At the west end of the Nave of Westminster Abbey is the grave of the Unknown Warrior, whose body was brought from France to be buried here on 11th November 1920. The grave, which contains soil from France, is covered by a slab of black Belgian marble from a quarry near Namur. On it is the following inscription, composed by Herbert Ryle, Dean of Westminster:
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
Around the main inscription are four texts:
(top) THE LORD KNOWETH THEM THAT ARE HIS,(sides) GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN THAN THIS
UNKNOWN AND YET WELL KNOWN, DYING AND BEHOLD WE LIVE,
(base) IN CHRIST SHALL ALL BE MADE ALIVE.
Selecting the Unknown Warrior
The idea of such a burial seems first to have come to a chaplain at the Front, the Reverend David Railton (1884-1955), when he noticed in 1916 in a back garden at Armentières, a grave with a rough cross on which were pencilled the words “An Unknown British Soldier”. In August 1920 he wrote to the Dean of Westminster, Herbert Ryle, through whose energies this memorial was carried into effect. The body was chosen from unknown British servicemen exhumed from four battle areas, the Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres. (some sources say six bodies but confirmed accounts say four).
The remains were brought to the chapel at St. Pol on the night of 7th November 1920. The General Officer in charge of troops in France and Flanders, Brigadier General L.J. Wyatt, with Colonel Gell, went into the chapel alone, where the bodies on stretchers were covered by Union Flags. They had no idea from which area the bodies had come. General Wyatt selected one and the two officers placed it in a plain coffin and sealed it. The other three bodies were reburied. General Wyatt said they were re-buried at the St Pol cemetery but Lt. (later Major General Sir) Cecil Smith says they were buried beside the Albert-Baupaume road to be discovered there by parties searching for bodies in the area.
In the morning Chaplains of the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and Non-Conformist churches held a service in the chapel before the body was escorted to Boulogne to rest overnight. The next day the coffin was placed inside another which had been sent over specially from England made of two-inch thick oak from a tree which had grown in Hampton Court Palace garden, lined with zinc. It was covered with the flag that David Railton had used as an altar cloth during the War (known as the Ypres or Padre’s Flag, which now hangs in St George’s Chapel). Within the wrought iron bands of this coffin had been placed a 16th century crusader’s sword from the Tower of London collection. The inner coffin shell was made by Walter Jackson of the firm of Ingall, Parsons & Clive Forward at Harrow, north London and the larger coffin was supplied by the undertakers in charge of the arrangements, Nodes & Son.
The coffin plate bore the inscription:
A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country.
The ironwork and coffin plate were made by D.J. Williams of the Brunswick Ironworks at Caernarfon in Wales. The destroyer HMS Verdun, whose ship’s bell was presented to the Abbey and now hangs near the grave, transported the coffin to Dover and it was then taken by train to Victoria station in London where it rested overnight.
On the morning of 11th November the coffin was placed, by the bearer party from the 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards, on a gun carriage drawn by six black horses of the Royal Horse Artillery. It then began its journey through the crowd-lined streets, making its first stop in Whitehall where the Cenotaph was unveiled by King George V. The King placed his wreath of red roses and bay leaves on the coffin. His card read “In proud memory of those Warriors who died unknown in the Great War. Unknown, and yet well-known; as dying, and behold they live. George R.I. November 11th 1920”.
Then the carriage, with the escorting pall bearers (Admirals) Lord Beatty, Sir Hedworth Meux, Sir Henry Jackson, Sir C.E. Madden, (Field Marshals) Lord French, Lord Haig, Lord Methuen, Sir Henry Wilson, (Generals) Lord Horne, Lord Byng, Albert Farrar-Gatliff and Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Trenchard followed by the King, members of the Royal Family and ministers of State, made its way to the north door of Westminster Abbey.
While the Cenotaph unveiling was taking place the Choir inside the Abbey sang, unaccompanied, “O Valiant Hearts” (to the tune Ellers). The hymn “O God our help in ages past” was sung by the congregation and after prayers there was the two minutes silence at 11am. The Contakion of the Faithful Departed was then sung and the choir processed to the north porch to meet the coffin, with the hymn “Brief life is here our portion” being sung.
The shortened form of the Burial Service began with the singing of the verses “I am the resurrection and the life” (set by William Croft) and “Thou knowest Lord” (by Henry Purcell) during the procession to the grave. The coffin was borne to the west end of the nave through the congregation of around 1,000 mourners and a guard of honour of 100 holders of the Victoria Cross (from all three services). They were under the command of Colonel Freyburg VC. The choir sang the 23rd Psalm.
