The ‘Tomb of the Unknown Warrior’ at Westminster Abbey, London, was opened in 1920; two years after World War One had ended. The idea for such a memorial to the dead of World War One came from Reverend David Railton who had served on the Western Front as a minister to the soldiers stationed there. In 1916 at Armentieres, Railton saw a wooden cross in memory of an unknown soldier. He believed that it was right and proper that once World War One was over, those who had no known grave should be commemorated in Britain itself, even if there was a procedure in place to commemorate all the dead, known or not, in war graves in France and Belgium. Railton believed that families had the right to have a place to grieve on home soil and that it was beholden on the government of the time to have a place in Britain itself where people could come to pay their respects. Railton was also aware that many families of the dead had financial issues to contend with and that a visit to a war grave in France or Belgium was beyond the means of many. However, a commemorative visit to London was more of a possibility. Railton’s idea found support but they were faced with one major problem – which body should be repatriated to Britain? The problem was not as easy as it may sound. The one body chosen had to represent tens of thousands of men “Known unto God”.
A body of an unknown soldier was exhumed from each of four major battlefields – the Somme, Arras, Ypres and the Aisne. On November 7th 1920, the four bodies were brought to a chapel at St. Pol in Northern France. The officer commanding British troops in France and Belgium was there – Brigadier General L J Wyatt. He had no idea where the bodies had come from. All he knew was that they were the bodies of four British soldiers and that they had, in death, never been identified. Wyatt made his choice. Some reports state that Wyatt was blindfolded to really emphasise that he could not have pre-selected a body. The body was placed in a plain coffin that was then sealed. The remains of the three other men were returned to their respective graves. To this day, no one knows which battlefield the body came from.
On November 8th, the coffin started its journey to London. At Boulogne, the coffin was placed inside another coffin made of oak from Hampton Court. The oak coffin had on it a plate that read: “A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country”. On top of the oak coffin a sword from George V’s private collection was fixed. ‘HMS Verdun’ then transported the coffin to Dover. The coffin was brought from Dover Docks to London Victoria Station by train and was carried in what has become known as the Cavell Van.
On November 11th 1920, the coffin was drawn through London to the newly unveiled Cenotaph. From here it went to Westminster Abbey, passing a guard of honour made up of 100 holders of the Victoria Cross. The grave was filled with soil from battlefields in France and the black marble stone at the grave came from Belgium. Inscribed on the tomb is “They buried him among the kings, because he had done good toward God and toward his house.” (Chronicles)
What Railton could not have predicted was how much the issue was taken up by the British public. The fact that the body could have been anyone of any rank touched a raw nerve in Britain. In the first week of the tomb being commemorated, 1,250,000 million people visited it to pay their respects.
In October 1921, Congress awarded the Unknown Soldier the Congressional Medal of Honour while a month later the Unknown Soldier of America was awarded the Victoria Cross.
The Cavell Van
The Cavell Van (officially Van 132 in its lifetime of use) was used to transport the coffin of the Unknown Soldier from Dover Docks to London Victoria Station on November 10th 1920.
The Cavell Van gots its name because it was the rail van that carried the coffin of executed nurse Edith Cavell when her body was repatriated to the UK in 1919. It also carried the coffin of the executed merchant seaman Charles Fryatt in the same year. The carriage was used by a number of rail companies until 1991. It was moved to the Kent and East Sussex Railway based in Tenterden, Kent, in 1992 before being moved to the Rother Valley Railway based in Robertsbridge, East Sussex.
The Cavell Van returned to the Kent and East Sussex Railway in 2004. However, its condition had deteriorated badly and it was in dire need of repair. It was estimated that £35,000 was needed to fully restore the Cavell Van back to standard and an appeal was started in December 2009.
It was hoped that enough money would be raised so that the van would be in perfect condition to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the commemoration of the Unknown Soldier in November 2010. With a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £27,000, the timetable was kept to and sufficent money meant that the newly restored Cavell Van was unveiled on November 10th 2010 – just as the planners had hoped.
Norman Brice, chairman of Kent and East Sussex Railway said: “Our project has attracted a great deal of attention and interest but perhaps the most striking aspect was that the metalwork, plaque and sword were fitted to the replica coffin by the grandson (Meurig Williams) of the man who undertook the original work in 1920.”
An educational presentation is on display inside the carriage along with a copy of the wooden structure that supported the coffin.