This morning we marked Remembrance Day by holding our annual Remembrance Service. We were very fortunate to have Lt Col Fraser McLeman (Commanding Officer of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards) and Will Lauder (Strathallan sixth form pupil) join us to speak and play the trumpet respectively. Having served myself, this is a special time for me and I decided to talk to the children this morning about the story of the Unknown Soldier, and I think it is worth repeating here:
On 07 November 1920, in strictest secrecy, four unidentified British bodies were collected from four temporary battlefield cemeteries in France and Belgium. The soldiers’ bodies were taken by ambulance to the British Army Headquarters in France. Once there, the bodies were draped with Union Jacks, sentries were posted and Brigadier-General Wyatt and Colonel Gell selected one body at random. The other three were reburied. A French Honour Guard was selected and stood by the coffin of the chosen soldier overnight.
On the morning of 08 November, a specially designed coffin made of English oak from the grounds of Hampton Court arrived and the Unknown Soldier was placed inside. On top was placed a crusader’s sword taken from the private collection of King George V and a shield on which was inscribed:
"A British Warrior who fell in the GREAT WAR 1914-1918 for King and Country".
On 09 November, the Unknown Soldier was taken by horse-drawn carriage through Guards of Honour, the sound of tolling bells and bugle calls to the quayside in Boulogne. There, he was saluted by Marshal Foche and loaded onto the British warship, HMS Vernon, bound for Dover. The coffin stood on the deck covered in wreaths, surrounded by the French Honour Guard.
On arrival at Dover, the Unknown Soldier was met with a nineteen gun salute - something that was normally only reserved for Field Marshals, then a special train took the coffin to Victoria Station, London where it remained overnight.
On the morning of 11 November 1920, two years to the day after the war had ended, the body of the Unknown Soldier was drawn in a procession through the streets of London to the Cenotaph. This new war memorial on Whitehall was then unveiled by George V. At 1100 there was a two-minute silence, and the body was taken to nearby Westminster Abbey where it was buried, passing through a guard of honour of 100 holders of the Victoria Cross. In a particularly poignant gesture, the grave was filled with earth from the French battlefields, and the black marble stone on top was Belgian. And at the exact time Britain was interring its Unknown Soldier, France was doing the same - burying its Soldat Inconnu at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
The idea of the Unknown Soldier was thought of by an army Padre called David Railton who had served on the front line during the Great War. It was his intention that the relatives of the more than half a million combatants whose bodies had not been identified could believe that the Unknown Soldier might be their lost husband, father, brother or son...a truly democratic notion.
The idea that the Unknown Soldier could have been literally anyone, an Earl’s son or a farm labourer’s son, really caught the public mood. An estimated one and a quarter million people visited the Abbey to see the grave in the first week alone. Ninety years on, the Unknown Soldier continues to be honoured, by the public and royalty alike.
And THIS is the reason why we wear poppies. Not glorify war, but to remember - with humility - the enormous sacrifices that were made both by those involved in the fighting but, crucially, also by their families at home. And not just in the First World War, but in every war and conflict where our service personnel have fought to ensure the liberty and freedoms that we now take for granted.
This is why, every year, on 11 November, we wear a poppy and remember the Unknown Soldier.
Lest we forget…
John F Gilmour