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Paul Gough
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 Day 2001.

mixed with the dust of kings
and of famous men
in earth bought with him
from the battlefields of France

horizontal man
Let 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.

Many individuals 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

A 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 the Cenotaph.

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 mid-sentence:

… 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 Belgian marble.

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.’

It 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.

Eighty 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.

1: This is an alternative inscription for the stone covering the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey, London written by D.S.MacColl, in 1921.

2: W.H. Auden, Collected Poems, London, 1990.

3 : Cited in Our Empire Volume VII, no.8.

4 : 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) pp 7–31.

5 : Railton received no reply from Haig; he wrote to Ryle in August 1920.

6 : Cited in Our Empire Volume VIII, no.8.

7 : 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’.

8 : Manchester Evening News, 11 November, 1920, p.4.

9 : Ken Inglis, The Homecoming: the War Memorial Movement in Cambridge, England, Journal of Contemporary History, 27 (1992) pp. 583–605.

10 : Geoff Dyer, The Missing of the Somme, London, 1994.

11 : 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.

12 : The Times, 12th November 1920.

13 : Quoted in Arold Whittick, War Memorials, London, 1946, pp. 121-122.

14 : William Orpen, An Onlooker in France, London, 1928.

15 : Orpen to ffoulkes 19th February 1922, Orpen file, IWM, London Department of Art.

16 : Evening Standard, 7th May 1923.

17 : Orpen to ffoulkes, 19th February 1922.

18 : All cited in Harries, op.cit., p.148.

19 : Samuel Hynes, A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture, London, 1990, p.460.

20 : Ken Inglis, Entombing Unknown Warriors, op.cit, p.30.