On Wednesday, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the great and good (or at least some of them) will gather – at a social distance – in Westminster Abbey for a special ceremony.
They will be there, on Armistice Day, to commemorate the centenary of the burial of the Unknown Warrior. They will also be honouring the man who came up with the remarkable idea of honouring one soldier who would represent the millions who lost their lives in the Great War and whose bodies were never found or remained unidentified.
That man was the Reverend David Railton, the son of George Railton whose home town was Arbroath, and who himself was the son of the minister at the town’s St John’s Methodist Church.
David Railton retired to Scotland and is buried in the graveyard at St Bride’s Church in North Ballachulish. Sadly, plans for a service at his graveside had to be cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Kevin Lane, president of the Fort William branch of Royal British Legion Scotland, explained to The Post: “Sadly, because we cannot gather, all our plans to commemorate the centenary of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior have had to be cancelled. We were hoping to gather Legion branches from all over the area for a joint service including a wreath-laying ceremony.”
Railton served as an army chaplain on the Western Front during the First World War, and was awarded the Military Cross in 1916 for saving an officer and two men under heavy fire. It was while serving as a chaplain that he had seen a wooden cross over a grave. Marked on it in pencil was the legend “An Unknown British Soldier”. Profoundly moved that the man had given his life for his country and would never be identified, the padre wrote to Lord Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, who didn’t reply.
It took until 1920 for his plan to gain a backing from the establishment. That summer he contacted Herbert Ryle, the Dean of Westminster, suggesting the unidentified soldier could lie in Westminster Abbey “among the kings”. The Dean wrote to the then King, but George V was initially reluctant to agree, fearing that two years after the ceasefire it would be seen as a belated gesture and might “reopen war wounds which time is generally healing”. George did, however, suggest that Ryle sounded out the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, who readily backed the plan.
At the beginning of November that year, four bodies were exhumed from various battlefields and brought together at a chapel in Arras, France. They were placed in identical plain wooden coffins and covered in Union Jack flags. Then an officer, Brigadier LJ Wyatt, entered the chapel and, with eyes closed, put his hand on one of the coffins. This was to be the chosen soldier whose body would be repatriated while the other soldiers were reburied on French soil. The following morning the soldier’s coffin was placed into a wooden casket made out of the timbers of oak trees from Hampton Court Palace. A crusader’s sword, chosen by George V from the royal collection, was placed on top of it.
On the morning of November 11, 1920, the body of the Unknown Warrior, carried on a gun carriage, was given a state funeral beginning with a procession through the streets of London watched by crowds estimated at 10 or 20 deep. In Whitehall, it halted and George V placed a wreath of bay leaves and red roses on top of it. He then turned and, pressing a button at exactly 11am, released two enormous union flags, which fell to the ground, revealing the new Cenotaph designed by Edwin Lutyens. The Cenotaph also celebrates its centenary this year. The King and his two eldest sons – the future Edward VIII and George VI – walked behind the gun carriage to Westminster Abbey, where the procession, flanked by 100 recipients of the Victoria Cross, halted in the nave and the coffin was placed on the site.
Railton was present at the service and sat near the King and Queen. From his seat he could see the union flag he himself had used at countless funerals he had officiated at on the Western Front, and which had covered the Unknown Warrior’s coffin. Known as the Padre’s Flag it flew above the tomb until 1953 and is still kept at the Abbey. It will play a central role in Wednesday’s ceremony.
The tomb continues to have royal links to this day thanks to a spontaneous gesture made by the late Queen Mother. As Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon (she married the King’s son, Albert, Duke of York in 1923), she entered the Abbey and waited for her procession to begin, one of the clergy in front of her fainted, thus delaying proceedings. Elizabeth left her father’s side and, stooping in front of the tomb, laid her bouquet of white roses and lilies of the valley on the black marble slab.
Those who saw her realised how moved she appeared and surmised she was thinking of her beloved brother Fergus, who was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1914. All subsequent royal brides, including Kate Middeleton and Meghan Markle, have also had their bouquets laid on the tomb and, touchingly, on the day after the Queen Mother’s funeral in 2002, following her wishes, her wreath was sent by the Queen to lie there. And just last week the Queen commemorated the centenary of the burial of the Unknown Warrior by visiting Westminster Abbey.
The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior has become a fixture of British life, with more than 70 visiting heads of state laying a wreath on it over the years. The idea went on to be copied around the globe, from Argentina to Zimbabwe.
Sadly David Railton’s footnote in history more or less disappeared in his lifetime. He officiated in a number of parishes around England before retiring to Scotland in 1945. He and his wife, Ruby, bought a cottage called Ard Rhu, near Onich, and it was returning there in June 1955 that he met a tragic end. Railton had been visiting two of his children in the south of England before catching the overnight sleeper from London to Fort William.
In the morning, Railton was on the train as it neared the platform. The minister was standing in the corridor when someone tried to pass him. As he leaned back, the train lurched over points on the track and he stumbled against the door, which burst open and he fell to his death.
Today he lies in the tranquil churchyard of St Bride’s, beneath a simple stone cross which looks out across to the shores of Loch Linnhe, the view he had enjoyed so much. This week’s commemoration will ensure he is remembered by history.
As Kevin Lane of the British Legion Scotland says: “What he did is so important, as a way of showing the nation’s appreciation for those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the First World War, and other conflicts, but whose bodies remain unidentified. He has helped to keep their memory alive.”
A special service on Armistice Day, Wednesday, November 11, will mark the centenary of the burial of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey.
Live coverage from the Abbey will be presented by Huw Edwards on BBC One from 10.30am during a programme which will also celebrate the centenary of the unveiling of the Cenotaph
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