Lest We Forget
ABOVE: The original handwritten poem "In Flanders Field," written by John MacRae.
by Alison MacRae
Celtic Guide Magazine
November is a month in which we pay homage to all the war veterans from all the different wars that have been fought.
Have you ever wondered of all the months in the year how did November come to be the month that was picked for remembering those so very unselfish men and women who fought in the wars? What made November so special?
My curiosity was peaked so research started. I found it very interesting and as always it makes you want to say about the wars what our ancestors endured "Lest We Forget."
I hope we never do, as so many gave their lives so that we can live in a free country.
Let me start with the famous John McCrae born in Guelph, Ontario.
John was the grandson of Scottish immigrants from Balmaghie, Kirkcudbrightshire, and the author of the world-famous poem "In Flanders Field". (Proudly, John was an ancestor of my late husband's family).
A close friend of John's was killed during a battle at Ypres, France, on May 2nd 1915. John performed the burial service himself, at which time he noted how the poppies grew around the graves of those who died at Ypres. The next day he composed the poem while sitting in the back of an ambulance at an Advanced Dressing Station.
The day he wrote the poem was May 3rd, 1915. It was crucial to bury the dead quickly as, unfortunately, the amount of people that they had to bury was overwhelming.
The Belgium Government has named this site as the "John McCrae Memorial Site," as this was where John McCrae was buried, on January 28, 1918.
In the Spring of 1915, the Poppy was adopted as a symbol of remembrance. It was inspired by the poem that John McCrae had written: "In Flanders Field".
It was Moina Michael and a Madame Giérin who did work for charities raising money for widows and orphans and veterans, throughout the WWI. Moina Michael had also written a poem in response to the Flanders poem. It was called "We Shall Keep The Faith," in tribute to the opening line of McCrae's poem.
I wondered how many people knew how the laying of the wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier/warrior came about.
The Rev. David Railton was the one that came up with that idea. He was the Chaplain to the 2nd Battalion of the Hon. Artillery Company on the Western Front from 1914 - 1918 during the war. While walking through a graveyard he noticed a marked cross on which was pencilled the words "An Unknown British Soldier." This was in Armentières, France, in 1916.
Above, photo credit to Mike from England, Wikipedia the plaque of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey.
ABOVE: The burial of the Unknown Warrior. Photo credit Frank Salisbury, Wikipedia King George V at the tomb of the Unknown Warrior.
Rev. Railton decided to write to Lord Douglas Haig, a Scottish senior officer who commanded the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front.
Rev. Railton, in his letter, outlined his idea to arrange for the body of an unknown serviceman, who perished in 1916 while serving on the Western Front during WWI, to be transported back to Britain and buried with full honours. He received no response.
After the war, when the Rev. Railton was back in Britain, he wrote to his Bishop, Herbert Edward Ryle, who was also the Dean of Westminster Abbey. The Bishop got in contact with King George V.
King George V and his government, at first were not great supporters but then the Prime Minister of the Wartime Coalition Government, David Lloyd George, was strong for this, which helped the King and the government to be swayed to support the Rev. along with the Dean.
That was when Rev. David Railton's dream became a reality.
Now the journey begins for the Unknown Warrior to be brought back to his native soil of Britain to be buried. The Warrior never knowing when he left for war that he would be returning this way.
Arrangements were placed with Lord Curzon of Kedleston, a British Conservative statesman, who prepared the service and location.
Three bodies were exhumed from three different battlefields, two in France and one in Flanders, Belgium, and brought to the Chapel of Saint-Pol-Sur Ternoise, near Arras France.
This was on the 7th of November 1920.
The bodies were received and placed in plain coffins covered by Union Jack Flags. The officers did not know from what battlefield any individual solder had come from. Brigadier Wyatt then closed his eyes and put his hand on one of the coffins. The other soldiers' coffins were then taken away for reburial by Rev. George Kendall.
The Rev. Kendall was an army chaplain in France and after the war, he decided to build a church as a personal war memorial to all the soldiers who had died in WWI, many of whom he had buried. He named it St.George's Primitive Methodist Church, in Tonyrefail, Wales, in 1925.
The chosen coffin then stayed in the chapel overnight. The next morning the coffin was transferred under guard by Rev. Kendall with troops lining the route from the Chapel of Saint-Pol to the medieval castle within the ancient citadel at Boulogne. For this occasion, the castle was transferred into a Chapelle Ardente (a burning chapel). A company from the French 8th infantry Regiment stood vigil overnight.
The following morning two undertakers entered the castle library and placed the coffin into a casket made from the oak trees at Hampton Court Palace. The casket was banded with an iron medieval crusaders sword personally chosen by King George V from his Royal collection which was affixed to the top and surrounded by an iron shield bearing the inscription "A British Warrior fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country."
Above, Six black horses taking the casket, draped in the Union Jack, down Hyde Park Mall.
The casket was then placed into a French military wagon drawn by six black horses at 10:30 am. The church bells of Boulogne tolled. The trumpets of the French cavalry and the bugles of the French infantry played Aux Champs (The French last post).
Then the mile-long procession led by one thousand school children and escorted by a division of French troops made its way to the harbour to be put on the HMS Verdun.
At the quayside, Marshall Ferdinand Foch (he was the Supreme Allied Commander during the First World War) saluted the casket before it was carried up the gangway of the destroyer HMS Verdun and piped aboard with an Admiral's call.
The HMS Verdun was joined by six battleships which was their escort for the rest of the journey to England.
When the flotilla was near Dover Castle, carrying the casket, it received a 19-gun Field Marshall's salute.
HMS Verdun landed at Daves Marine Railway Station at the Western Docks on the 10th of November.
The body of the Unknown Warrier was carried to London in South Eastern and Chatham Railway Utility Van # 132.
The train then went to Victoria Station where it arrived that evening at platform 8, at 8:32 pm. It remained overnight. A plaque at Victoria Station marks the site.
Every year on November 10th a small remembrance service is organized by the Western Front Association. It takes place between platform 8 and 9.
On the morning of November 11th, 1920, the casket was placed onto a gun carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery and drawn by six horses. The crowd lining the route was silent. The cortege set off, and a Field Marshall's salute was fired in Hyde Park.
The route was Hyde Park to the Mall then to Whitehall where the Cenotaph, a symbolic empty tomb, was unveiled by King George V.
The cortege was then followed by the King, the Royal family and ministers of state to Westminster Abbey where the casket was borne into the West Nave of the Abbey flanked by a guard of a hundred recipients of the Victoria Cross.
The guests of honour, about one hundred women, had been chosen. They had either lost their husband or sons in the war. Every woman who applied for a place got it.The casket was then interred
The grave was capped with a black Belgium stone. The only tombstone in the Abbey on which it is forbidden to walk.
At the end of the inscription composed by Rev. Herbert Edward Ryle, the Dean of Westminster reads: "They buried him among the Kings because he had gone good towards God and towards his house".
This was the 11th month, 11th day, and the 11th hour. The day to honour the war dead following the Armistice that was signed at the end of World War I.
The HMS Verdun ship's bell now hangs on a pillar in Westminster Abbey close to the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.
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.
The cost of the military casualties for the British for the First World War was about 888,000.
Since 1923, when Queen Elizabeth, who was later known as the Queen Mother, married the then Duke of York, who went onto become King George VI, It has been a Royal tradition to lay the bridal bouquet on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey.
The month of November is a time to pay tribute to our ancestors and all who fought to give us the freedom that we have today.