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The Unknown Warrior Story - The Bands of HM Royal Marines

Updated: Nov 11, 2023

Unit/ Formation: Memorial

Location: Westminster Abbey

Period/ Conflict: World War I

Year: 1920

Date/s: 11 November 1920

In 1920, as part of ceremonies in Britain to commemorate the dead of World War One, there was a proposal that the body of an unknown soldier, sailor or airman lying in an unmarked grave abroad be returned to England for burial in Westminster Abbey. This was to symbolise all those who had died for their country, but whose place of death was not known, or whose body remained unidentified.

It is thought that the idea came from the reverend David Railton, who had served as a chaplain on the Western Front. There are a number of versions of how the selection of the Unknown Warrior was made, but it is generally agreed that between four and six bodies were exhumed from each of the main British battle areas on the Western Front on the night of 7 November 1920, and brought to the chapel at St Pol, in northern France.

The Unknown Warrior being carried aboard HMS Verdun

Each was covered with a Union Jack. The commander of British troops in France and Flanders, Brigadier General LJ Wyatt, picked one. This was placed in a coffin which was taken to Boulogne, where it was transported to Dover on HMS Verdun. The other bodies were reburied.

The arrival of the Unknown Warrior at Dover, Kent © IWM Q111468

On the morning of 11 November 1920 - the second anniversary of the armistice that ended World War One - the body of the Unknown Warrior was drawn in a procession to the Cenotaph.

King George V (seen centre bottom) follows the Unknown Warrior’s gun carriage as it makes its way down Whitehall to Westminster Abbey after the unveiling of the Cenotaph. © IWM Q31493.

This new war memorial on Whitehall, designed by Edwin Lutyens, was then unveiled by George V. At 11 o'clock there was a two-minute silence, and the body was then taken to Westminster Abbey where it was buried at the west end of the nave.

‘The Burial of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey, 1920.’ (King George V is portrayed fifth from right). The oil painting, by Frank O. Salisbury, is held within the Parliamentary Art Collection. Image in the public domain.

To the surprise of the organisers, in the week after the burial an estimated 1,250,000 people visited the abbey, and the site is now one of the most visited war graves in the world.

A postcard of four members of the Armed Forces stand watch at each corner of the Unknown Warrior’s grave following the burial as thousands of mourners filed past. © IWM LBY K16 2218.

The text inscribed on the tomb is taken from the bible (2 Chronicles 24:16): 'They buried him among the kings, because he had done good toward God and toward his house'.

The Unknown Warrior, performed in the Royal Albert Hall for the Mountbatten Festival of Music 2021 by the Massed Bands of Her Majesty's Royal Marines.

A view of the coffin of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey, November 1920, showing the inscription on the beaten iron plate. The coffin is propped up to almost vertical on a stand. IWM © IWM Q 31492

The inscription 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 God 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 His house

The Duchess of Cambridge's Wedding bouquet left at the tomb of the unknown warrior.

When Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (later Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother) married Prince Albert, Duke of York (who became King George VI) on 26 April 1923, she laid her bouquet at the Tomb on her way into the Abbey, as a tribute to her brother Fergus who had died at the Battle of Loos in 1915 (and whose name was then listed among those of the missing on the Loos Memorial, although in 2012 a new headstone was erected in the Quarry Cemetery, Vermelles).

Royal brides married at the Abbey or elsewhere now have their bouquets laid on the tomb the day after the wedding and all of the official wedding photographs have been taken.

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