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The final journey of the Unknown Warrior


11 November 2020 marked the centenary of the burial within Westminster Abbey of the Unknown Warrior.

This was a British soldier who was killed in the First World War, someone who was originally buried in or near one of the many battlefields of the Western Front. The idea of commemorating an ‘Unknown Warrior’ first came to the Reverend David Railton in 1916. He was a military chaplain who had served with the army during the War and had been moved by seeing makeshift graves, marked with rudimentary crosses that indicated the name of the person buried was unknown. In August 1920, some while after the end of the War, Reverend Railton wrote to Herbert Lyle, Dean of Westminster Abbey, suggesting that a body be returned from the Western Front and buried in the Abbey.

Dean Ryle was inspired by the idea and it was adopted by the Prime Minster, David Lloyd George, by senior military authorities and by an initially reluctant King George V. In due course four bodies were exhumed and great care was taken to choose one that was unidentifiable. This enabled the Unknown Warrior to represent any one of nearly a million British servicemen who gave their lives in the service of King and Country. He could have been the son, husband, brother or other loved one of many families who did not return home and in his new identity as the Unknown Warrior he provided a focus for many grieving relatives.

His interment in Westminster Abbey, amid great ceremony, showed the degree of respect accorded to this important but anonymous individual. The burial provided a cathartic focus for the grief of the thousands of relatives whose loved ones did not return from the fighting, and was particularly important for the relatives of the servicemen whose bodies were never found or were buried without being identified. The power of this event cannot be underestimated and the centenary service in Westminster Abbey on 11 November 2020, scaled back and socially-distanced as it was, demonstrated just how much the original service in 1920 still has a profound resonance in today’s acts of remembrance.

On the day of his burial a large procession left from Victoria Station at 9.40 am and travelled along Grosvenor Place, past Buckingham Palace and down The Mall before turning into Whitehall. His Majesty King George V joined the procession in Whitehall, laying a wreath on the coffin of the Unknown Warrior and, at the end of a two minute silence starting at 11.00 am, the King unveiled the Cenotaph. A temporary wooden cenotaph had been erected in 1919, in time for the first anniversary of the Armistice on 11 November, but this was replaced by the stone-built structure which is now the focus for the national act of remembrance that takes place every November.

What is often overlooked, however, is the role that railways played in the repatriation of the Unknown Warrior to bring his body to London. After being transported across the English Channel on the Royal Navy ship HMS Verdun, the Unknown Warrior’s remains were taken by train from Dover to London in a special railway van built and operated by the South Eastern & Chatham Railway (SECR).

This van arrived at Platform 8 of Victoria Station on 10 November 1920, where it was kept under guard overnight. A plaque at the end of the platform, provided in 1998 by the Western Front Association, now commemorates this event.

The special van used for this historically significant final journey was numbered 132 by the SECR and had been used the previous year in the repatriation of two other significant casualties of the Great War, Nurse Edith Cavell and Captain Charles Fryatt. Edith Cavell was executed by the Germans in October 1915 for assisting injured soldiers to return to the UK and even today she is well remembered, not least in Norwich where she is buried. The use of Van 132 to transport her remains resulted in the van itself becoming known as the Cavell Van. Captain Fryatt was in charge of a steam ferry operated by the Great Eastern Railway between Harwich, Essex, and the Netherlands, when he was alleged to have rammed a German submarine that was trying to detain his ship. He was subsequently captured and executed by the Germans in July 1916 causing, like the execution of Edith Cavell, much international outrage. His remains were also exhumed after the end of the War and taken from Dover to London in Van 132, before being taken back to Harwich for burial in his home town.

The Cavell Van in which these three individuals were repatriated has, miraculously, survived and is now set up as an exhibition telling their stories. It is normally based on the Kent & East Sussex Railway at Bodiam Station.

Railways were also used, from 1840, to transport the bodies of thousands of other people from where they died to a place of burial that was significant to them or their loved ones, often a place with a familial connection.

Although the transportation of coffins on mainline railways ceased in 1988, it continues for ceremonial purposes on many heritage railways. The repatriation of the Unknown Warrior by train was 100 years ago but the most recent ceremonial final journey by train was in January 2020, showing that trains can still provide an important role in funeral transport.

By Nicolas Wheatley

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