Tag Archives: Remembrance

London’s war graves

When walking through cemeteries and churchyards around London and across the UK, it is common to come across the familiar outline of a Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone, or even a Cross of Sacrifice. Well over eight thousand of the British Empire’s war dead are buried in London and Middlesex.

According to the CWGC’s website, there are 9375 cemeteries, churchyards and memorials in the UK that serve as the nation’s commemoration of a fallen service man or women of the Great War. This is a total of over 90,000 of the British and Empire dead of the Great War, out of around 673,000 with known graves in total from that war worldwide (deaths dating from 1914-21). This does not include those mentioned on their parents’ or siblings’ gravestones here, only those who were buried or cremated in the UK or whose bodies were never found and who are officially commemorated in this country.

War graves in front of a Second World War air-raid shelter in Wandsworth (Earlsfield) Cemetery. Picture (c)CWGC

First World War graves in front of a Second World War air-raid shelter in Wandsworth (Earlsfield) Cemetery. Picture (c)CWGC

In London there are 36 cemeteries and churchyards in which service personnel of the Great War are buried, along with another 79 sites in what used to be Middlesex (now almost entirely in London).  There are bound to be more in the bits of East London that used to be in Essex and South London that used to be in Kent or Surrey, but these are harder to separate from the modern counties’ sites.

In total 8,569 of the Empire’s war dead are buried in London and Middlesex (5637 in London, 2832 in Middlesex). Sixty-three of the 115 sites hold fewer than 10 war casualties each, while the largest six sites hold nearly a third of the London Great War graves between them – over 2,700.

The 27 sites with over 100 war dead are listed in this table:

London CWGC

The men and women buried in London and Middlesex are a mixed groups, from a variety of nations and arms of service. The reasons they are buried here vary too: some were Londoners who died in training or on leave or serving as medics; many died in London hospitals whether as Londoners near home or  hundreds or thousands of miles from their families across the UK and the rest of the globe; others survived the war but died shortly afterwards of their wounds or illness.

Laid to rest thousands of miles from home. Australian war graves in Nunhead cemetery, 25 April 1920. Image from AWM collection

Laid to rest thousands of miles from home. Australian war graves in Nunhead cemetery, 25 April 1920. Image from AWM collection

In addition to the thousands buried in London and Middlesex, the capital is home to the nation’s largest memorial to the missing. The Tower Hill Memorial commemorates the dead of the Merchant Navy and the Fishing Fleet. Almost twelve thousand of its 35,747 names are from the First World War. The other memorials in the UK (the matching naval memorials of Portsmouth, Chatham and Plymouth and the smaller Hollybrook Memorial in Southampton to those of land and air forces who died at sea) together list another 27,370 names from the Great War dead with no known graves. In addition, 53 Hindu and Sikh soldiers are commemorated at Patcham Down after dying in the UK and being cremated in accordance with their faiths.

Near to London are the graves of another 1,738 of the Great War dead buried in Brookwood cemetery (including the Muslim comrades of the Sikhs and Hindus named at Patcham Down). A new monument there also records the names of over 350 war dead who still had no known grave before being commemorated at Brookwood.

Australian and New Zealand headstones in Highgate Cemetery. Picture (c)CWGC

Australian and New Zealand headstones in Highgate Cemetery. Picture (c)CWGC


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Victoria Station, 10 November 1920: the arrival of the unknown warrior

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 Unknown Warrior being removed from HMS Verdun by soldiers, a sailor and an airman. (Daily Mirror 10/11/20)

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.

The Unknown Warrior at Victoria Station, guarded overnight

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.

The plaque marking the event of the warrior’s arrive

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.

The procession’s route, 11 November 1920 (from Daily Mirror 10/11/20)

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.

The Unknown Warrior’s grave being filled with 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

Westminster Abbey website

BBC picture gallery of the Unknown Warrior’s final journey


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