This year we have remembered the ending of World War 2 seventy-five years ago, although many planned events had to be cancelled due to the pandemic. Dame Vera Lynn died in June aged 103 and she must have had so many wartime memories. She was known as ‘The Forces’ Sweetheart’ and her popular songs are still instantly recognisable.
The Cenotaph in Whitehall was erected as a tribute to those, both men and women, who had died in the recent war. It was decided that a permanent memorial should be erected to honour all the dreadful sacrifices and tragedies. As ‘cenotaph’ means a tribute to those killed whose remains are elsewhere, this was an obvious choice.
Edward Lutyens, an architect, created a temporary cenotaph of wood and plaster for a parade on the anniversary of Armistice Day but this was replaced in 1920 with the Portland Stone Cenotaph in Whitehall (pictured on next page).
Meanwhile, an army chaplain in France had noticed numerous graves with a roughly erected cross and an epitaph, sometimes written in pencil, “To an unknown British soldier”. Saddened by this he proposed to “Top Brass” that an unidentified soldierwho had been killed in France should be exhumed and taken back to London as a symbol of all those who had died. This idea was taken up, so on the night of 8 November 1918 various bodies from different battlefields were exhumed and taken to a village chapel near Boulogne on stretchers draped with Union Flags and there two senior military officers selected one randomly. The remains of this soldier were put in a plain coffin that was transferred to the nearby castle where it was guarded. An oak casket (with wood from Hampton Court) banded in iron and surmounted by a mediaeval sword which had been chosen from the royal collection by George V was made. In addition, the casket bore the inscription:
“A British soldier who fell in the Great War 1914 – 1918 for King and Country.”
Next, the journey to England began with a brass band escort to the harbour where it was escorted by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, Marshal Foch, before being shipped by HMS Verdun to Dover. Six destroyers accompanied it across The Channel and a 19 gun-salute signalled its arrival. The casket was taken to Victoria Station and then to Westminster Abbey. No doubt many of you will have seen its resting place at the beginning of the nave, so you will know that it is forbidden to walk on the area. The casket was sprinkled with French battlefield soil and covered with silk.
Meanwhile, in France, a French unknown warrior was buried ceremoniously under the Parisian Arc D’Triomphe and eventually this spot was covered with black marble. These two soldiers represented all who had died as “unknown” and surely many families must have speculated whether their ‘missing person’ could have been the one.
Sometime later in 1923, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon married the Duke of York in the Abbey. She had lost a brother in the war, too, so respectfully she put her wedding bouquet on the tomb. This tradition is still upheld by the family. This young couple, of course, became King George V1 and Queen Elizabeth.
There have been so many deaths and tragedies in this Covid-19 year and our hearts go out to all who have been grieving on this Remembrance Sunday. Jesus said, “Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted.” Matthew 5:4.
“We will remember them.”