King George attends the burial of the Unknown Warrior, in Westminster Abbey, 1920. Artist Frank O. Salisbury

For some reason, the image moved me to tears. The ninety-four year old monarch standing, black-clad, alone and in silent respect, beside the tomb of a man buried six years before her birth on the centenary of his committal to this final resting place. One woman, alone. The grave, outlined in the red of remembrance poppies, is lit by a cascade of white orchids and myrtle… a replica of her wedding bouquet, first placed there over seventy years before, and following a tradition begun by her own mother, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, in 1923, on her marriage to the man who would become King George VI.

Lady Elizabeth’s elder brother, Fergus, had been killed during the Battle of Loos in 1915, his body had been buried in the nearby quarry and the details of his grave lost. As she walked down the aisle, the young bride paused to lay her bouquet on the grave of the Unknown Warrior in a personal act of remembrance that has been upheld and continued by royal brides ever since.

The story of the Unknown Warrior goes back to 1916 when the Reverend David Railton, an Army Chaplain on the Western Front, saw a grave marked by a rough wooden cross, upon which was written simply, ‘An Unknown British Soldier’. An idea formed and he wrote to the Dean of Westminster, suggesting that an unknown soldier be buried amongst kings at the Abbey, to represent the countless dead of the Great War, across Britain and her territories. The idea found favour with both the Dean and the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George and a plan was made to so honour the nameless and faceless soldiers who had given all.

On the night of 7th  November 1920, the remains of several unidentified soldiers were carried, from a number of battlefields, to a chapel at Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise, near Arras in France. He remains were placed in unmarked coffins beneath the Union Flag, making them impossible to distinguish one from the other. Brigadier Wyatt, with closed eyes, placed his hand on one of the coffins…the rest were taken away for reburial with all honours. The remains thus randomly chosen became the Unknown Warrior… the representative of hundreds of thousands of lives cut short by war.

There was no indication of rank, nor class, nor social status. Neither colour nor creed defines the Warrior. He is every mother’s son, every brother who did not return, every husband whose wife waited in vain, every father who did not see his children grow. There is a kinship in loss that defies any artificial border or barrier.

With great ceremony, the body of the Warrior was transported to England, laying one night in state in the great library of the castle of Boulogne, which had become a chapelle ardente, lit with myriad candles for the vigil held by the French 8th Infantry Regiment, who, as a company, had been awarded the Légion d’Honneur.

The coffin was then placed within a casket made of timbers from the oak trees at Hampton Court Palace. The casket was bound with iron before a medieval crusader’s sword, personally chosen by King George V from the Royal Collection, was fixed in place and a shield installed upon which is inscribed ‘A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914–1918 for King and Country’.

The Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey, November 1920 : IWM Non Commercial Licence.

The slow and dignified journey continued, crossing the Channel and finally reaching home… one man representing so many who would never reach home again. On the 11th November 1920, the casket was placed onto a gun carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery drawn by six horses. Crowds lined the strets in silent respect as it passed through London’s streets to the cenotaph… the symbolic empty tomb… where it was joined by the King, the Royal Family and ministers, who followed the coffin to Westminster Abbey.

The casket was interred within the Abbey, in earth carried from each of the main battlefields in France. Later, the grave would be covered with a marble lid from Belgium, engraved with brass made from melted wartime munitions.

First, though, thousands waited to file past and pay their respects in a huge outpouring of national mourning.

But the guests of honour were the women…  around a hundred of them. All in their situation were invited.

Each one of them had lost their husband and all their sons in the war.

A hundred years… a mere handful of generations. I knew my great grandparents. They were there. It is not ancient history… it is our story and we continue to write it in blood.

File:Tomb of the Unknown Warrior - Westminster Abbey - London, England - 9 Nov. 2010.jpg
Tomb of the Unknown Warrior
Image: Mike cc-by-sa-2.0

As Her Majesty stood in that private ceremony to mark the centenary of the Unknown Warrior’s presence in the Abbey, was she thinking of her part in the history of this country, or simply as a woman, remembering her wedding day and grateful that the Warrior need not stand in place of her father, husband, sons or grandsons.

