experienced by the families of soldiers who died and their bodies were never identified or recovered. The unknown French soldier lies in the Arc de Triomphe in Paris while the unknown British soldier lies entombed in Westminster Abbey amidst kings and statesmen.

The concept was initially talked about by a clergyman named Reverend David Railton. In 1916 in France, he had observed a cross with the words “An Unknown British Soldier” written on it. Four years later in 1920, Railton got into contact with the Dean of Westminster recommending it may be appropriate to have a nationally recognised grave for an unknown soldier.

4 British servicemen were exhumed from Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres and transported to a chapel at St Pol, in the vicinity of Arras. Every body was covered in a Union flag and one was picked out by Brigadier General L J Wyatt. Wyatt had no idea where the soldiers had been taken from or their rank. The idea was that the unknown soldier could quite possibly have been anyone from a Private right up to a Colonel, a colonial manual worker to the child of an Earl.

The soldiers casket was carried to London and was taken to Westminster Abbey in a horse drawn gun carriage. The cortege was accompanied by King George V and members from the Royal family. At Westminster Abbey, it was flanked by a guard of one hundred recipients of the Victoria Cross.

The coffin was placed and covered with earth brought from the battlefields of World War I. It was topped with a piece of black marble from Belgium and is the only tombstone in Westminster Abbey on which it is forbidden to walk.

Since then, several other nations have devoted very similar tombs such as Argentina, Australia, Canada, Germany, Iraq, Japan, Russia, Ukraine and the United States.

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