After the hymn “Lead kindly light”, the King stepped forward and dropped a handful of French earth onto the coffin from a silver shell as it was lowered into the grave. At the close of the service, after the hymn “Abide with me” (tune Eventide) and prayers, the congregation sang Rudyard Kipling’s solemn Recessional “God of our fathers” (to the tune Melita), after which the Reveille was sounded by trumpeters (the Last Post had already been sounded at the Cenotaph unveiling). Other eminent members of the congregation were Queen Alexandra, the queens of Spain and Norway, the Duke of Connaught, politicians Lloyd George and Asquith, and Sir Douglas Dawson.
The grave was then covered by an embroidered silk funeral pall, which had been presented to the Abbey by the Actors’ Church Union in memory of their fallen comrades, with the Padre’s flag lying over this. Servicemen kept watch at each corner of the grave while thousands of mourners filed past. Wreaths brought over on HMS Verdun were added to others around the grave. The Abyssinian cross, presented to the Abbey at the time of the 1902 coronation, stood at the west end. The Abbey organ was played while the church remained open to the public. After the Abbey had closed for the night some of the choristers went back into the nave and one later wrote “The Abbey was empty save for the guard of honour stiffly to attention, arms (rifles) reversed, heads bowed and quite still – the whole scene illuminated by just four candles”.
Special permission had been given to make a recording of the service but only the two hymns were of good enough quality to be included on the record, the first electrical recording ever to be sold to the public (with profits going to the Abbey’s restoration fund).
The grave was filled in, using 100 sandbags of earth from the battlefields, on 18th November and then covered by a temporary stone with a gilded inscription on it:
A BRITISH WARRIOR WHO FELL IN THE GREAT WAR 1914-1918 FOR KING AND COUNTRY. GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN THAN THIS.
New stone and the Congressional Medal
On 11th November 1921 the present black marble stone was unveiled at a special service. The stone (size 7 feet by 4 feet 3 inches, depth 6 inches) was supplied and lettered by Mr Tomes of Acton and the brass for the inscription supplied by Nash & Hull. Benjamin Colson carried out the brass work. The Padre’s Flag was also formerly dedicated at this service.
General Pershing, on behalf of the United States of America, conferred the Congressional Medal of Honor on the Unknown Warrior on 17th October 1921 and this now hangs in a frame on a pillar near the grave. In October 2013 the Congressional Medal of Honor Society presented the Society’s official flag to the Unknown Warrior and this is framed below the medal.
The body of the Unknown Warrior may be from any of the three services, Army, Navy or Air Force, and from any part of the British Isles, Dominions or Colonies and represents all those who died who have no other memorial or known grave.
When the Duke of York (later King George VI) married Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon in the Abbey in 1923 as she left she laid her wedding bouquet on the grave as a mark of respect (she had lost a brother during the war). All royal brides married in the Abbey since then have sent back their bouquets to be laid on the grave (as also have some royal brides who were married elsewhere).
A bronze plaque on a pillar outside St George’s chapel concerns the Padre’s Flag:
This Union Jack sometimes called the Padre’s Flag was used day by day on flag post on improvised altar or as a covering for the fallen on the Western Front during the Great War 1914-1918. It covered the coffin of the Unknown Warrior at his funeral on November 11th 1920. After resting for a year on the grave it was presented to the Abbey Church of Westminster on Armistice Day 1921 by the chaplain who used it during the war and was dedicated on the High Altar “To the glory of God and in perpetual memory of all who gave their lives fighting by land and sea and air for their King, for Great Britain and Ireland and for the Dominions beyond the seas
The flag was hoisted onto the pillar above the grave at the dedication service. Company Sgt. Major Harry Evans, a soldier from the 17th London Division climbed a tall ladder to fix the flag, with the 5th brigade of the 47th London Division looking on. It remained there for many years before being moved to hang in St George’s chapel in 1964. Before being presented to the Abbey the flag had been cleaned so there are no bloodstains on it.
David Railton was born on 13th November 1884 at Leytonstone in London. He received the Military Cross in 1916 for saving an officer and two men under heavy fire. After the war he became Vicar of St John’s church at Margate in Kent. He was killed in an accidental fall from a train in Scotland in June 1955.
The plate below the bell (which is inscribed H.M.S.Verdun 1917) reads:
The bell of H.M.S. Verdun in which the Unknown Warrior was brought from Boulogne to Dover on the eve of Armistice Day 1920. Presented by Cdr. J.D.R. Davies, M.B.E., R.N. Remembrance Sunday 1990.
A postcard of the grave is available from the Abbey shop.
Sir Cecil Smith’s account of the re-burial of the three unselected bodies is in Westminster Abbey Library.
Field of Remembrance
The annual Field of Remembrance outside the Abbey was started in 1928 by Major George Howson M.C (died 1936), founder of the British Legion Poppy Factory. He and a few disabled ex-servicemen stood together around a battlefield cross with trays of paper poppies to sell to passers by who could then plant one beside the cross to remember the fallen. In 1932 the Field was expanded to include crosses for the fallen of each regiment and was open for a week.
