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This essay was published in the catalogue 'Loci Memoriae'. It was
printed in an edition of 1,000 copies to coincide with 'Loci
Memoriae' - a project of writing, artwork
and web design on the themes of commemoration, monuments and other
acts of oblivia created in Bristol (UK) during the prelude to Armistice
mixed with the dust of kings
and of famous men
in earth bought with him
from the battlefields of France 1
us honour if we can
The vertical man
Though we value none
But the horizontal one.
Such was W.H.Auden’s2 sarcastic comment on
the sentimental fever that continued to surround the burial of the
Unknown Warrior in the decade after the Great War. His, and the
few dissenting voices were, however, smothered by the tens, and
eventually hundreds, of thousands who gathered to lay wreaths at
the Cenotaph in London’s Whitehall, and then to process in
pairs past the tomb in nearby Westminster Abbey on Armistice Day,
November 11th 1920.
have been credited for the idea of exhuming the body of an unknown
soldier and entombing it in the sacred centre of the British State,
‘the Parish Church of the Empire’. 3
Most scholars 4 agree, however, that the idea originated
with a young army padre, the Reverend David Railton MC who wrote
first to Sir Douglas Haig, and then to the Dean of Westminster,
the Rt Rev Herbert Ryle 5 in August 1920. Our Empire
later explained his motives:
He was worried that the great men of the time might be too busy
to be interested in the concerns of a mere padre. He had also thought
of writing to the King but was concerned that his advisors might
suggest some open space like Trafalgar Square, Hyde Park etc …Then
artists would come and no one could tell what weird structure they
might devise for a shrine! 6
fear of ‘weird artists’ was common after the First World
War; the popular press gaped aghast at the exhibitions of official
war art that were being shown in London and the provinces. As one
more sympathetic reviewer noted they were little more than ‘cubist
monstrosities’. Railton’s letter, however, struck a
more popular chord, and the Dean soon gained the approval of the
Prime Minister, who in turn convinced the War Office and (a rather
reluctant) King. Cabinet established a Memorial Service Committee
in October and it was hoped that the entombment would take place
at the unveiling of the permanent Cenotaph in Whitehall that November.
Necessarily a sensitive act, the selection of a single British body
was clouded in secrecy. Historians differ as to the number of bodies
actually exhumed, whether four or six 7. Whichever,
a number of unknown bodies were dug up from the areas of principle
British military involvement in France and Belgium – the Somme,
Aisne, Arras and Ypres. The digging parties had been firmly instructed
to select a grave marked ‘Unknown British Soldier’,
one who had been buried in the earlier part of the war so as to
allow sufficient decomposition of the body. The party had to ensure
the body was clad, or at least wrapped, in British khaki material.
Funeral cars delivered four bodies in sacks
to a temporary chapel at military headquarters at St Pol where at
midnight on 7th November, Brig. General L.J.Wyatt, officer commanding
British forces in France and Flanders, selected one of the flag-draped
figures (described later by Wyatt as ‘mere bones’) by
simply stepping forward and touching one of them 8.
Before this ultimate selection each sackload had been carefully
picked through to confirm that they were British (or at least British
Empire) and that no name tags, regimental insignia or any other
means of means of identification remained.
While the single selected body was made ready to embark on its highly
ritualised journey, the others were quietly reburied. Other countries
followed suit: the Americans returned three bodies to the soil without
ceremony; the seven unchosen by the French government were re-interred
under a cross in a Verdun war cemetery at precisely the same time
as the chosen body was being buried under the Arc de Triomphe.
