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

Somewhere a muted bugle sounds as solemn heads are bowed and warriors bid farewell to a fallen comrade. This is a scene that unfortunately has been repeated again and again since the dawn of history.

At times the horrors of war rob the departed of their identities. For millennia their remains were interred anonymously,1 often in lonely battlefields far from home. Today their memory and that of all who sacrificed everything for our freedom is honored by the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. This journey from obscure anonymity to the holiest of military shrines began in the garden of a small cottage amidst the World War I battlefields of France.3

France 1916. When war engulfed Europe in August 1914, German troops sliced through Belgium and reached 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. With railways clogged and no trucks available, it was the fabled caravan of Parisian taxis that ferried desparately needed reserves to the front to hold the line at the Marne.4 What followed was a vicious war of attrition that was to consume more than 14 million civilian and military5 lives over the next four years.

David Railton in uniform.
David Railton.6

British headquarters for northeast France were in the town of Armentières near the Belgian border. In January 1916 Reverend David Railton took up duties there 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. One of the bodies they found was that of his own commanding officer. And unlike some chaplains, Railton sought no refuge behind his clerical collar, facing mustard gas and shelling alongside the other troops. 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. Returning from the line one evening, Railton noticed a makeshift grave behind a cottage where some officers were billeted. He went to investigate 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.”7 The moment never left Railton’s mind.

London 1920. Back home Railton returned to his pulpit, but memories of the unknown soldier lingered. He felt there should be someplace in England where bereaved families could go to remember loved ones whose actual resting place would never be 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.9

The King and Prime Minister agreed and implementation proceeded quickly. The body of an unknown soldier was exhumed and brought to London.

On 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. The King and other dignitaries walked behind as an honor guard.8

A grave was prepared inside the Abbey using soil brought to England from various battlefields. The coffin was interred and a temporary stone installed. Finally, the flag Reverend Railton had used in France for wartime burials and battlefield services was placed over the grave.

Memorializing Unknown Soldiers Worldwide. Railton’s idea struck a chord in a world that had just witnessed the human cost of war. France buried its unknown soldier at the Arc de Triomphe on the same day the memorial at Westminster was dedicated. A few months later, the U.S. Congress authorized an American memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. It was dedicated on the third anniversary of the Armistice. Wikipedia lists 50 countries with memorials to unknown soldiers.10

* * * * *

Reverend Railton’s vision continues. When Queen Elizabeth II’s mother married the future King George VI in 1923, she placed her bridal bouquet on the memorial at Westminster in honor of her brother, who had died in France. This tradition has been observed at every British royal wedding since then, most recently by the Duchess of Sussex upon her marriage to Prince Harry.


  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. Peter Sigal, 100 Years Later, Celebrating the Taxis That Saved Paris, N.Y. Times (Feb. 14, 2014).
  5. See World War I Casualties in Wikipedia.
  6. 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).
  7. 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.
  8. A video of the procession is available on YouTube. It was digitized from a British Pathé newsreel of the event.
  9. Image posted on Twitter by Andrew Richards, author of The Flag, a biography of David Railton.
  10. Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Wikipedia.

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Updated May 21, 2018.