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On a chill November morning in 1920, four field ambulances left four separate British Army units under leaden skies and made their lone ways through the desolation of northern France, each unaware of the others.
Each ambulance contained an officer and two soldiers with orders to find the reasonably clean skeleton of some anonymous Tommy. They were to choose one of the numberless graves marked ‘Unknown British Soldier’, dig up the corpse and confirm by scraps of uniform, buttons or other clues that it was indeed British. But the body must bear nothing to identify it as an individual.
Four bodies were exhumed, one each from the battlefields of the Somme, the Aisne, Arras and Ypres, and placed in sacks. The ambulances then converged on St Pol-sur-Ternoise, west of Arras, the headquarters of Brigadier General L.J. Wyatt DSO, director of the Army Graves Registration Service.
The ambulances were timed to arrive separately after dark. After unloading each was sent straight back through the night to its unit, ensuring none could confer with another. The bodies were received by the Rev. George Kendall OBE. Each was re-examined to double check that it was British and no means of identification could be found.
The skeletons were laid in a row in the corrugated iron hut that served the headquarters as a chapel and covered with union flags. A single plain coffin of English pine was placed before the altar. The doors were locked. Armed sentries took guard outside.
At midnight, Gen. Wyatt entered the chapel with Lt. Col. E.A.S. Gell. The general pointed at random to one of the bodies. The two men lifted it into the pine coffin and screwed down the lid. The three remaining corpses were removed and reburied in a shell hole on the road to Albert, a chaplain praying over the grave.
The following morning, a battle-scarred ambulance drew up outside the hut. The coffin was loaded into it. The ambulance set off under escort along the straight French roads to Boulogne, arriving at 3.30pm and labouring up the hill to the port’s 13th Century castle.
Eight British and Empire soldiers bore the coffin along echoing stone passageways and placed it on trestles in the castle library, which had been hung with flags and palms and its floor strewn with autumn flowers and leaves. A company of soldiers from France’s honoured 8th Regiment stood vigil overnight.
At 10 o’clock the next morning two British undertakers, Mr Noades and Mr Sowerbutts, entered the library. They placed the unopened pine coffin inside a larger casket modelled on the pattern of a 16th Century treasure chest, fashioned from an oak that grew in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace. An iron shield bearing the inscription A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-18 was fastened over a Crusader’s sword sent from Windsor by the King. Mr Noades and Mr Sowerbutts secured the lid of the casket and sealed it.
A mist lay over the English Channel as the casket, draped in a union flag, was brought out of the castle and placed on a French military wagon drawn by six black horses. It was taken down the hill to the old toll-bar known as Le Dernier Sou – ‘the last penny’ – where an assembled funeral procession was waiting at the meeting of three roads.
On the stroke of 10.30 the church bells of Boulogne rang out, mingled cavalry trumpets and infantry bugles of the French Army sounded the Aux Champs and the procession moved off. Six pairs of soldiers bearing wreaths walked behind the casket.
The mile-long cortège was led by a thousand French schoolchildren. Ranks of cavalry, marines and infantry followed along streets hung with tricolours, flags and streamers. French soldiers with rifles reversed lined the route to the harbour. The pavements were crowded with thousands of silent townsfolk.
Marshal Foch, mastermind of the Allied victory two years earlier, was among the senior officers waiting at the dockside where the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Verdun lay alongside the Quai Carnot. The White Ensign was lowered to half-mast as the heavy casket was carried up the gangplank and piped aboard to the thin notes of a bosun’s whistle. Sailors and Royal Marines stood to attention at the rails presenting rifles with fixed bayonets.
The casket was laid on the quarterdeck and covered with huge wreaths of white lilies, roses and chrysanthemums, each wreath requiring four men to lift it. A guard of Bluejackets fired a volley while a salute from the massive French shore batteries thundered out over a flat, sullen sea.