I have stood at the foot of the Warrior’s tomb in Westminster Abbey. It is the only tomb there upon which no foot may be set.  I have stood at the foot of his counterpart, buried simultaneously beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. And at both, I have wept. The tears of a wife, a daughter, a mother and a sister… tears I give thanks I never had to shed for my own sons and family. Tears I have shed for the mothers who weep still as wars and conflict continue to ravage our world and leave behind empty arms and hearts.

Facing Fear With The Silent Eye, Part 2 – Pestilence ~ Helen Jones

Helen Jones continues her account of the recent weekend in Derbyshire…

I recently attended a workshop, with The Silent Eye, about Facing Our Fears, an extraordinary weekend spent among the hills and grey stone villages of the Peak District. It’s taken me a little while, as it usually does, to process everything that happened. Once again there was history and mystery, good company and tasty food, old friends greeted and new friends made. And, as always, revelations.This is part two of my account, part one can be found here

‘Go and have a look around. We’ve got a bit of time yet before the others get here.’

I can’t move.

We were standing in a courtyard, once the stable yard of the nearby manor house. The buildings had been converted into shops and restaurants, jewellery, homewares, tea and scones all set out for visitors. It was a gorgeous place, sun shining on golden-grey stone, pretty tables, green trees.

I can’t move.

Waves were battering her from all sides, sorrow overwhelming. But they were toxic, polluted, like water disturbed in a stagnant pond. It was difficult to breathe.

I should have known when my body started to tingle as we crossed the boundary into the village. But this was… intense. I took a couple of photos but, even though Sue suggested once more that I have a look around, I still couldn’t move, feeling assailed on all sides. The air seemed filled with floating flecks of gold. It was a very, very strange place.

Continue reading at Journey to Ambeth

The human cost #Remembrance

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, one hundred years ago, the Armistice came into effect and the guns fell silent after four years of horror. The Great War, the ‘war to end all wars’, was over and the survivors of the conflict would be able to come home. In fact, we have known not one year of peace since that date.

No-one knows how many would never come home from the Great War. Between military and civilian deaths, it is estimated that over twenty-three million people died. World War Two, a generation later, would claim the lives of somewhere between seventy and eighty-five million people. Of those who survived, not all came home whole. None would return unchanged. Many lost limbs, sight, health and hearing. Many minds were overturned by horror.

“We were in the trenches. I was so cold I went out (and took shelter in a farm house). They took me to prison so I will have to go in front of the court. I will try my best to get out of it, so don’t worry.”

Private Abe Bevistein, aged 16, to his mother, just before he was executed by firing squad for deserting his post in WWI. He had been on the front line for a month when a grenade exploded next to him and he went to the rear to seek help. A medical officer said that he was fit to return to fighting, but he wandered off. Bevistein was one of 306 executed in this way, many of whom would today have been recognised as suffering from PTSD. Over eighty thousand were diagnosed with shell shock.

To speak in millions almost dehumanises the scale of the loss and grief. It is difficult to see individuals in such vast figures. To think in terms of the entire population of most countries still leaves it too impersonal. You have to look closer to home.

There are around sixteen thousand villages in England alone and only forty-one of them are ‘Thankful Villages’ who saw all their children return from the Great War. My village was not one of them. I live in a small, English village of around six hundred households. It is a rural village, surrounded by farm land, as peaceful a place as you could find. Many of the families who live here have done so for generations and many of those family names are inscribed on the village war memorial and in the Roll of Honour.

We went up into the front line near Arras, through sodden and devastated countryside. As we were moving up to our sector along the communication trenches, a shell burst ahead of me and one of my platoon dropped. He was the first man I ever saw killed. Both his legs were blown off and the whole of his body and face was peppered with shrapnel. The sight turned my stomach. I was sick and terrified but even more frightened of showing it.”

