*** DEBUG END ***

Word from Wormingford

11 November 2016

Ronald Blythe considers the pathos of the Unknown Warrior

THERE is no dwindling of the Remembrance Day congregation; no lessening of these Georgian elegiacs. My last year’s poppy lies in a drawer, and I recall how the live emblems went on blooming throughout the carnage of the Western Front. And how the nightingales went on singing, but how young men did not go on living. My father, who had returned from Gallipoli, did not attend these rites. His medals lay in a drawer, the experiences alongside them; for it did not occur to him to tell them to us.

But for many years now I have laid a wreath, and said the sad words “They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old”, thinking how these men would have preferred to have grown old rather than lie in a forest of gravestones.

Long ago, I was told how the Vicar of Margate, David Railton, who had been a padre in Flanders, initiated the burial of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. The congregation was chiefly composed of private mourners. There was no foreign representation. One hundred VCs lined the nave. The service was brief, and The Times said it was the most beautiful, the most touching, and the most impressive that this island had ever seen.

The grave had been dug just inside the west entrance of the abbey, and at the feet of Chatham. It was dug deep into the sand of Thorney Island, and there was no trace of any previous burial. After the committal, the grave was filled in with 100 sandbags of earth brought from the main battlefields, and a large slab of Tournai marble was laid over it.

For a brief time, it was inscribed “An unknown warrior”, but the Dean of Westminster could not leave it at this. He said that in 50 years’ time “they will want to know who the ‘unknown warrior’ was”. So he drew up the inscription for the present word-packed memorial.

After the funeral came the homage. In five days, more than a million peole visited the grave, and left 100,000 wreaths at the Cenotaph, which was almost obscured by flowers. The French buried their unknown warrior on the same day. They had lost one-and-a-quarter million men, and, unlike Britain, had had great tracts of their country reduced to a shambles.

In 1921, the present gravestone of black marble from Belgium, crowded with texts by Dean Ryle, was laid over the grave in the abbey. A great day, the Dean wrote in his diary, for Westminster Abbey.

The anonymous grave soon assumed precedence over all the mortuary magnificence which crammed the abbey. Its pathos was irresistible. And remains so.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear below your letter unless requested otherwise.

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


ViSIt our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)