Were it not for the recent example of national mourning that followed
the death of Princess Diana, we might be astonished at the intensity
of symbolism and ritual that accompanied the passage of the unknown
soldier to London. After a multi-denominational service in the makeshift
chapel, the body, six barrels of foreign soil, and escort party
travelled to Boulogne. There, the body still in its original sack
was transferred to a coffin, freshly constructed by the British
Undertaker’s Association from an oak tree that had stood in
the parks of Hampton Court Palace. Amidst high ceremony, flanked
by a division of French troops, surrounded by thousands of townsfolk
and children released early from school, and saluted by no lesser
a figure than Marshall Foch, the bearer party embarked on HMS Verdun,
to be escorted part of the way by French torpedo boats and French
aircraft and then across the Channel by six British destroyers.
On board, the coffin lay on a specially
designed bier smothered in wreaths some so large that four soldiers
were needed to lift them. It was watched over by a naval guard of
honour, who upon embarkation gave way to a single sentry. The entire
process was orchestrated by no less a figure than Lt. General Sir
George MacDonagh, the King’s emissary.
To have achieved all this in a little over two weeks beggars belief.
Historians have traced the traffic in telegrams, protocols and administrative
niceties that smoothed the way for this highly complex choreography
of ritual and display. It must be remembered that exhumation and
repatriation of war dead was a vexed political issue which had riven
the country when, in 1915, the government had decided that war dead
must not be returned home. The unknown warrior had thus to serve
as the surrogate dead, a symbol of all those left in foreign soil.
From Dover, where the coffin was borne from
the destroyer by senior officers, it was transported to London in
the same railway luggage van that had carried the remains of war
martyr Nurse Edith Cavell. At each station it passed, great crowds
of locals were gathered; ex-servicemen’s organisations, local
dignitaries and a military guard of honour crowded onto the platforms.
At Victoria Station, in London, thousands stormed the barriers,
clambering onto the engine and carriages in near panic.
Watched over by guardsmen - rifles reversed, heads bowed - all night,
the final act in the funereal pageant began at 9.40 am on 11th November
1920. The coffin, surmounted by union flag, steel helmet and side
arms of a private soldier and a torn battle flag, was moved to a
gun carriage and then, flanked either side by the twelve highest
ranking officers in the country – Field Marshals, Admirals,
generals – moved very slowly along the 4,000 yard route to
It took exactly
one hour to cover the distance. An estimated fifty thousand people
were crammed into Trafalgar Square; those in reserved places along
Whitehall watched as the King received the procession, adding the
sole wreath of red roses and bay leaves. At 11 o’clock Big
Ben sounded, and on the final stroke, the King pressed the button
that released the giant flags draping the stone cenotaph. It is
a quite startling moment, caught on film like some gesture of defeat
rather than mourning. A two-minute silence followed. All over the
country everything stopped. A court case in Manchester was suspended
… the accused – an ex-soldier who had served in France,
Egypt and Mesopotamia and gained the DCM and the Croix de Guerre
– springing smartly to attention between the warders standing
on either side of him. The recorder … Counsel, solicitors,
prison officers and members of the Police all paid silent tribute.
Prisoners in the cells, some of them awaiting removal to Strangeways
Gaol to serve sentences, rigidly observed the silence. 8
They are remarkably evocative parallel images
- the empty tomb and the unknown soldier. In a war that had killed
so many millions it was perhaps the only way to signify the absent
dead; emptiness and absence had, after all, become two of the most
familiar tropes of the Great War; its most familiar contemporary
icon had been the emptied landscape of no-man’s-land. To many
thousands of pilgrims making the harrowing voyage to the bleak Flanders
countryside, there was often little to see but missing woods, flattened
villages and gaping holes that might connect them to the sites of
memory and mourning. Of course, the project of the Unknown Warrior
(as Ken Inglis has pointed out) was in part the outcome of ‘ecclesiastical
misgivings’ about the secular status of the Cenotaph in Whitehall9.
The anonymous body in the Abbey was the Church of England’s
assurance that the war dead would be given the requisite Christian
honour, and not left to reside in a blank structure surrounded by
the mere offices of state.
