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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior

On the night of 8th November 1920, two years after the end of World War I, the remains of four unidentified British soldiers killed in the conflict - all freshly exhumed from different battlefield cemeteries in France or Belgium - were brought to a chapel at Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise, near Arras, France. One body was then chosen at random, and on the following day, the 'Unknown Warrior' started his journey to London, where, on 11th November, he was accorded a state funeral at Westminster Abbey, in the presence of His Majesty The King and other distinguished persons. This unusual ceremony was intended to help ease the suffering of those who had lost a loved one during the war.

The funeral of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey on 11th November 1920.

World War I was the first truly global conflict. Between 1914 and 1918, over 65 million men volunteered or were conscripted to fight in the armed forces of over 30 nations, on land, at sea, and - for the first time - in the air. This was war on an unprecedented scale, with battles often lasting months instead of days, especially on the Western Front, where troops became bogged down and were forced to endure the horrors of trench warfare. Chemical weapons, such as mustard gas and phosgene, and new technological developments, such as machine guns and tanks, were introduced and contributed to unprecedented levels of carnage and destruction.

Indeed, it was the sheer number of casualties that made World War I so different from any conflicts that had preceded it. By 1918, an estimated 16 million people were dead, including more than nine million combatants. Across Europe, hardly a single family was untouched by loss, ushering in a period of collective mourning on a previously unknown scale. Over a million troops from Britain and its Empire were killed. Around three million Britons lost a very close relative, and almost everyone in the country lost someone they knew, perhaps a more distant family member, or simply a friend. What was even more distressing was that most of those killed were young men, meaning that the natural order of death had been cruelly reversed, with many parents left to mourn their children.

World War I ushered in a period of collective mourning on a previously unknown scale.

One of the things that can help the bereaved to accept the finality of their loss is to see the body, yet in many cases, this was not possible, as the British government banned the repatriation of the dead. Thus, there was no coffin, no funeral, and no grave to ease the grieving process. Of course, in itself, this was not a new phenomenon. Before World War I, individual commemoration of war dead was almost unheard of when it came to the common soldier. In many cases, the bodies would have been shovelled into mass graves. Yet, World War I had seen the mobilisation of a significant percentage of the population, with citizen armies composed of volunteers and conscripts, and the British Government realised early on in the war that if it was to continue depending on the public’s support, it had to recognise that individual lives mattered, and had to assume responsibility for identifying, naming, and burying those who had died in its service.

The problem was that the state was simply not prepared for the scale of the task ahead. After all, no one had anticipated that the war would be so deadly. In September 1914, a mobile ambulance unit run by the British Red Cross arrived on the Western Front, headed by a former civil servant and journalist named Fabian Ware. He was shocked to find that there was no official organisation to oversee or record burials and felt compelled to create a unit within the Red Cross for this purpose. After heavy lobbying, this new unit was given official recognition in March 1915. Known as the Graves Registration Commission (GRC), it was transferred from the Red Cross to the British Army, with Ware in charge, now with the rank of major.

Fabian Ware in October 1916.

The GRC was 'officially recognised as the only organisation authorised to deal with the question of the locating, marking and registration of the graves of the British officers and men in France'. By October 1915, some 27,000 graves had been registered. In the meantime, Ware had also begun negotiations with French authorities to acquire more land for cemeteries. Subsequently, an agreement was signed whereby France would purchase the land, and then grant it in perpetuity, leaving the British - through the GRC - with the responsibility of creating and maintaining the cemeteries. A similar agreement was eventually reached with the Belgian government.

Additionally, the GRC started responding to enquiries from bereaved relatives by sending them photographs of the graves, together with information on their location, in case they wished to visit after the war. In February 1916, the unit was renamed the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries (DGR&E) to better reflect its new role, with Ware being promoted to lieutenant colonel. By May, the DGR&E had registered more than 50,000 graves and selected some 200 sites for cemeteries from France to the Middle East. Yet, as the war progressed, Ware became concerned about the fate of these cemeteries once the war was over, and, following his suggestion, the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) was established by Royal Charter on 21st May 1917, with Ware as its Vice-Chairman. The IWGC was charged with the care of the graves of all members of the imperial forces who had died on active service.

Photograph of the grave of Private Ernest P. Bartlett, sent to his widow, Sarah Bartlett.

As soon as the war ended, the IWGC began its work in earnest. From the start, a key principle was that of equality of treatment. Every life was to be considered as equal. Thus, for example, the ban on the repatriation of bodies was confirmed, since this was a practice that only the wealthy could afford. Additionally, all gravestones had to be uniform in design, irrespective of military or civil rank, race or creed. It was not fair that some of the dead should have more elaborate gravestones just because their families could afford them since all had given their lives equally. By 1930, of the more than a million soldiers of the British Empire who had been killed in the war, the bodies of around 580,000 had been located and buried in named graves, which provided great comfort to their relatives.

