THE tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey exerts a strong pull for many. There is a poignant romance about the story: a single body, one of the tens of thousands “known only to God”, is buried in a grave containing soil from France.
A slab of Belgian marble bears an inscription composed by the then Dean of Westminster, Herbert Ryle, commemorating its representation of the multitudes who died “for God, for King and country, for loved ones, home and Empire, for the sacred cause of justice and the freedom of the world”. It has great national symbolism. Ever since the wedding of the then Duke of York and Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who lost her brother in the First World War, royal brides have always left their bouquets on the tomb as a mark of respect.
The memorial was dedicated with great ceremony in November 1920. Huge crowds of mourners filled the streets to mark the moment. From the start, there was speculation about who the soldier was and how the body was chosen. This is the crux of The Name Beneath the Stone, which weaves together the stories of a number of those who lived through the War and a modern-day researcher who wants to find out more.
Characters include the recruit who is prepared to challenge authority and seems to live a charmed life. There is the officer whose parents’ confidence in the war and its purpose dwindles as they wait anxiously at home. We read about one of those charged with the task of exhuming a body in France: he is instructed to ensure that there is nothing to identify the remains. Four coffins are retrieved, and a single one is selected at random for burial.
Then there are Sarah and her historian friend James, who are trying to uncover a family mystery; James is warned off when he gets close to the truth on the grounds that uncovering the secret of the Unknown Warrior might damage the Establishment.
The author is a retired Army officer and his background means that he has detailed understanding of the soldier’s life. The research that has gone into the book is impressive. Fact and fiction are skilfully woven together, and there is much to commend. But the novel suffers at times from clunky dialogue and narrative overload. It is a shame: there is a compelling story here, and it could have been much improved by good editing.
Sarah Meyrick is a freelance writer and novelist.
The Name Beneath the Stone: Secret of the Unknown Warrior
Universe Press £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90