As the guns fell silent on the Armistice, and the true cost of the previous four years was added up, it fell to a silent few to realise that it was a price that too many had paid for no particular gain. It is estimated that somewhere between 15 and 23 MILLION people, both military and civilian died as a direct result of the hostilities, including casualties, POWs (disease and wounded whilst imprisoned), and civilians through war effort related accidents, collateral damage and as a result of associated acts of genocide. These figures include those for example drowned during German Naval strikes on shipping, starvation as a result of food blockades, and armament factory explosions.
All that was left was to tidy up and come to terms with exactly what the world has lost. The blood of an entire generation of men was the highest cost. From all corners of the globe. Europe, Canada, Africa, India, America, Australia, New Zealand, and a thousand little nooks and crannies in between. Millions of men, full of hope and patriotism, eager to do their duty, some not so eager, some dragged positively kicking and screaming. And who could blame them when the guns fell silent, and all that remained were the empty torn vessels of what once represented life.
So as the glory of Empire took its dying breaths, those that remained had nothing left but to learn and remember and grieve and commemorate. The Imperial War Graves Commission was borne approximately mid-way through the war. Largely from the grief of Rudyard Kipling, who lost his only son, John, quite early on in the Battle of Loos, 1915, Kipling became one of the first commissioners. John’s remains were lost until recently when he was apparently rediscovered impersonating an unknown soldier and his grave altered to reflect his true identity, although there remains some doubt in certain areas whether this really is the body of the short-sighted teenager.
It is believed that there are over half a million commonwealth soldiers with no known grave in France and Belgium alone. 315,000 are commemorated on several large memorials to the missing. For many of these whose remains may well have been found but unidentified, internment has taken place in a grave marked “Unknown soldier of the Great War, Known unto God.” There are over half a million of these graves on the Western Front. The Commission reached an agreement with French and Belgian governments that land would be bought for the commission specifically for the collective internment where possible of any recovered remains from the battlefields. The commission made the agreement to follow parameters regarding the positioning of these cemeteries, and their upkeep in perpetuity. Among the commission’s active teams were several soldiers awaiting demobilisation, who agreed to carry out the search for and recovery and reinternment of remains, and the reburial of those buried during the conflict either by the Imperial forces or by civilian representatives. Work continues to maintain the graves of all, by volunteers of the renamed Commonwealth War Graves Commission, many of whom are ex-serving members of the armed forces.
The idea of the Commission came about through the realisation of one man, Fabian Ware, on the outbreak of war, that at 45 years of age, he was too old to take an active role. He convinced his company chairman to give him command of a mobile Red Cross unit, which he took to France. Once there, in September 1914, he quickly realised that there seemed to be no significant structure for the recording of the dead. He organised a system which was given official recognition by Adjutant-General Nevill McCready the following March and became known as the Graves Registration Committee, supported by the Imperial War Office and transferred from the Red Cross to the British Army. 14 months later, Ware had over 50,000 graves registered. As the work went public, enquiries began to be received from families in Britain and the role was extended to cover such, with the committee responding by sending details and photographs where possible to comfort grieving relatives. The Graves Registration Commission became the Directorate of Graves Registrations and Enquiries in 1916 and spread its net to other arenas of the conflict. It was Ware’s plan to organise the clearing, identification and reburial of remains following the end of the war working with the French. The commission evolved into a specific committee for the process and from there the IWGC was developed with the first commissioner being Prince Edward, the Prince of Wales.
Today the position is filled by the Duke of Kent and the commission holds a budget of around £67million, of which contributions are made by commonwealth member states for the maintenance of their fallen. There was initially an outcry by many relatives regarding the decision made not to repatriate any soldiers fallen on foreign soil, instead they would be buried where they fell, with a uniform marker regardless of religion, rank or creed in the spirit of their philosophy of brothers in arms. The dead of WW2 have been added to the list of graves maintained under the commission, however they also take care of non-military graves in certain circumstances, the civilian roll of honour and certain graves from subsequent conflicts such as those in the Falkland Islands. Soldiers who died of wounds or as a result of accident or illness whilst serving in both World Wars are also afforded a war grave. Since the advent of war in the Middle East, fallen troops are now repatriated to the home nations, mainly as a result of the threat of post-mortem desecration and lack of accessibility by the commission’s staff. Each of these recent fallen servicemen is afforded a military funeral if desired by the family, with a headstone consistent with those of the commission. The commission are working with some nations now in peace, Iraq for example, to recommence their work on the world war graves in existence in those arenas.
Following a suggestion made by the Reverend Dave Railton to the newly organised Imperial War Graves Commission during the war, after his visit to the Western front as a chaplain during the war, when he saw a roughly carved wooden cross marking the spot of a fallen soldier, and pencilled with the inscription “An Unknown British Soldier”, he raised the possibility of a National Memorial to represent all the unknown soldiers of the war, on home ground. The Dean of Westminster, David Lloyd George and King George V all gave their agreement. The French who were also undertaking to bury their own dead in a similar fashion debated a similar proposal in Parliament and agreed.