The echoes of the guns were fading as HMS Verdun slipped her moorings a few minutes before noon. Marshal Foch stood almost at the water’s edge, watching the grey ship disappear into the haze, his hand lifted in a salute.
Six destroyers from the Atlantic Fleet escorted HMS Verdun across the Channel, three in line abreast ahead and three astern, sailing with flags at half-mast. The flotilla arrived off Dover an hour after leaving Boulogne, ghosting silently through the mist for the last mile.
HMS Verdun steamed slowly along the length of the sea wall, which was lined with quiet crowds. More crowds watched from vantage points all over the White Cliffs. The escorts turned away back to sea. The destroyer entered the harbour’s eastern entrance alone and came alongside the Admiralty Pier while guns crashed out in salute from the ramparts of Dover Castle.
Six warrant officers from the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines, the Army and the Royal Air Force carried the casket the hundred yards from the ship to the Marine railway station.
They placed it in a carriage of the South-Eastern and Chatham Railway, which had been decorated with intertwined flowers, laurel and rosemary and the interior lined with purple drapery. Two arrangements of white chrysanthemums stood at either end under electric lights. The huge wreaths from the Verdun were loaded into the carriage with the coffin.
An officer and fifteen soldiers of the Connaught Rangers joined Mr Noades and Mr Sowerbutts, and Lt. Gen. Sir George MacDonogh and his aide, who had accompanied the casket from Boulogne, in an adjoining saloon car. The two carriages were attached to the rear of the evening Dover-London boat train.
The train left the station at 5.50 on a cold, wet, moonless evening. Large crowds, mostly of women in black, had gathered in the November rain at stations along the route. The train halted for a few moments at each station.
Figures could be seen at lighted windows as the train made its way through the London suburbs. The roof of the carriage containing the casket had been painted white so it could be identified.
The train arrived at Victoria Station at 8pm. Smoke and steam from the locomotive eddied and billowed around the arc lamps high above as crowds pressed forward, held back by police.
The two carriages were uncoupled and shunted around to Platform Eight, close to the station’s Buckingham Palace Road exit. The wreaths were removed but the casket remained in its carriage overnight, accompanied by a double guard of sentries from the 1st Battalion, Grenadier Guards.
November 11, 1920, dawned cold and misty. A watery sun began to gleam through as the contingents of troops, ex-servicemen and the massed bands who would lead the cortège assembled at Victoria Station, where Platform Eight remained cordoned off.
At 9.20, eight men of the Grenadier Guards entered the carriage and draped the casket with a union flag that had been used as an altar cloth and temporary shroud for the slain at Vimy Ridge, High Wood, Ypres, Cambrai and Béthune. The tattered flag was dark with old stains. A steel helmet, side arms and a webbing belt were placed on top.
The casket was lifted on to a gun carriage. The troops came to attention, watched by crowds so quiet that the rustle of fallen leaves could be heard in the streets outside the station.
A 9.40 a battery of nineteen guns in Hyde Park began firing the salute due a Field Marshal. There was a roll of drums from the massed bands and the first chords of Chopin’s Funeral March.
The cortège emerged from the station into a still, sunlit autumn morning. There was a frost in the air and the last of the mist glowed in a halo around the sun. Flags hung limp at their poles and smoke rose from chimneys in straight lines.
The two and a half miles to Westminster Abbey were lined with countless silent thousands, bare-headed in the cold. The majority were women, many clutching wreaths large and small.
As the cortège approached they heard first the slow throb of the drums, then the wail of the pipes. Four mounted police came into view at the head of the procession, then the bands of the four regiments of Foot Guards followed by the pipes and drums of the Scots Guards, drums draped in black. Next came the gun carriage pulled by six glistening black horses, the casket lying under its war-soiled flag.
Twelve pall bearers – four Admirals, four Field Marshals, three Generals and an Air Marshal – followed the gun carriage. After them came serving troops from the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, and finally a contingent of ex-servicemen in their civilian clothes. The whole procession took ten minutes to pass at a slow march, the footfalls muffled in the sanded streets.
