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Unknown Soldiers: From Anonymity to the Holiest of Military Shrines.

Honor guard marching in front of the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetary.
Honor Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns.2

A muted bugle sounds as heads are bowed and warriors bid farewell to a fallen comrade. This is a scene that regrettably has been done again and again since the dawn of time.

Sometimes the terror of war renders unknown the identity of its victims. For millennia their remains were interred anonymously,1 often on battlefields far from home. Today the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery honors their memory and that of all who sacrificed everything for our freedom. This journey from obscure anonymity to the holiest of military shrines began in the garden of a small cottage amidst the battlefields of World War I France.3

France 1916. When war broke out in Europe, German troops sliced through Belgium and advanced to the outskirts of Paris. Their goal was to knock France out of the war quickly so they could turn their full effort to the massive Russian frontier and army. Bloody fighting pushed them back and the armies dug in for a vicious war of attrition that was to consume more than 14 million civilian and military4 lives over the next four years.

David Railton in uniform.
David Railton.5

British forces established headquarters in northeast France at Armentières near the Belgian border. In January 1916 Reverend David Railton took up duties as a British Army chaplain. The work was frightful — on one occasion he spent four days supervising a battlefield search for the remains of dead soldiers, his own commanding officer being one of them. And he sought no refuge in his clerical collar, exposing himself to the same dangers as fighting troops, including mustard gas and shelling. He was awarded the Military Cross for saving the lives of an officer and two soldiers at the Battle of the Somme.

The Unknown Soldier. One evening on returning from the line Railton spotted a makeshift grave behind a cottage. He went to see who it was and found a white wooden cross bearing the hand lettered words “An Unknown British Soldier.”

Waving American flag.

Railton later described the eerie stillness: No one was near except some officers playing cards in the cottage. Even the guns were quiet, as though to give the gunners time for tea. The quietness brought reflection and a vision: “Let this body — this symbol of him — be carried reverently over the sea to his native land.”6 The thought remained with Railton.

London 1920. Back home Railton returned to his pulpit, but the memory of the unknown soldier lingered. He thought there should be someplace in England where bereaved families could go to remember loved ones whose last resting place was not known. Finally in August 1920 he wrote to the Dean of Westminster Abbey suggesting that an unknown soldier be buried at the Abbey as a representative of all who had lost their lives in the war.

Tomb of the unknown soldier at Westminster Abbey in November 1920.
Grave of the Unknown at Westminster Abbey with Railton’s Flag.8

The idea was approved by the King and Prime Minister and implementation proceeded quickly. The body of an unknown soldier was exhumed and brought to London.

On November 11, 1920, the second anniversary of the Armistice ending the war, a coffin bearing the unknown soldier was placed on a gun carriage and drawn through the streets of London to the dedication of a war memorial at Whitehall. Then it proceeded to Westminster Abbey with the King and other dignitaries following.7

The coffin was buried at the Abbey. The grave filled with earth brought from the battlefields and a temporary stone was placed over it. Then it was covered with wreaths and the flag Reverend Railton had carried with him for burials and battlefield services throughout the war.

Memorializing Unknown Soldiers Worldwide. Railton’s idea struck a chord in a world horrified by the human cost of war. France buried its unknown soldier at the Arc de Triomphe on the same day Britain dedicated the memorial at Westminster. On March 4, 1921, the U.S. Congress authorized an American memorial. Later that year, a tomb was dedicated at Arlington National Cemetery on the third anniversary of the Armistice. Wikipedia lists 50 countries with similar memorials.9

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Reverend Railton’s vision of honoring departed warriors through the grave of an unknown comrade continues. When Queen Elizabeth II's mother married the future King George VI in 1923, she placed her bridal bouquet on the grave of the unknown at Westminster in honor of her brother, who had died in France. This tradition has been observed at British royal weddings ever since, most recently in 2018 when Meghan Markle sent her bouquet to the Westminster memorial.

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  1. For example, there is a monument in Arlington National Cemetery over a mass grave of unknown Civil War soldiers. See Civil War Unknowns Monument in Wikipedia.
  2. Image from Charlsy Panzino, “Unknowns” documentary debuts online, on DVD for Veterans Day, Military Times web site (Nov. 2, 2016).
  3. Information for this article come from John Railton, Behind the Unknown Warrior, Freemasonry Today (Sept. 4, 2014); Tony Rennell, Heroic padre whose crusade means Britain’s lost Tommies will NEVER be forgotten thanks to the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, The Daily Mail (Nov. 10, 2017); and Unknown Warrior on the Westminster Abbey’s web site.
  4. See World War I Casualties in Wikipedia.
  5. Image from Tony Rennell, Heroic padre whose crusade means Britain’s lost Tommies will NEVER be forgotten thanks to the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, The Daily Mail (Nov. 10, 2017).
  6. Description from David Railton, The Origin of the Unknown Warrior’s Grave, Our Empire, Nov. 1931, Vol VII, no. 8 as related in John Railton, Behind the Unknown Warrior, Freemasonry Today (Sept. 4, 2014). John Railton is the son of a cousin and friend of David Railton.
  7. A video of the procession is available on YouTube. It was digitized from a British Pathé newsreel of the event.
  8. Image posted on Twitter by Andrew Richards, author of The Flag, a biography of David Railton.
  9. Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Wikipedia.

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Updated May 21, 2018.