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The Enduring Power of the Unknown Soldier

Dennis Ellam looks back at the origins of the tomb that has been a vital part of our national remembrance since 1920

In the 11th month of every year, on Remembrance Sunday, the nation pays homage to its war dead.

And rightly so… when even crowned heads are bowed, and thousands parade past in ever-greater numbers, then it’s an enduring and very public reaffirmation that sacrifices have not been forgotten across the generations.

But even more poignant, surely, than the ceremony centred around the Cenotaph is the memorial that lies just a short walk away – the tomb of the Unknown Warrior.

A solitary soldier who perished among his comrades on the battlefield, his identity forever a mystery, his rank quite irrelevant, his life cut short like all those 750,000 British and Commonwealth lives lost in World War One. Could there be a more fitting and eloquent reminder of the true nature of conflict and remembrance?

Whoever he was, rich or poor, the Unknown Warrior lies at the spiritual heart of the nation, inside the entrance of Westminster Abbey: “They buried him among the kings because he had done good toward God and toward His house” reads the inscription on his marble gravestone (the only one in the Abbey on which it is forbidden to step).

We will never discover any detail about him. The very few who might have been in on the secret have long since taken it to their own graves. But the story of how he was selected, amid rising public bitterness that persuaded the government to bring home an Unknown Warrior and grant him State honours, tells us a great deal about how Britain was changed by the First World War. In fact, it was exactly 100 years ago – in 1916, midway through the war – when the idea first began to take shape.

An army padre, the Rev David Railton, just back from the front line, was back at his unit’s billet, gazing at a newly-dug grave marked with a crude wooden cross and a handwritten epitaph: “An Unknown British Soldier”. It left a lasting impression on the Rev Railton.

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Have you visited the tomb of the unknown soldier? Does his story have a profound effect on you?

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