It made its way through Grosvenor Gardens and up Grosvenor Place, past Hyde Park Corner, down Constitution Hill and along the Mall, through Admiralty Arch and Charing Cross and finally into Whitehall to the newly-completed Cenotaph, hung with two huge union flags. The gun carriage creaked to a halt at exactly 10.50am.
King George stepped forward and, one-handed, pushed a wreath of bay leaves and red roses on to the casket. He saluted briefly and turned away. The massed bands struck up O God, Our Help in Ages Past. The Archbishop of Canterbury said the Lord’s Prayer.
As Big Ben began to toll the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the King touched a button to release the flags veiling the Cenotaph. One became snagged and had to be jerked free by an official.
The last stroke of 11 sounded. There followed the profoundest silence that London, or Britain, or the Empire had ever heard – a silence that shrouded the world. In cities, towns and villages of almost every Allied nation millions stopped what they were doing and stood, remembering.
The silence in Whitehall was ended by buglers of the Brigade of Guards sounding the Last Post. The gun carriage moved off, followed by the King, Prince of Wales, Duke of York, Prince Henry, Duke of Connaught, Marquis of Milford Haven, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lloyd George and all his ministers. Thousands of mourners fell in behind.
At Westminster Abbey, ‘the parish church of the Empire’, the bell tolled and the choir moved out into the daylight singing Brief Life Is Here Our Portion. As the gun carriage arrived men of the Coldstream Guards laid their rifles on the grass and gathered to lift the casket. One forgot to remove his hat and snatched it off at a hissed order from an officer.
The Guards bore the casket shoulder-high into the Abbey between two lines of men decorated for gallantry, including seventy-four holders of the Victoria Cross. The casket was placed on bars above a waiting grave excavated by the West Door, sited so that any monarch going to the altar to be crowned must step over it.
The congregation was composed mostly of war widows and mothers who had lost sons in the war, there by invitation. One group who had lost both husbands and sons were given places of honour. A girl who had lost nine brothers was given a seat, as was a boy of twelve who had written: ‘The man in the grave might be my daddy.’
The Dean of Westminster, the Right Reverend Herbert Ryle, conducted the brief service in his purple and gold-embroidered robes, a splash of ecclesiastical splendour amid the mourning black. During the singing of Lead Kindly Light the bearers removed the flag, helmet and side arms and lowered the casket into the grave.
The King scattered earth gathered from the battlefields over the coffin from a silver shell. The congregation sang Abide With Me followed by Kipling’s Recessional, God of Our Fathers. Weeping was heard during the last lines – ‘Lest we forget, lest we forget.’
The Dean spoke the Blessing. In the quiet that followed, a scarcely-audible whisper stole into the Abbey. It became recognisable as the roll of drums. The sound swelled into a roar that reverberated around the Abbey before slowly dying back to a whisper and, finally, silence.
A bugler sounded The Last Post, followed by the Long Reveille. Sentries took station at the four corners of the grave, facing outwards, arms reversed. The King led the other dignitaries out through the West Door to Miller’s Grand Ceremonial March, followed by the lines of Victoria Cross holders and the rest of the congregation.
After all the mourners had left, the Abbey was closed for a few moments. The grave was quickly filled and covered by ‘the Actors’ Pall’ given by members of the Actors’ Church Union. The soiled flag that had covered the casket on its journey from Victoria Station was placed over that. On top went the steel helmet and side arms, a wreath from the Abbey itself and another wreath of laurel collected from the ruined gardens of Ypres sent by the War Graves Inquiry Bureau. Four lit candles were placed around the grave and low wooden barriers brought in.
The Abbey was then reopened to allow in the first of the endless lines of mourners waiting to file past the grave of the Unknown Warrior, the only Tommy killed in France ever to come home from the Great War.
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