A far bigger problem was posed by those men who had been reported missing - some 517,000 of them by the time the war ended. These constituted almost half the British Empire’s war dead. In many cases, their relatives had refused to believe they were dead. As long as there was no body, there was still hope. Even when they finally accepted they would not be coming back, they still struggled to find closure. Without knowing what had happened to their loved ones, they were unable to grieve properly and then move on. In truth, of the half a million, around 180,000 had been given a burial, but in unnamed graves, since their remains had been too badly mutilated to be identified. As for the rest, they had simply not been found, with their bodies having been buried under the mud of no man’s land, or perhaps blown to pieces by artillery fire.

Apart from the 580,000 soldiers who had been buried in a named grave, some 180,000 others could not be identified at the time of their burial.

One of those missing soldiers was 18-year-old Lieutenant John Kipling of the 2nd Battalion, Irish Guards. He was the son of the acclaimed writer and poet Rudyard Kipling, who would later serve as literary advisor to the IWGC until his death in 1936. In this capacity, he would come up with the haunting inscription: 'A Soldier of the Great War, Known unto God', which was used to mark the graves of unidentified soldiers. It was a terrible irony that, unknown to him, that same inscription would mark his own son’s grave until 1992, when the burial place of John Kipling was formally identified at St. Mary's A.D.S. Cemetery, Haisnes, not far from where he had fallen at the Battle of Loos in September 1915. Of course, this confirmation came too late for Rudyard, who went to his grave without ever discovering where his boy had been buried.

Part of the mandate of the IWGC was to individually commemorate each soldier who had no known grave. Although the initial plan was to build twelve monuments on which to record their names, each located near the site of an important battle, this number was eventually reduced. The first to be built - the Menin Gate - was unveiled on 24th July 1927. On it are recorded the names of 54,395 men who were killed in the Ypres Salient, but whose bodies have never been identified or found. On completion of the memorial, it was discovered to be too small to contain all the names as originally planned, and thus, another 34,984 names were instead added to the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing.

The Menin Gate records the names of 54,395 men who were killed in the Ypres Salient, but whose bodies have never been identified or found.

Other memorials followed, including separate ones built by India, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and Newfoundland to commemorate their own missing troops. The largest of these memorials was that at Thiepval, inaugurated on 1st August 1932 to commemorate the 72,337 missing soldiers who perished in the Battles of the Somme. Thus, by the time it had finished, the IWGC had not only created around 580,000 separate, named graves, and 180,000 unidentified ones, but had also commemorated the names of 530,000 men who had no known grave.

Yet, all this was still not enough. In the absence of bodies that could be brought home to be buried, people needed new rituals to take the place of funerals. Following the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28th June 1919, the British government decided to organise Peace Day on 19th July, to officially celebrate the end of the war. This would include a morale-boosting victory parade, which, it was hoped, would help unite a nation that was going through a period of unrest. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George wanted to include an element of remembrance for those who had given their lives, and approached the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens to design a special monument for the occasion.

The architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.

Lutyens came up with sketches for a 'cenotaph', a word derived from Greek, meaning 'empty tomb'. The design was deliberately simple, devoid of overt political messages or military symbology. Above all else, he wanted it to be a tribute to the fallen, and the only inscription it bore was 'The Glorious Dead'. Some religious groups objected to the lack of Christian symbolism, but Lutyens stuck to his guns, for the Cenotaph was to represent all those who had died in the service of the Empire, irrespective of their religious beliefs. Lutyens’s design was swiftly transformed into a temporary structure, made from wood and plaster, and painted grey to look like stone.

On Peace Day, 15,000 Allied troops saluted the Cenotaph as they marched past it on Whitehall, at the heart of London, where it had been erected. Once the parade had passed, thousands of people began laying wreaths at the foot of the monument. This continued over the next days so that by the end of the week, an estimated 1.2 million people had visited the Cenotaph. It was as if it had become a substitute for an actual tomb, where grieving relatives and friends could come to pay their respects. The crowds kept coming in the weeks and months that followed, especially on 11th November, the first anniversary of the armistice, when a two-minute silence was observed for the first time. People were soon calling for the temporary monument to be made permanent, and, shortly after it was dismantled in January 1920, construction of a replica, this time made from Portland Stone, began.

The Cenotaph, in Whitehall, London.

The popularity of the Armistice Day commemorations had taken the authorities by surprise, and it was decided to repeat the event in 1920, but this time, there was to be a new element. In early 1916, David Railton, a young army chaplain serving on the Western Front, had an idea that was to transform the way the British people remembered their war dead. Railton had noticed that relatives of soldiers who had no known grave seemed to be more distressed than people who had been told exactly where their loved ones had been buried, and also realised the importance of having a funeral. In August 1920, he wrote to the Dean of Westminster, suggesting that the body of an unidentified British soldier should be brought back from the Western Front to be buried in Westminster Abbey. His idea found support in high places, and a committee was set up to organise the ceremony, which was to be combined with the unveiling of the permanent Cenotaph on the next Armistice Day.

