Senior Historian Chris Anderson, our man in London, has relaunched his blog, History Hikes. History Hikes chronicles his visits to these places and the fascinating people he meets along the way. Today, we share his latest dispatch from Westminster Abbey, where he happened upon the annual Field of Remembrance for unknown soldiers that led to several serendipitous moments, a wonderful few days of research and some terrific new discoveries.
Warriors and Soldiers, Friends and Allies
By Chris Anderson
I could be accused of seeing it through rose colored glasses, but the special relationship is central to how I view the world. First defined by Winston Churchill in his famous Iron Curtain speech in Fulton Missouri on March 5,1946, but with a history that goes back much further, the term “special relationship” is meant to define the close cultural, ideological and political ties between the United States and Great Britain.
Detractors say that if it ever existed at all its time has come and gone. But for me, the special relationship is something that is very real and present in my life. It informs how I view the past and live in the present and I take comfort in sites and stories that make a connection between the place of my birth and the place I choose to call home. As I walk around locked down London I’m always on the lookout for places that highlight this connection. Grosvenor Square, with its close association with the United States is one of my favorite places in the city, I still get a lump in my throat when I visit the American Memorial Chapel in St. Paul’s Cathedral and I’ve been known to sit between Roosevelt and Churchill at the “Allies” monument on New Bond Street and grin like a school kid. One of the things I’m looking forward to the most once all the COVID craziness is behind us is to check out the Hendrix Flat at the Handel and Hendrix Museum.
Another one of my favorite locations is Parliament Square. I like to stand at the base of the Abraham Lincoln monument and look out at the statues, Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. I am comforted by the idea that I have the president I admire most looking out with me over some of the people and places that inspire me the most. This year I was there on November 3. Tired of sitting around the house, I’d used the excuse of taking pictures of the Central Methodist Hall for a blog post on the United Nations to head over to the square and have a chat with Abe.
As I was standing there fiddling with my facemask and thinking, I looked over to my right at St. Margaret’s Church and beyond that Westminster Abbey. The lawn between the two was a beehive of activity. These days this is not something you see very often. Curious, I headed across the street. What greeted me were volunteers and young cadets laying out the Field of Remembrance, which I’d forgotten was about to happen. The field consists of 250 separate plots for regimental and service organizations. There are also plots for the countries of the Commonwealth. Each plot has a cross or regimental badge keeping watch over smaller crosses with the names of comrades killed in action on them. Anyone can purchase one of the smaller crosses and place it within a regimental plot. The temporary tribute to the war dead has been prepared every year since 1928 by the Poppy Factory and stays in place from the morning of the Thursday before Remembrance Sunday until the evening of the following Thursday. After that week, all the wooden crosses are burnt, the ashes spread over the World War I battlefields of Northern France and Belgium. The Poppy Factory donates any money raised by selling the small crosses to the Royal British Legion.
I’d never been able to see the field in person and I wanted to have a closer look. I walked around behind St. Margaret’s to the entrance gate and was stopped by a Westminster warden, who fortunately took pity on me and kindly let me in even though the lawn was closed because of all the activity. I was able to take a few pictures and was getting ready to leave when I saw a small plot at the edge of the garden that was obscured by folding chairs waiting to be put up.
I bent low, looked around behind the stack of chairs and was moved to tears. The plot had a few of the smaller crosses but over them all was a larger one that simply said, “In memory of the fallen of the United States of America.” That the organizers had seen fit to include a place for America’s fallen next to their own really affected me. Since I was so close to Westminster Abbey, I thought I’d go inside to have a moment of reflection and thanks. As I got up to walk to the Abbey’s entrance, the volunteers and cadets were removing the chairs from in front of the American plot and making sure that everything there was a pristine and cared for as the other sections.
Normally deluged with tourists, you don’t often just get to walk into Westminster Abbey, but on this day my luck continued to hold. With no crowds because of COVID, I was able to book an immediate entrance on my phone and enter straight away. These days you go through the North Porch at the side of the building and go out by the Great Western Door. I didn’t have long so after a quick silent moment I headed for the exit. As I did, I stopped at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior and said a quick prayer. Surrounded by poppies, the tomb is the final resting place of a British Empire unknown from the Great War and serves the same function as our Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery. Turning to leave I saw a U.S. Medal of Honor in a frame on a nearby column. Intrigued, I made a mental note to dig a bit deeper when I got home. As so often happens with these little serendipitous moments, my unexpected visit to Westminster Abbey led to a wonderful few days of research and some terrific new discoveries.
Today, more than 50 countries have tombs honoring their unknown war dead. The moving idea of an unknown soldier being so recognized has become so ubiquitous that it is easy to forget that the dead of war were not always treated so reverently. For most of history, servicemen killed in action were simply thrown into unmarked graves, cremated or buried at sea. It was not until the late 19th century that military cemeteries as we know them began to be constructed and even then, soldiers whose remains were unidentifiable receive no special sort of treatment, they were simply forgotten. It was the scale of the carnage of the First World War that changed all of this. And it was the Reverend David Railton who-100 years ago-changed it.
