The Unknown Warrior
A face with numberless names,
as countless as the frozen tears of winter’s first winds.
Creating the Centena
In Westminster Abbey, ‘the Parish Church of the Empire’, as it was called, ‘…rests the body of a British Warrior, unknown by name or rank, brought from France to lie among the most illustrious of the land’. He was buried on the 11th November, 1920, with a service that included elements which are reserved only for the funeral of a monarch.
After The Great War, there was a public debate. Rich families wanted to bring their officer-class sons home to rest in family mausoleums. Poor families, of private soldiers, could not. It was decided that all the fallen would be buried with their comrades near where they fell. An idea, however, was realised that one body, of an unidentified soldier, would be brought from a battlefield somewhere in France, to provide a focus for the grief of an empire.
Brigadier General Wyatt, General Officer Commanding of the British Forces in France and Flanders, received instructions from the War Committee, which he passed on to Lt. Col. Williams, for the exhumation of four nameless soldiers from the areas of the Somme, Aisne, Arras and Ypres. On the night of 7th November 1920, four parties were sent out, each comprising one officer and two other ranks, armed with a shovel and a sack and driving a field ambulance. No group knew the whereabouts of the other. At the Military HQ at Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise, in a make-shift chapel, Reverend George Kendall O.B.E. received the remains. There, Brigadier General Wyatt made his selection, touching one of the covered bodies. The great theatre that was his funeral began, setting a precedent for Remembrance ever since.
I could have chosen a relative and taken an English, German, Irish, Indian or Canadian point of view, but they were not known as warriors to me. More personal to me was knowing what it is to hold a skull in my hands, to stare into empty sockets and wonder, ‘Whose face was this?’ I was an archaeologist, an osteologist, to be precise.
I wanted my centena to invoke the spirit of a warrior – stalwart, stoic, staunch; to evoke the true meaning of the word ‘poignant’ – sharp or pungent in taste or smell; to provoke the shock and shiver of a man traumatised.
The voice moves, from detached to desperate. Rudyard Kipling’s three words Known Unto God are in answer to the question, ‘Whose face was this?’; initially, a resigned ‘God knows!’ then a ferocious plea for peace, ‘God knows!’
This is a man whose mind is blown. His eyes, now empty, saw things we do not want to imagine. God knows him and, now, in this state, he knows God and this is his authority to rebuke us.
Somebody’s brother, somebody’s son, stifled in a grave of battlefield mud, even now, fights on.
Thanks to Paul Cornish, Pamela Linden and Liz Robertson of the Imperial War Museum; Mel Donnelly and Peter Francis of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission; Ed Prichard, Lisa Andrews and John Simmons of 26.
Lives of the First World War
You can find out more about the people involved in the ceremony of The Unknown Warrior here at Lives of the First World War
26 is a group of writers whose purpose is to inspire a greater love of words in business and in life.