Following approval of the scheme, a tomb was constructed and prepared in Westminster Abbey in November 1920. Six unidentified British soldiers were removed from their graves in the Battlefields of France and taken to Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise Chapel near Arras, on November 7th where Brigadier L.J. Wyatt, Reverend George Kendall OBE and Lt-Col E.A.S. Kell of the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries, received them into a private area of the Chapel. They were placed in coffins and draped with the Union Jack flag, following which Brigadier Wyatt, with his eyes closed, then placed his hand on one of the coffins. The rest of the remains were removed and taken away for reinternment, and the chosen body after remaining overnight at the Chapel was transported to the castle at Boulogne where it was guarded in vigil by French troops of the 8th Infantry regiment in the transformed library. The next morning a casket arrived made from the timbers of Oak Trees from Hampton Court, the coffin placed within and the casket banded by iron. A medieval sword from the Crusades, hand-picked by King George from the Royal collection was fixed to the coffin atopped with a shield bearing the words ‘A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914–1918 for King and Country’. The Casket was then taken by French military carriage pulled by six black horses, to Boulogne Harbour where it received full military honours before being placed aboard HMS Verdun and transported with escort to Dover, where it was welcomed with a 19 gun salute.
The casket was then transported to Victoria Station, platform 8 in the same carriage used to transport the remains of nurse Edith Cavell, executed by the Germans for treason, after she assisted the escape of British and Commonwealth soldiers, and Civilian Captain Charles Fryatt, also executed following his attempted ramming of a German U-Boat which was positioned to torpedo his ship SS Brussels. The Germans claimed he sunk the submarine, completely untrue, as it was still on active service, and had Fryatt shot in Bruges following a court martial. His remains were exhumed and repatriated in 1919. The railway carriage is now renovated and is displayed containing a replica of the Casket of the Unknown Warrior.
Following an overnight rest at Victoria Station, the body was transported on the morning of 11th November to its final resting place, in the West Nave of the Abbey on a gun carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery, past Hyde Park where it received a further gun salute, down the Mall onto Whitehall where it paused as the Cenotaph was unveiled, by the King, bearing its “empty tomb” before the Royal family joined the procession, along with minsters of Parliament and State, to Westminster.
The Unknown Warrior was borne into the Abbey to its final resting place where it was draped with a silk pall, and flanked by a guard of honour formed of 100 Victoria Cross recipients. The guests of honour were 100 women who had lost their husbands and all their sons. Soil was placed on the casket from each of the major battlefields of the Western Front, and a tombstone placed over made from Belgian black marble. The inscription on the stone, engraved in melted down brass from war munitions, composed by the Dean of Westminster, Herbert Edward Ryle reads:
“Beneath this stone rests the body
Of a British warrior
Unknown by name or rank
Brought from France to lie among
The most illustrious of the land
And buried here on Armistice Day
11 Nov: 1920, in the presence of
His Majesty King George V
His Ministers of State
The Chiefs of his forces
And a vast concourse of the nation
Thus are commemorated the many
Multitudes who during the Great War of 1914 – 1918 gave the most that
Man can give life itself
For King and country
For loved ones home and empire
For the sacred cause of justice and
The freedom of the world
They buried him among the kings because he
Had done good toward God and toward
Four other texts are engraved on the sides, they read:
THE LORD KNOWETH THEM THAT ARE HIS (top)
UNKNOWN AND YET WELL KNOWN, DYING AND BEHOLD WE LIVE (side)
GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN THAN THIS (side)
IN CHRIST SHALL ALL BE MADE ALIVE (base)
It is forbidden to walk on the tomb.
As the funeral took place of the British Unknown Warrior, France held a similar ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe where their own tomb was unveiled. The body of the French unknown soldier was interred there the following January. On October 17th 1921, the British Unknown Warrior was awarded the American highest award for bravery, the Medal of Honour, which hangs on a pillar close to the tomb. The following month on Armistice Day, also now celebrated as Veterans Day in the USA, a similar ceremony was performed in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia. Four unknown bodies were exhumed in France on Memorial Day. Five months later, using a spray of white roses laid on the coffin of his choosing, wounded US Army serviceman Sgt Edward Younger chose one of the four. The others were reinterred and the chosen soldier transported to the Capitol Rotunda for October 24th, 1921 where he lay in state. On Armistice Day 1921, the body was interred in a specially constructed grave, and awarded the Victoria Cross; the only non-Commonwealth soldier to receive the award. The full pedestal tomb of Vermont marble was added in 1932.
Since the internment, three further graves have been added, flush with the plaza to each side of the tomb, representing Unknown Soldiers of subsequent conflicts, WW2, the Korean War and Vietnam. Controversy in some areas was raised in 1998 when the family of missing Vietnam veteran First Lieutenant Michael Blassie USAF collected and submitted what they felt was substantial evidence to believe the remains were those of Michael. Congress agreed to DNA testing and the identity was confirmed. 1st Lt Blassie was exhumed and taken for his own internment at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in Saint Louis Missouri. Although the Unknown soldiers had all been awarded the Medal of Honour for the sacrifice they made representative of all the missing of their conflicts, because Blassie was identified, the Medal of Honour was not transferred to him personally. The “unknown” marker has since been replaced with one bearing an alternative description; the tomb remains empty.
In Australia, a tomb has been in planned as a memorial to their unknown soldier since around the same time as other nations, a few years after the war. Their hope was finally brought to pass in 1993, when the Australian unknown soldier was finally laid to rest. After being chosen from an “unknown” grave in a cemetery in France, he was reinterred following a state funeral, and the original marker was replaced to reflect the honour.
Many countries have followed suit with their own dedications to their unknown soldiers. Check my previous Remembrance Day article for further details and research.
To all that made the ultimate sacrifice; We salute you.