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 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.
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.