The idea of honouring an unknown soldier began in 1920 in England, and was meant to represent all unknown Commonwealth soldiers. On the 75th anniversary of the end of WW1, Australia repatriated one of their unknown soldiers from France, and other countries eventually followed suit. Canada brought home it’s unknown soldier in 2000. The soldier lies at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, and his gravestone has a place of honour at the War Museum in the Memorial Hall. The museum was specifically built so that November 11 at 1100 is the only day and time when light shines directly onto the gravestone through a small window high in the wall. I’ve never been in November, but the quiet heartbreak of that hall is something everyone should experience.
When the National War Museum was being designed and built, the government made a decision to repatriate a Canadian casualty from France. When we were in France, we went to Cabaret Rouge cemetery, from whence the soldier buried at the Canadian War Memorial was repatriated. There were many members of the Canadian forces buried there, as in cemeteries across France and Belgium, who are Known Unto God. There were many options from which to select the soldier who would become the Unknown Soldier.
Last week, I read on FaceBook a beautiful wordsmithing of the events leading up to the first commonwealth Unknown Soldier being repatriated to England and laying in state in Westminster Abbey. I include it below, or you can find it in its original post:
On November 7th, 1920, in strictest secrecy, four unidentified British bodies were exhumed from temporary battlefield cemeteries at Ypres, Arras, the Asine and the Somme. None of the soldiers who did the digging were told why. The bodies were taken by field ambulance to GHQ at St-Pol-Sur-Ter Noise. There the bodies were draped with the union flag. Sentries were posted and Brigadier-General Wyatt and a Colonel Gell selected one body at random.
A French honour guard was selected and stood by the coffin overnight.
On the morning of the 8th, a specially designed coffin made of oak from the grounds of Hampton Court was brought and the unknown warrior placed inside. On top was placed a crusaders sword and a shield on which was inscribed ‘a British Warrior who fell in the GREAT WAR 1914-1918 for king and country’.
On The 9th of November, the unknown warrior was taken by horse-drawn carriage through guards of honour and the sound of tolling bells and bugle calls to the quayside. There it was saluted by Marechal Foche and loaded onto HMS Vernon bound for Dover… the coffin stood on the deck covered in wreaths and surrounded by the French honour guard.
On arrival at Dover, the unknown warrior was greeted with a 19 gun salute, normally only reserved for field marshals. He then traveled by special train to Victoria Station London.
He stayed there overnight and on the morning of the 11th of November, he was taken to Westminster Abbey.
The idea of the unknown warrior was thought of by a Padre called David Railton who had served at the front during the great war and it was the union flag he used as an altar cloth at the front, that had been draped over the coffin.
It was his intention that all relatives of the 517,773 combatants whose bodies had not been identified could believe that the unknown warrior could very well be their lost husband, Father, brother or son….
This is the reason we wear our poppies, we do not glorify war, We remember with humility, the great and ultimate sacrifices that were made not just in this war but every war and conflict where are service personnel have fought to ensure the liberty we now have.
Every year on the 11th of November we Remember the unknown warrior…
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, We will remember them.
The part of this that made the hair stand up on my arms was that the unknown Warrior could very well be a lost husband, Father, brother, or son. This part never quite occurred to me. I accepted that this was a soldier who provided a proxy for a whole nation to mourn the losses of a war, when the grave sites of loved ones were so far away. But it never occurred to me that this unknown soldier could provide closure that perhaps their loved one wasn’t so far away anymore.
May those who have no grave site at which to mourn find comfort by the side of the Unknown Soldier.