The Unknown Warrior is part of the UK’s national remembrance of the Great War. A single, unidentified serviceman, he represents all those whose bodies were missing, while the Cenotaph represents all those who did not return. On 10 November 1920, the warrior arrived at Victoria station en route to Westminster Abbey.
The idea was that an unidentified body would be repatriated from the battlefields in France and Flanders to lie in the heart of London (and thus of the nation and empire) to represent the British Empire’s one million dead, and especially those whose bodies were not located or identified. The warrior’s journey is depicted in this five-minute Pathe film.
Four bodies were disinterred in from the battlefields of the Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres. They were taken to St Pol and one was blindly selected to return to Britain. This warrior was transported across France to Boulogne and onto the – significantly named – HMS Verdun. The ship landed at Dover and the coffin was tranferred to a train.
The train arrived at platform 8 in Victoria Station at 8.32 on the 10th of November, the coffin being borne in the same carriage that had returned the bodies of Nurse Edith Cavell and Captain Fryatt to the UK.
A plaque next to platform 8 now marks the occasion and the Western Front Association meet there at 8pm each year to pay their respects.
On 11 November, the warrior was transported on a gun carriage to Westminster Abbey. The procession left Victoria at 9.40am and travelled via Hyde Park Corner and the Mall to Whitehall, passing the Cenotaph before arriving at the Abbey.
A guard of honour of a hundred Victoria Cross holders welcomed the coffin, accompanied by the King, Field Marshals Haig and French and many other luminaries of the Great War era.
After a shortened version of the burial service, the King dropped a handful of French soil onto the coffin as it was lowered into the grave. After thousands of mourners had passed the spot, the grave was filled with 100 barrels of French soil.
So, by the evening of 11 November 1920, the key pieces of the landscape of British national (and imperial) remembrance were in place. The Unknown Warrior and the Cenotaph (used in temporary form in 1919 but replaced in stone in 1920) are central to remembrance in London. The warrior also plays a part in other events in the Abbey, such as the recent royal wedding, when the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge paid their respects.
Sources and further reading:
Adrian Gregory – the Silence of Memory
Neil Hanson – the Unknown Warrior
BBC picture gallery of the Unknown Warrior’s final journey