And finally, the funeral procession reached Westminster Abbey. Here,
as Geoff Dyer has observed ‘the intensity of emotion was reinforced
by numerical arrangement’ : one hundred winners of the Victoria
Cross lined the route to the burial place; a thousand bereaved mothers
and widows stood behind them 10. Lowered into
a grave dug in the floor of the Abbey, the coffin was sprinkled
with soil from Flanders. Later the earth in the six barrels would
be added - ‘making a part of the Abbey forever a part of a
foreign field’ - and the grave sealed with a large slab of
As the service
concluded, the queue of pilgrims stood four deep stretching back
to the Cenotaph. Over the next three days some 400,000 people marched
solemnly past the grave, though – in keeping with the Protestant
spirit - no wreaths were permitted. These were piled like a blazing
floral aneurysm around the gaunt Cenotaph in Whitehall. Central
London would see nothing remotely like this until the funeral of
Princess Diana some 80 years later. Yet even by the standards of
post-Great War national grieving it was a quite unparalleled event.
There were, though, dissenters. Auden’s caustic lines highlight
the two arguments against the cult of the glorious unknown dead:
it ignored the needs of the survivors, and it ‘forced a patriotic
and belligerent ideology on the helpless dead’11.
A year earlier some of the surviving veterans had broken up the
solemn Armistice Day commemoration by shouting slogans and waving
placards. Even The Times newspaper noted the mood: an editorial
of 12th November 1920 described the entombment of the Unknown Warrior
as ‘the most beautiful, the most touching and the most impressive
that in all its long, eventful story this island has ever seen”,
but added a warning : “A quarter of a million of the comrades
of the Unknown Warrior are still seeking employment”12.
In artistic circles, it became fashionable to mock the cult: George
Bernard Shaw was typical of many writers when he suggested the corpse
in the Abbey might actually be German. In 1921 D.S.MacColl openly
criticised the lengthy inscription on the tomb for being ‘verbose
without being sonorous’ adding, ‘it is cacophonous,
it is pleonastic; in part it touches the journalistic, in part it
drops from prose into a jog-trot of verse’ 13.
One of the more eccentric artistic protests
was made by the Irish-born artist Sir William Orpen RA, who had
been employed as an official war artist by the British government
during the war. A master of rather slick, painterly portraits of
politicians, statesmen and generals, as well as soldier-heroes and
medal-winners, he was retained to paint several large group portraits
of the solemn proceedings at the 1919 Versailles Peace talks. During
his time as an official war artist Orpen had developed a passionate,
if slightly sentimental, view of the frontline Tommy, ‘the
unsung hero whom he feared would be forgotten when the war ended’14.
By comparison, the petty disputes and capers of the politicians
at Versailles disgusted him as they bickered over the future shape
of Europe : ‘All these ‘frocks’ seemed to me very
small personalities in comparison with the fighting men, it was
all like an opera bouffe”15. The first two
of his three commissioned paintings were gigantic compositions of
politicians, presidents and statesmen arranged against the sparkling
backdrop of the palace. Nine months into the third canvas –
a formal portrait of thirty-six figures posed in the Hall of Peace
– he stopped painting. ‘It all seemed so unimportant
somehow’, he told the Evening Standard ; ‘I kept thinking
of the soldiers who remain in France forever’16.
He obliterated the thirty-six figures, substituting
‘a coffin covered with the Union Jack and two semi-nude soldiers
guarding it and two cherubs in the air above’ 17.
Exhibited at the Royal Academy in the summer of 1923, with the title
To the Unknown British Soldier in France, it was voted ‘picture
of the year’ by public ballot. The left-wing press were enthusiastic
: the Daily Herald called it a ‘magnificent allegorical tribute
to the men who really won the war’, but The Patriot Thought
it ‘a joke and a bad joke at that’. Nor was it liked
by the Trustees of the Imperial War Museum, who rejected it for
the collection, noting with untypical temperance that ‘ …
it does not show what we wished shown.’
is a curious picture, well intentioned but rather mawkish. The English
did not produce effective anti-war painting, though clearly there
was a post-war groundswell of smouldering bitterness that this huge
ungainly painting seem to satisfy. The Liverpool Echo ridiculed
the War Museum’s decision declaring :
Orpen declines to paint the floors of hell with the colours of paradise,
to pander to the pompous heroics of the red tab brigade. The IWM
may reject the picture, but the shadow legions of the dead sleeping
out and far will applaud it with Homeric hush 18.
