Home History of Seaham - Stories and remarkable and memorable events in the history of Seaham Seaham and World War 1 The Unknown Warrior

The Unknown Warrior



On September 7th 1920, in strictest secrecy four unidentified British bodies were exhumed from temporary battlefield cemeteries at Ypres, Arras, the Asine and the Somme. None of the soldiers who did the digging were told why. The bodies were taken by field ambulance to GHQ at St-Pol-sur-Ternoise. There the bodies were draped with the Union Flag. Sentries were posted and Brigadier-General Wyatt and a Colonel Gell selected one body at Random. A French honour guard was selected, who stood by the coffin overnight. In the morning of the 8th a specially designed coffin made of oak from the grounds of Hampton Court was brought and the Unknown Warrior placed inside. On top was placed a Crusaders Sword and a shield on which was inscribed

'A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918

For King and Country'.

On the 9th of November the Unknown Warrior was taken by horse drawn carriage through Guards of Honour and the sound of tolling bells and bugle
calls to the Quayside. There it was saluted by Marechal Foche and loaded onto HMS Verdun bound for Dover. The coffin stood on the deck covered in wreaths and surrounded by the French Honour Guard.

On arrival at Dover the Unknown Warrior was greeted with a 19-gun salute, normally only reserved for field marshals. He then travelled by special train to Victoria station London. He stayed there overnight and on the morning of the 11th of November he was taken to Westminster Abbey.

The Idea of the Unknown Soldier was thought of by a Padre called David Railton who had served at the front during the Great War and it was the Union Flag he used as an altar cloth at the front, that had been draped over the coffin. The intention was that all relatives of the 517,773 combatants whose bodies had not been identified could believe that the Unknown Warrior could very well be their lost Husband, Father, Brother or Son. Every year on the 11th of November the nation remembers the Unknown Warrior.


Priest and Soldier - Reverend David Railton.

The concept of the Grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey was inspired by the Reverend David Railton M.C. (1884-1955) who was a curate in Folkestone in Kent before becoming a chaplain to the 2nd Battalion of the Hon. Artillery Company on the Western Front during the 1914-1918 war.

In 1916, in a back garden at Erkingham near Armentières in France, he noticed a grave with a rough cross on which were pencilled the words 'An Unknown British Soldier'. After the war he became vicar of Margate in Kent and in August 1920 he wrote to Herbert Ryle, Dean of Westminster, suggesting a permanent memorial to the fallen of the Great War who had no known grave. King George V and the government, rather reluctantly at first, supported the idea and on 11th November 1920 David Railton saw his dream become reality.

A year later, the Union flag which he had used during the war to drape over his makeshift altars – and over the bodies of soldiers killed in action - was donated to the Abbey. The Padre's Flag, as it is known, now hangs in St George's Chapel close to the Warrior's grave.

Today the Grave of the Unknown Warrior is one of the most famous of the Abbey's memorials. Visiting Heads of State include in their itinerary a wreath laying at the grave.

David was the son of George Scott Railton (died 1913), a Commissioner in the Salvation Army, and his wife Marianne (Parkyn) and was educated at Oxford and Liverpool. He was ordained in 1908 and served his curacy in Liverpool before moving to Ashford in Kent. From 1914 he was curate at Folkestone. In 1916 he was awarded the Military Cross for saving several men under heavy fire. After serving as vicar at Margate he was also vicar of Bolton in Yorkshire, at Shalford in Surrey and St Nicholas in Liverpool. He retired to Inverness-shire in Scotland. His wife was Ruby (Wilson) and they had a son Andrew and four daughters, one of whom, Ruth, was made a Dame for her work with the National Youth Orchestra. On his way home to Scotland in 1955 he accidentally fell from a moving train and died of his injuries.

(Details from Westminster Abbey website)