Victor Silvester, later known as a bandleader and musician, lied about his age to join up in 1914. He said he was of age, but was only fourteen.  He was sent to Arras and, while he was there, was ordered to take part in five executions by firing squad. These executions haunted him for the rest of his life.

Although I come from a military family, I find no sense in war, in sending human beings to maim and slaughter each other in a vain attempt to fight out political and ideological differences that will only be resolved at the negotiating table. But that takes nothing away from my respect for those who serve their country when called. Individual acts of heroism, sacrifice and gallantry are not lessened by my opinion of war-mongers.  The lives of the men, women, children and animals who gave their lives, had them taken from them, or who waited, worked and grieved, deserve to be remembered. Every single one of them, regardless of which country called them to service.

In my search to humanise the unthinkable numbers of war, I looked up the names of those who died from my own birthplace. My roots are not here in the village, I am a city girl by birth, though where I was born, now a suburb, was once a village too. Like all villages and communities here, it has its own war memorial and today it bears the names of the seven hundred and forty-six local people who have fallen in conflicts from 1900 to 2011.

Even those numbers were too big, so I visited the war memorial in the village where I live to pay my respects and walked to the church to read the Roll of Honour. I know there is at least one stained glass window dedicated to a young man who died in the Great War, and the St George above the door was placed there by the brother of another lost soldier. Although the church is closed for repair, I found the village Roll of Honour online and read each name.

From this one small village, a hundred and seventy-nine men went to serve in the Great War. In a village of a mere few hundred households, that must have made a huge impact. Forty-six men were killed. Another fifty-nine were unable to return to work after the war. Many of the men who returned would see their own sons go to war just a few years later.

The youngest to die were teenagers. Thomas Biswell, for example, was only eighteen. He lived in the Rothschilds Cottages, just a few doors away from my home. His father was a gardener. Thomas was killed in action in 1917 and his name is carved on the Menin Gate in Belgium. Leonard Evans was just eighteen too. His parents, Gertrude and David, lived in the High Street. His father was a mechanical engineer. Leonard was killed in France in 1918.

William and Sophia Fowler lost at least two of their sons as well as two other members of the family. Their boys had grown up just around the corner, a few paces from my home. The eldest of the men who served were in their forties. Another fifteen died in WWII.

I will remember them, from the oldest to the youngest, in the hope that one day, the human race may mature enough to find another way.

“We did hear that they were fetching all back from France under 19. For goodness sake Horace tell them how old you are, I am sure they will send you back if they know you are only 16. You have seen quite enough now just chuck it up and try to get back. You won’t fare no worse for it. If you don’t do it now you will come back in bits and we want the whole of you.”

Extract from a letter from Florrie to her brother, Horace Iles. Horace was a big lad, and it is thought he had been given a white feather for cowardice in the street by someone who thought him old enough to fight. He  lied about his age and joined the Leeds Pals, a battalion formed of workmates and neighbours as part of the West Yorkshire Regiment. He was just fourteen. He was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, after two years’ active service. The battle claimed the lives of 750 of the 900 Leeds Pals who were there. Horace never read Florrie’s letter. It was returned to her unopened, marked, ‘killed in action’.

Hidden tales

A veil of silence closes around the stories of my day. They are stories of love, and of loss, and of the heartache that we each experience at some point in our lives. Of the tragedies played out behind staid lace curtains or ultra-modern blinds, in the quiet precincts of home or the corridors of aseptic impersonality. They are all our human stories that mark the rites of life and the seeds of growth, defining the learning curve of emotion. And they touch us all, as soon as we open ourselves to love in any of its myriad guises.

What is the alternative? A bland life lacking in the emotional peaks and troughs…? While we think that we could happily live without the heartaches perhaps… without them would we be able to look up to the heights and appreciate their beauty? You only see the true glory of a mountain when you have climbed it from its roots.

Yet that is no comfort to those stuck in the shadowy, tangled foothills. And in almost every street, in every city, there are private hells we do not see. There are those who retreat behind closed doors, those who reach out and many who wish they knew how, lifting wordless eyes to a sky that seems too far, where only the rain answers their tears.