There is a final coda to this strange tale.
In 1928, Orpen approached the War Museum offering to repaint the
canvas as a tribute to Earl Haig who had recently died. With permission,
he painted out the gaunt, insane soldiers, the cherubs and garlands,
leaving only the draped coffin and the marble halls. ‘Nothing
is left’ comments the historian Samuel Hynes, ‘but a
nameless dead soldier in a cold emptiness. It is a disturbing picture’19.
Disturbing indeed, but no longer vitriolic, transformed into a tribute
to the most vaunted and vilified British army commander, instead
of the lowly, unknown combatant.
years on, the symbolic power of the Tomb in the Abbey has faded.
In the years after the war the Cenotaph became the focus of Armistice
Day commemoration. In 1927 the British Legion introduced a Festival
of Remembrance in London’s Royal Albert Hall : the event ended
then, as it does now, with the poignant image of poppies falling
from the dome of the hall, each poppy representing one of the absent
war dead. After 1927 the Tomb took ‘third place’ in
the hierarchy of remembrance; television coverage pays scant attention
to the grave and its heavily inscribed black slab 20.
Millions of viewers would have noticed, however, how during the
funeral of Princess Diana in 1997 the Welsh guardsmen bearing her
coffin carefully, if slightly precariously, pick their way around
that black slab in their otherwise undeviating line to the centre
of the Abbey. A case, perhaps, of overknown Princess, unknown soldier.
This is an alternative inscription for the stone covering the Tomb
of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey, London written by D.S.MacColl,
W.H. Auden, Collected Poems, London, 1990.
: Cited in Our Empire Volume VII, no.8.
: See for example: Michael Gavagan, The Story of the Unknown Warrior,
Preston, 1995; Terry Cave, ‘The Unknown Warrior’, WFA
Bulletin, no.17, October, 1986; Ken Inglis, Entombing Unknown Warriors:
From London and Paris to Baghdad, History and Memory, no. 5 (1993)
: Railton received no reply from Haig; he wrote to Ryle in August
: Cited in Our Empire Volume VIII, no.8.
: So many conflicting stories emerged in the 1920s and 1930s that
Wyatt wrote to the Daily Telegraph in November 1939 to correct the
record : ‘The Unknown Warriors of 1920: How one was selected
for Abbey burial’.
: Manchester Evening News, 11 November, 1920, p.4.
: Ken Inglis, The Homecoming: the War Memorial Movement in Cambridge,
England, Journal of Contemporary History, 27 (1992) pp. 583–605.
: Geoff Dyer, The Missing of the Somme, London, 1994.
: Meirion and Susie Harries, The War Artists: British Official War
Art of the Twentieth Century (Michael Joseph, in association with
the Imperial War Museum (IWM) and the Tate Gallery, 1983) p.146.
: The Times, 12th November 1920.
: Quoted in Arold Whittick, War Memorials, London, 1946, pp. 121-122.
: William Orpen, An Onlooker in France, London, 1928.
: Orpen to ffoulkes 19th February 1922, Orpen file, IWM, London
Department of Art.
: Evening Standard, 7th May 1923.
: Orpen to ffoulkes, 19th February 1922.
: All cited in Harries, op.cit., p.148.
: Samuel Hynes, A War Imagined: The First World War and English
Culture, London, 1990, p.460.
: Ken Inglis, Entombing Unknown Warriors, op.cit, p.30.