As the nation prepares to pay tribute to our fallen service men and women in all wars on Remembrance Day, there is another poignant and profound anniversary to recall this year: the centenary of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, in Westminster Abbey.
It is an anniversary that has particular importance for the Royal Army Chaplains’ Museum, which is under construction at the Defence Academy, although few will be aware of why it is so significant.
The reason? Among the museum’s most treasured artefacts are the small, unassuming wooden cross and altar candlesticks carried to the trenches in the First World War by army chaplain, the Reverend David Railton MC, who suggested the idea of a national monument for the thousands of unknown dead.
David Railton stood with the troops shoulder-to-shoulder at battles including High Wood, the Aisne and Passchendaele. He supported the soldiers in difficult moments, he buried the fallen, comforted the wounded, wrote to the families of the missing and killed, and helped the survivors to remember and mark the loss of their comrades. He received the Military Cross for rescuing an officer and two men under heavy fire on the Somme.
He thought of repatriating the body of an unidentified fallen comrade from the battlefields after seeing the grave of an unnamed soldier of the Black Watch in a back garden near Armentières. As he reflected on the sad scene, it became clear to him that much distress was suffered by those who would never know where their husband, father or son was buried or had fallen.
Eventually, on Armistice Day 1920, David Railton’s vision was realised when the coffin of the Unknown Warrior, covered by his own wartime Union flag, was laid to rest with full honours in Westminster Abbey, in the presence of King George V, field marshals, admirals and the nation’s great and good. The story of David Railton and the Unknown Warrior is told in full on Westminster Abbey’s website (www), including his own description of the solemn ceremony (www).
The simple, 5-inch-high cross used by Rev Railton on the Western Front has his name and unit in his own handwriting in pencil on the base. As an article about Rev Railton (www) in the MailOnline states:
“Throughout his war service he had carried in his pack a Union Jack, folded tightly alongside a small wooden cross and two candlesticks.”
He used the Union flag as an altar cloth for front line services and to cover the remains of scores of soldiers killed in battle on the Western Front before they were buried. He thought of the blood-tinged flag 8-ft-wide flag almost as a sacred symbol. It still hangs today in Westminster Abbey, close to the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, as it has for the past century.
As for the cross and candlesticks, like so many other humble religious objects carried by padres on campaigns over the centuries, they found their way back to the home of chaplaincy. The Armed Forces’ Chaplaincy Centre (AFCC) moved from Amport House to Beckett House, at Shrivenham, earlier this year. According to Padre Andrew Totten, who was until recently Principal of the AFCC, they will be given pride of place in the new Royal Army Chaplains’ Museum which is due to open in 2021.
Padre Andrew sees a parallel between what David Railton recognised as the bereaved relatives’ desperation for a grave - somewhere, at which to mourn their loved one - and what he observed as a chaplain on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Unlike in the First World War, personnel who were killed in Afghanistan and Iraq were repatriated to the UK, but their comrades in arms felt the need to remember them somehow, to create their own, very personal memorials.
“Soldiers who lost comrades felt the need to create tributes, and even symbolic graves, for their fallen friends. Many a small patrol base had a corner for memorials where soldiers could reflect on their own loss,” he said.
Padre Geoff Withers, Padre Andrew’s successor as Principal of the AFCC, explained that Beckett House has another wonderful and significant link with the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. Hanging in pride of place in the Grand Hall is the magnificent painting by Frank Salisbury depicting soldiers from across what was then the British Empire standing in reverence at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. In the bottom corner of the painting rests the wedding bouquet of the Queen Mother; a poignant symbol that was replicated last week by her daughter, Her Majesty the Queen, when during an act of remembrance, a bouquet of her wedding flowers was laid by her Equerry on the corner of the tomb in Westminster Abbey.