Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Selecting the Unknown Warrior

One of the Four British Soldiers Exhumed 7 November 1920

It was 99 years ago today, on 7 November 1920, in strictest secrecy, that four unidentified British bodies were exhumed from temporary battlefield cemeteries at Ypres, Arras, the Aisne, and the Somme. The soldiers who did the digging were not told why. The bodies were taken by field ambulance to GHQ at St-Pol-Sur-er-Noise. There the bodies were draped with the Union Jack. Guards were posted, and Brigadier-General Wyatt and Colonel Gell selected one body at random. A French honor guard was selected and stood by the coffin overnight. On the morning of the 8th, a specially designed coffin made of oak from the grounds of Hampton Court was brought and the unknown warrior placed inside. On top was placed a crusader’s sword and a shield on which was inscribed "A British Warrior who fell in the GREAT WAR 1914–1918 for King and Country." On 9 November, the unknown warrior was taken by horse-drawn carriage through guards of honor, through the sound of tolling bells and bugle calls to the quayside.

King George V Places a Wreath on the Coffin

On the quay, it was saluted by General Marshal Foch and loaded onto HMS Vernon bound for Dover. The coffin stood on the deck covered in wreaths and surrounded by the French honor guard. On arrival at Dover, the unknown warrior was greeted with a 19-gun salute, normally only reserved for field marshals. He then traveled by special train to Victoria Station, London. He stayed there overnight and on the morning of 11 November, he was taken to Westminster Abbey. King George V laid a wreath on the coffin and later the same day dedicated the Cenotaph, the nation's principal World War I memorial.

At Westminster Abbey, 11 November 1920

The idea of the Unknown Warrior was thought of by a padre [Chaplain] named David Railton, who had served at the front during the Great War and it was the flag he used as an altar cloth at the front that was draped over the coffin. It was his intention that all relatives of the 517,773 combatants whose bodies had not been identified could believe that the unknown warrior could very well be their lost husband, fiancé, father, brother, son, relative, or friend.

Sources: The Literacy Shed 2018 from
Thanks to Reader Dave Murray for sending us this article.


  1. This was very moving. I believe the same was done for an unknown American soldier. The details on that would make a nice article too.

  2. I have the story of America's Unknown Soldier but plan on posting it (with several photos) in 1921 (100th Anniversary). If you don't wish to wait that long, here's an article:

    Steve Miller

  3. Perhaps the most sobering item of this fine article is the number of unknowns-over 513 thousand!
    A good and quick synopsis of the US selection can be found here:

  4. Great pictures as well as a great story. The draped coffin picture is magnificent.

  5. Were the three bodies that weren't chosen reburied in their original grave sites?