One evening in July 1916, a weary Reverend Railton returned to his billet near Armentieres.
The Battle of the Somme had begun on the first of the month and the casualty list was already in the tens of thousands. Railton, a British military chaplain caring for soldiers in need and burying deceased comrades had never been busier.
“I came back from the line at dusk,” he later remembered, “We had just laid to rest the mortal remains of a comrade. I went to a billet in front of Erkingham, near Armentieres. At the back of the billet was a small garden, and in the garden only six paces from the house, there was a grave. At the head of the grave there stood a rough cross of white wood. On the cross was written in deep black-pencilled letters, ‘An Unknown British Soldier’ and in brackets beneath, ‘of the Black Watch.’ It was dusk and no one was near, except some officers in the billet playing cards. I remember how still it was. Even the guns seemed to be resting.
How that grave caused me to think!… But, who was he, and who were they [his folk]?… Was he just a laddie…? There was no answer to those questions, nor has there ever been yet. So, I thought and thought and wrestled in thought. What can I do to ease the pain of father, mother, brother, sister, sweetheart, wife and friend? Quietly and gradually there came out of the mist of thought this answer clear and strong, ‘Let this body – this symbol of him – be carried reverently over the sea to his native land.’ And I was happy for about five or ten minutes.”
Initially that is as far as Railton’s idea went. The war went on. Even before the armistice, there was the question of what to do with all of the dead. There were simply too many to bring home. As early as 1915 the decision had been made that the dead would stay where they fell. Their graves would be cared for by the Graves Registration Commission. At first this moratorium was to last until the end of hostilities. As casualties mounted, however, it was extended in perpetuity. None of the dead would be repatriated. On May 21, 1917, the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission received its royal charter. The newly formed IWGC would be responsible for creating and maintaining cemeteries containing remains of nearly a million British Empire dead.
At the time the work of the commission was revolutionary and highly controversial. The dead would be buried without reference to rank, class or distinction and they would rest under headstones, not crosses, of uniform shape and size. Many families of the deceased were upset that only the wealthy would be able to travel to the overseas cemeteries. As one grieving mother wrote, “The country took him, the country should bring him back.”
As an answer to this criticism, on the first anniversary of the armistice in November 1919, the Cenotaph, which means empty tomb in Greek, was constructed in Whitehall. Constructed of wood and plaster, the Cenotaph was only meant to be a temporary memorial for a one-time event. So overwhelming was the response, however, that it quickly became clear that Remembrance Sunday, with its two-minutes silence and march past of veterans, would become an annual commemoration. Plans were quickly put in place to construct a more permanent copy of the Cenotaph in stone. It was intended that the new memorial would be dedicated in time for the second anniversary of the armistice on November 11, 1920.
By this time Railton was the vicar of a small parish church in Margate. Even though he was busy with his civilian ministry, he was haunted by the war and his memories of that unknown soldier buried behind his billet. He was also aware of the hurt tens of thousands of people felt at not being able to visit the grave of a loved one. At his wife’s urging, he decided to write to Bishop Herbert Ryle, the Dean of Westminster Abbey, with his idea of bringing one soldier back to Britain to serve as a representative of all those who remined buried in overseas cemeteries. This “unknown warrior” could be given a national burial at the Abbey, which Railton called, “the Parish Church of the Empire.”
Ryle was supportive of Railton’s idea and approached King George V. Fearing that such a ceremony two years after the Armistice would simply open old wounds, at first the king was opposed. Prime Minister Lloyd George, however, was strongly supportive of Railton and Ryle’s idea. As the prime minister said, “Nations must justify mass killings if only to support the feelings of the bereaved and sanity of the survivors.” Eventually, after strong advocacy on Lloyd George’s part, the king came around to the idea.
Things now moved quickly, and by October King George V agreed that the selection and internment of an unknown warrior should go ahead. On November 7, parties of men returned to the battlefields of the Western Front and exhumed the remains of four (some accounts say six) unidentified soldiers, placed them in plain coffins and brought them to St. Pol-sur-Ternoise, France. It was in a temporary chapel at St. Pol that Brigadier General L.J. Wyatt, the commander of British forces in France and Flanders, made the selection. The chosen body was sent, with great ceremony, to Boulogne, France and, from there, to Dover and eventually London. On November 11, 1920, the Unknown Warrior was carried on a caisson past the Cenotaph honouring the nearly one-million British and Commonwealth dead of the Great War before being laid to rest with suitable ceremony at Westminster Abbey. It is estimated that while the coffin lay in state in the Abbey nearly a half-million people came to pay their respects. On the same day, in Paris a similar ceremony was conducted at the Arce de Triumphe for La tombe du Soldat inconnu-a French unknown soldier.
