Following the Unknown Warrior’s journey via Dover to Westminster Abbey
- Credit: Archant
The Unknown Warrior’s journey from the World War One battlefields via Dover to his resting place in Westminster Abbey is 100 years old this month | Writer: Lucy Shrimpton - Pictures: Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Westminster Abbey and Manu Palomeque
Just imagine for a moment you are sat on the edge of the Dover cliffs with a time traveller’s unique ability to see eons of history evolve through time.
You will witness an era when the cliffs adjoined those on the north coast of France, the day Louis Blériot made his pioneering flight across the Channel, and more recently, heartfelt video messages projected directly onto the cliffs. It’s so often been the stage for some of history’s most emotional chapters.
But there’s another seismic episode that took place right here which has all but been eclipsed, something that meant everything to a generation but is little known by ours.
One hundred years ago this month, thousands of silent, grief-stricken mourners of World War One’s fallen – the mothers, the fathers, the brothers, the sisters – lined the Dover cliffs and quaysides awaiting the arrival of our Unknown Warrior by ship, on his journey from the battlefields of the Western Front to his resting place for all eternity in Westminster Abbey.
The scale of this gathering on 10 November 1920 was neither publicly organised nor anticipated, and while it may have seemed to an onlooker that the crowds were simply lifting their hats as a mark of respect to a stranger, many among them were almost certainly letting themselves believe that The One in that flag-draped coffin was their own son.
It all began as an idea proposed by Kent curate David Railton back in 1916, following the decision that to repatriate the bodies of the fallen would be too chaotic, too damaging to already low-lying national morale, and no doubt also too costly.
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Why not, Railton suggested (as a gesture to all those grieving but with particular resonance for those whose son would be forever ‘missing’, presumed dead), bring back the body of just one unidentified and unidentifiable lad – a man to represent all men – and bury him among kings in Britain’s most prominent place of worship, Westminster Abbey.
And so Brigadier General Louis John Wyatt, still based in France in November 1920, though the war was of course now over, was charged with the task of selecting the corpse of a soldier, a British body that was decomposed to such a degree that he could not be identified.
Accounts vary, but it’s thought that between four and six bodies from different areas of the Western Front were brought to Wyatt at the Chapel in St-Pol-sur-Ternoise in Northern France, and at the stroke of midnight on 7 November, he chose one at random. “I had no idea even of the area from which the body I selected had come; no one else can know it”.
Wyatt later wrote, attempting to end much whispering on the Unknown Warrior’s true identity.
The body was then placed in a coffin and sent to Boulogne-sur-Mer for a ceremonious passage across the Channel, Dover-bound, to the island he came from, on board HMS Verdun.
To welcome the return of the Unknown Warrior, “Dover turned out in force…. Thousands of people taking up every possible vantage point along the docks and surrounding coastline”, writes Andrew Richards in his David Railton memoir The Flag, “… shops and businesses [were] closed so workers could see the Unknown Warrior return home.”
After a 19-gun salute, there was “… an extraordinary quiet…”, according to the Times report the following day, and “… not a ripple in the harbour.”
The Unknown Warrior’s journey then continued onward at 5:50pm on board a train to London Victoria – passing through Canterbury, Faversham, Sittingbourne, Gillingham and Chatham en route.
“As the train traversed the Kent countryside,” details Andrew Richards, “ … people crowded on bridges, embankments, station platforms… They braved the dark and cold to see the train as it went by, hoping to catch a glimpse…”.
The fact that crowds were bursting through the barricades at Victoria Station on arrival in London suggests that people were indeed taking the Unknown Warrior for their own son.
It’s safe to say this was also in the minds of the mothers specially invited to the burial ceremony the next day at Westminster Abbey; their tragic qualification that they had lost a husband and all sons.
Yet the significance of this national shrine goes way beyond a degree of comfort and closure to those left behind. Westminster Abbey receives more than one million visitors a year, the majority of whom will stop to see the Grave of the Unknown Warrior, its location so close to the entrance.
Furthermore, Railton’s simple yet powerful idea went on to inspire other nations to select and honour their own Unknown Warrior.
So when you next have cause to travel through Dover, consider that one single boy who headed off to war, the one chosen to return.
Did someone ask him as he left home and family if he was ready to be a hero, or if he was coming back home? How could he have possibly imagined the colossal part he would play in this story?
It’s heartbreaking yet life-affirming to think that someone standing on those crowded Kent cliffs that November day may well have been right: he was their son.
READ: Andrew Richards’ Railton memoir The Flag or Anna Hope’s Wake, a fictionalised yet historically rich version of events taking place against the backdrop of the Unknown Warrior’s journey, as seen through the eyes of three seemingly unconnected female characters.
COMMEMORATIONS: keep abreast by searching westminster-abbey.org and westernfrontassociation.com. Also marking the occasion and raising money for the Poppy Appeal, 16 people from across the services will be carrying a stretcher for 120 miles on the Unknown Warrior’s route. Visit justgiving.com/fundraising/UW100
IN KENT: The carriage on which the Unknown Warrior journeyed from Dover to London remains in Kent to this day. There are plans for it to be on display from 2021. Visit kesr.org.uk
ACROSS THE CHANNEL: Visit skyscraping Thiepval in Northern France, the memorial to those soldiers whose remains were never recovered or identified. Also visit The CWGC Experience visitor centre to discover how the Commonwealth War Graves Commission manages its memorials and cemeteries, and how remains are identified. More than 40 sets of remains are still recovered every year, cwgc.org/visit-us