The selection of the body was shrouded in secrecy. No one could know anything about its identity so that all those whose loved one was among the missing could believe that the body might be his. The term 'Unknown Warrior' was preferred over 'Unknown Soldier', since, technically, the body could belong to someone who had served in any branch of the armed forces. Brigadier Louis John Wyatt, commanding British troops in France and Flanders, gave instructions for the body of an unidentified British soldier to be exhumed from each of the four main battle areas: the Aisne, the Somme, Arras, and Ypres. They were brought to a chapel at his headquarters at St-Pol-sur-Ternoise on the night of 8th November 1920, where they were covered up. Wyatt then chose one body at random, which was placed in a wooden coffin, while the other three were reburied.

Army Chaplain David Railton in 1918.

The following morning, the coffin was transferred to the medieval castle at Boulogne-sur-Mer, where a temporary chapelle ardente had been set up. It was then placed inside a casket made of oak from the gardens of Hampton Court Palace, on top of which was affixed a Crusader’s sword from the King’s collection at the Tower of London. The casket was guarded overnight by troops from the French 8th Infantry Regiment, which had recently been awarded the Légion d'Honneur en masse for bravery in combat. In the morning, it was placed onto a French military wagon drawn by six black horses, and driven down to the harbour to the sound of tolling church bells and a French military band playing the "Last Post".

After receiving a salute from Marshal Ferdinand Foch, who had ended the war as Supreme Allied Commander, the Unknown Warrior was taken aboard the destroyer HMS Verdun, which sailed out of the harbour to a 19-gun salute. She was escorted by six other destroyers to Dover, where another 19-gun salute was fired from the castle. The casket was then carried ashore and taken by train to London, being greeted at every station through which it passed by crowds waving flags. Arriving at Victoria Station just after 8.30 p.m., the casket remained there overnight.

The coffin of the Unknown Warrior being carried on to HMS Verdun, in Boulogne, on 10th November 1920.

On the morning of 11th November, the casket had a steel helmet and a Union flag placed on top of it. The flag had been provided by David Railton, and was the same one he had used as a shroud for countless burial services during his time at the front. Having been placed onto a gun carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery, once more pulled by six black horses, the casket departed on a two-and-a-half-mile procession towards the Cenotaph, flanked by twelve of the most senior officers in the British armed forces, while people dressed in black thronged the route.

Shortly before 11 a.m., the Unknown Warrior arrived at the Cenotaph, where the King awaited, along with other members of the Royal Family, the Prime Minister, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. He saluted the casket and placed a wreath on top of it. On the stroke of eleven, he pressed a button to release two large Union flags that had been covering the Cenotaph, thus unveiling Lutyens’ monument. After a two-minute silence, the cortège continued towards Westminster Abbey, followed by the King and the rest of his retinue. The Unknown Warrior was interred in the western end of the Nave, in the presence of almost a thousand widows and mothers of fallen soldiers. After the service, sentries were posted around the grave, and the doors of the abbey were opened to allow thousands of mourners to file silently past.

The Unknown Warrior's coffin resting in Westminster Abbey.

None of them knew who the Unknown Warrior was. He could have come from any background and any part of the British Empire. He could have been a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, or perhaps even an atheist. But those with a missing relative knew that the body resting in that tomb could very well be that of their beloved, and some genuinely believed that it was. Many felt they had witnessed the funeral they had never had the chance to attend, and were finally able to visit the grave which their missing relative had been denied. Thousands of people kept visiting the abbey to pay their respects to the Unknown Warrior, even after the grave was sealed on 18th November, and indeed, many still do to this day.

In time, the cult of the Unknown Warrior spread to other nations. In France, La Tombe du Soldat Inconnu was placed in the Arc de Triomphe at the same time that the ceremony in Westminster Abbey was taking place. The following year, the United States unveiled its own Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Portugal its Túmulo do Soldado Desconhecido, and Italy its Tomba del Milite Ignoto. Other nations would follow in the hundred years after the end of the war, including Australia in 1993, Canada in 1999, and, most recently, New Zealand in 2004.

The tombstone of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey.

On Armistice Day 1921, large crowds once more gathered at the Cenotaph and outside Westminster Abbey, and indeed, whilst discussions about ending the annual event took place as early as 1923, public pressure ensured this did not happen, with Armistice Day becoming an established rite. In 1945, the trauma of World War II overshadowed that of the so-called Great War, and the government decided to commemorate the dead of both conflicts together. In Britain, Armistice Day was renamed Remembrance Day, and the main national ceremonies were moved from 11th November to the nearest Sunday.

In the meantime, more than a century later, the discovery of remains of World War I casualties remains a common occurrence. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission - as the IWGC became known in 1960 - continues the work of trying to identify the bodies before they are buried with full military honours at a war cemetery close to where they were found. The search to recover, identify, and honour those who lost their lives in World War I is still being conducted with the same commitment today as it was over a century ago.



Sackville-West, R. (2021). The Searchers: The Quest for the Lost of the First World War. Bloomsbury Publishing.

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