The Legion organizes the large plot each year and all proceeds go to their poppy appeal for veterans. The late Queen Mother and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh had most often attended the opening ceremony. Prince Harry attended in 2014 and has opened the Field in subsequent years. The familiar words spoken at the dedication of the Field are from Laurence Binyon‘s poem “For the Fallen” – “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.”
The Flanders poppy was first described as the ‘Flower of Remembrance’ by Colonel John McCrae, a medical officer with the Canadian army. At the second battle of Ypres in 1915 he wrote his well known verses ‘In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row…’. He died of his wounds in 1918. The first Poppy Day in Britain was held on 11th November 1921.
Candle-lit Vigil 2014 and Armistice centenary
On 4th August 2014 at 10:00pm a service with a candle-lit vigil of prayer and reflection was held at the grave to commemorate the start of the First World War in 1914.
A service attended by Queen Elizabeth II, members of the Royal Family and the President of Germany took place on the evening of 11th November 2018, the centenary of the end of the Great War. Order of Service for A Service to mark the Centenary of the Armistice (PDF, 218KB).
Vigil for the centenary of the Battle of the Somme 2016
Queen Elizabeth II and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh attended a short service on the evening of 30th June 2016, the eve of the battle. Afterwards an all night vigil was kept at the grave of the Unknown Warrior until a service of Requiem on the morning of July 1st, the start of the battle.
Centenary of the Burial 2020
To mark the 100th anniversary of the burial a televised service was held on 11th November 2020 (special permission was given for this service which took place during the covid-19 lockdown restrictions in England). The Padre’s flag was laid on the High Altar and Charles, Prince of Wales laid a replica of the original wreath on the grave. Laurel leaves surrounded the stone instead of the usual red poppies. A week before Queen Elizabeth II had visited the grave privately in the empty Abbey to lay a replica of her bridal bouquet on the grave. A lone piper played a lament.
Lighting of the Belgian Torch
In November 1945 the Dean of Westminster was asked to re-kindle the Belgian Torch of Remembrance, which had been extinguished by the Nazis during the occupation, at the grave of the Unknown Warrior. This was then taken back to Brussels to the Belgian Unknown Warrior’s grave. Each year since then a short ceremony has been held in the Abbey for the lighting of the torch. It is now called the British Torch of Remembrance.
Further Reading and Service Papers
“The story of the Unknown Warrior…” by Michael Gavaghan, 3rd revised edn. 2003
David Railton’s account of the origin of the burial (PDF, 153KB)
A painting of the burial service by Frank Salisbury hangs in a Committee Room in the Houses of Parliament.
The Matania painting is in the Abbey Library.
The railway carriage which brought the body to London has been restored and can be viewed on Bodiam station, Sussex, where a replica of the coffin is on display.
A list of all the VC holders in the guard of honour is given in the Gavaghan book.
Other connections with the Great War in the Abbey
A memorial to the Million Dead of the British Empire was unveiled in 1926 (the inscription was slightly altered after the 1939-45 war) in St George’s chapel.
The Verdun Trophy, a circular bronze shield with a sword which was a gift from the City of Verdun to the British Army in 1930, is attached to the metal grille of St George’s chapel.
Also in this chapel are recorded the names of former choristers and Abbey staff who died.
A memorial stone to Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty at the outbreak of war, is in the nave.
A memorial stone to David Lloyd George, Prime Minister in the wartime coalition, is in the nave.
A memorial tablet to Herbert Asquith, Prime Minister at the outbreak of war, is on a pillar in the north transept.
A memorial stone to sixteen representative poets of the First World War is in Poets’ Corner.
The writer C.S. Lewis was wounded at the battle of Arras. His memorial stone is in Poets’ Corner.
The grave of Lord Trenchard, who led the Royal Flying Corps, is in the RAF chapel in the Lady chapel.
Order of the Bath stall plates for Earl Beatty, Lord Birdwood, Viscount Byng of Vimy, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Frederick Field, Sir John French, Earl Haig, Earl Jellicoe, Admiral Sir Arthur Leveson, General Sir John S.M.Shea, General Wavell and Lord Kitchener are in the Lady Chapel.
A memorial to the British Expeditionary Force (the “Old Contemptibles”) is in the west cloister.
A memorial to Ian Fraser (Lord Fraser), who was blinded on the Somme, is in the west cloister. This has a braille inscription.
The Abbey’s embroidered white silk funeral pall or hearse cloth was presented in 1920 by the Actors’ Church Union in memory of their members who died. Designed by W.D. Caroe it is used at many funerals in the Abbey.
Two embroidered processional banners were presented by the Church Lads’ Brigade and the Girls’ Friendly Society to remember the fallen.
British Pathe video – Armistice Day 1920: The coffin of the unknown soldier is transported from France to England with great ceremony.