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Word from Wormingford

by
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.

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