There is the other side too, those who close their eyes to the pain around them, refusing to look in case they are touched, clutching the silk skirts of their own illusive contentment for fear of it being mired by the grief of others. But for most of us there is that helpless yearning to help, knowing that, quite often, there is nothing we can do. Except, perhaps, to witness in shared humanity and with love.

I remember watching my sons four years ago. The elder barely conscious, paralysed, holding his brother with eyes he could barely control, the younger holding his hand, as he had every day, smiling down with absolute love. There was something around that hospital bed that drew all eyes. The tall, smiling figure, holding the pale hand in his brown one. In every ward, in every hospital, the nurses commented on the light of love that seemed to shine about the two of them. It will, I know, remain my most enduring memory of that time. Being there with love was all he could do.

Watching them, as a parent, knowing the searing grief behind that smile, I wanted to be able to ‘make it better’ as I had when they were small. The powerlessness to change anything was gut wrenching, appalling. All I could do was to be there with love. As they were for me.

Maybe that is what matters most… even when there are practical things we can do, perhaps it matters more that we mean it… acting from the heart and not from some inflated sense of who we are and what we can do… or from our own need to be seen as helpful, our need to be appreciated. Maybe these are the times we can and should step away from ourselves and the needs of our own ego… for if we look honestly into the mirrors of our souls we find we all share many frailties…  and simply be the living flame of love.


Remembrance Day


I was dismayed to see how few places were selling poppies this year. It used to be that there was nowhere you could not buy one. This year, I had to look. And yet, in almost every town and village today, there will be poppies. Not just in this country, but in many others around the world. Paper symbols that defy the divisions created by borders and unite us in a common act of remembrance and gratitude for those who risked and gave their lives that the next generations might be born into a free world.

We do not remember some mythical conflict that glorifies the horrors of war. We remember those who fought, men and women, even animals. We remember that of those who went to war, many did not return. Some were volunteers, others conscripted…. to many were little more than children, just teenagers.  All faced death, mutilation, and horror. All faced the same guns.


Violence, even on the level of nations, can never be right. It is not a good answer, though sometimes it has been seen as the only answer or defence against a greater evil. Today, that argument has no place. We are not remembering the policies or the politics of war… we remember those who gave all they were for their country, their homes and their people.

We remember too those whose battle was not fought with guns. The women who waited for their husbands, fathers and sons. The women who wept and cradled a photograph as they had cradled their babe. The children whose fathers and brothers never came home. Those whose homes and families were obliterated by bombs. Those who took in refugees from the cities and from overseas. Those who filled the gaps left in daily life by those who would not return.


In every town and village there is a roll of honour listing the names of the lost. Sometimes on a cenotaph, sometimes a book or a plaque in the parish church. Few, even the smallest hamlets, were left untouched. In the village where I live, the Roll of Honour lists 80 names, some as young as eighteen, many from families who still live here, whose names and youngsters I know. Today, the population is around six hundred households. At the time of the war, it was a much smaller place. Generations of men, fathers, brothers and sons, we killed, leaving a deep scar on the life of this one small village. Across the world, it is a story that was repeated. Few were left untouched and many of us knew those who had fought…and whose silences told more than their stories ever could.

We do not even know the full total of those whose lives have been lost to conflict since the onset of the First World War. The total is thought to be around 200 million lives, including those deaths listed as collateral damage, which are considered to be ‘an unavoidable, legitimate byproduct of waging war’. Men, women, children… just ‘collateral damage’…

Today we remember the dead, the wounded, the maimed… all who served, at home or overseas no matter what their country of origin, no matter what their faith or belief. We may think back and recall the stories we have heard of personal valour and heroism, of compassion and camaraderie, of kindness and resilience. It is there that the only glory of war can be found…in the heart of individuals, in humanity…and it is there that peace has its roots. Mankind is capable of greatness, but not through destruction.

For a little while today, we will stand in peace and unity to remember the dead. We remember them in the name of the peace they sought to win.

“At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”

Laurence Binyon