THE story of the Grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey has been told many times. No visitor to the Abbey will have failed to see it, always surrounded by poppies, lying in the very centre of the processional way into the Abbey, but always reverently skirted by processions and visitors.
Until 1953, it was surmounted, high on a pillar, by the Union flag, known as the Padre’s Flag, that David Railton, army chaplain for most of the First War, used again and again to cover the body of a soldier whose funeral he was conducting. The flag covered the body of the Unknown Warrior when it was brought to the Abbey, and now hangs in a side chapel near by; but its presentation to the Abbey was a notable occasion in 1921, and even in its present place it is eloquent testimony to the link between the Grave and the modest chaplain whose imagination and initiative brought this monument of national remembrance into being.
The Flag and the Grave make up an important part of this book; but the author has done much more than tell their story. He has given an account of Railton’s life — securely based on evidence, but elaborated (as the author admits) with a little “creative licence” — both before and after his extremely demanding service as chaplain at the Western Front.
Railton, when Vicar of Margate, had deep concern for the plight of thousands of ex-servicemen in the years after the war — he even spent a week or so disguised as a tramp to get first-hand experience of their deprivations — and Richards has allowed his reticent and compassionate character to show through by good use of his letters and other sources. He has also set his career in the context of the progress of the war through the calamitous battles that he witnessed; indeed, the book is a chronicle of one, and sometimes the crucial, sector of the fighting, including Vimy Ridge and the battle of the Somme.
As such, the book is an attractive addition to the mass of literature about the First World War and about the tasks and frequent heroism of the chaplains. It would have benefited from some more rigorous editing: the author’s habit of interweaving different periods of Railton’s life is sometimes confusing, and there is also a lack of balance in the contents — a whole chapter is devoted to the court-martial and execution of a deserter, in which Railton had only a small involvement, and the detail in which some of the campaigns are recounted is not always relevant to Railton’s story.
But the author is a retired soldier of 23 years’ service, and one senses his keen interest in military history. He has also done patient research in records relating to chaplaincy. The present intense interest in the First World War will assure the book of an appreciative readership.
Canon Anthony Harvey is a former Sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey.
The Flag: The story of Revd David Railton MC and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior
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