A week after the ceremonies, Lloyd George wrote to Edwin Lutyens, who had designed The Cenotaph, “The memorial has become a national shrine, not only for the British Isles, but also for the whole Empire. The Cenotaph, it may be said, is the token of our mourning as a nation; the Grave of the Unknown Warrior is a token or our mourning as individuals.”
As a sign of respect, almost one year later on October 17, 1921, General John J. Pershing, the commander of U.S. forces during World War I, was in Westminster Abby for a very special ceremony. Accompanying him was an honor guard of 20 officers and 450 men hand-picked from the American Army of Occupation as well as 25 officers and 50 seamen from USS Olympia, which had been Admiral George Dewey’s flagship during the Spanish American War and was now on its way to France to recover an American unknown soldier. Pershing was there to confer the Medal of Honor on the Unknown Warrior. A prayer given at the end of the ceremony said, in part, “O Almighty god, we offer to thee our thankful praise for all the heroic lives which have sealed the unwritten covenant, or our common brotherhood and we pray thee that the two great peoples of America and Great Britain may ever go forward charged with this high privilege of the stewardship of the liberties of mankind.” America’s highest award for valor is hung by the tomb to this day and seeing it hanging there during my own visit had inspired me to find out more about these events.
One of those who had been moved by the selection and internment of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abby was Hamilton Fish III; in November 1920 a newly elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives. During the war Fish had served as a white officer in the African American 369th Infantry Regiment, the famed “Harlem Hell fighters.”
Like many, Fish had been deeply affected by the war, and the loss of more than 100,000 young Americans. He was concerned that even though bereaved families in the United States could choose to bring their loved one’s home, 31,000 American soldiers remained buried in France and with the battlefields so far away, it was unlikely that families would be able to visit the graves of the deceased. He was also concerned that given the distance to the battlefields, it would be easy for people at home to forget the service and sacrifice of American servicemen during the war.
With news stories about the tomb of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey in the newspapers, and no doubt with his own memories of the war in the back of his mind, Fish hit upon the idea of a suitable way to honor America’s fallen. On December 21, 1920-100 years ago this month-he introduced House Resolution 67, the purpose of which was to, “Bring home the body of an unknown American warrior who in himself represents no section, creed or race in the late war and who typifies moreover, the soul of America and the supreme sacrifice of the heroic dead.” The selected unknown American soldier would be interred in a tomb located in the Memorial Amphitheatre of Arlington National Cemetery. On his last day in office, March 4, 1921, President Woodrow Wilson signed Fish’s legislation into law.
On Memorial Day 1921, at the city hall in Chalons-sur Marne, France, Sergeant, and combat veteran, Edward F. Younger stood before four caskets and, after some deliberation, placed a sprig of white roses on one of the caskets. Once the selection had been made, the casket was prepared for shipment to the United States on USS Olympia.
The remains arrived in Washington, D.C. on November 9, 1921, and laid in state in the Capitol Rotunda until Armistice Day, November 11, when they were solemnly transported on a caisson the five miles to Arlington National Cemetery. As in Britain, the ceremonies were suitably solemn and witnessed by tens of thousands of people. Kirke Simpson later wrote in his Pulitzer Prize winning story, “The Warrior’s Requiem,”
Under the wide and starry skies of his own homeland America’s unknown dead from France sleeps tonight, a soldier home from the wars. Alone, he lies in the narrow cell of stone that guards his body; but his soul has entered into the spirit that is America. Wherever liberty is held close in men’s hearts, the honor and the glory and the pledge of high endeavor poured out over this nameless one of fame will be told and sung by Americans for all time. Scrolled across the marble arch of the memorial raised to American soldier and sailor dead, everywhere, which stands like a monument behind his tomb, runs this legend: “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”
In a first, President Warren G. Harding’s speech at the ceremony was broadcast live to huge crowds in New York City and San Francisco through the use of a “Bell Loud Talker: A Loud speaking telephone.” As part of the internment ceremony, the U.S. Medal of Honor was conferred upon the Unknown Soldier. In addition, among the foreign decorations placed with the remains were the Victoria Cross, Great Britain’s highest decoration for valor.
I am so glad I made that unscheduled visit to Westminster Abbey that day. Not only was it a moving experience but it reminded me, yet again, of the very special connection between Great Britain and the United States. Long may it remain so.
To find out more:
A fascinating account of Railton and the birth of the Unknow Soldier idea can be found in:
The Flag: The Story of Reverend David Railton MC and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, by Andrew Richards
For more on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier see:
Sacred Duty: A Soldier’s Tour at Arlington National Cemetery, by Tom Cotton
The full text of Kirke Simpson’s moving, “The Warrior’s Requiem,” can be found at: