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  • David Harrop

The Unknown Soldier

Several days ago marked the one hundred and first anniversary of the burial of the unknown soldier at Westminster Abbey. His procession to the abbey was led by a gun carriage, he being one of the very few non-royals to be awarded a state funeral. Attended by King George V himself, this anonymous warrior was laid to rest beside Kings and Queens in Britain’s most magnificent Abbey. His name was forgotten but his deeds immortal. He was mourned by the countless thousands who lined the streets one hundred years ago because he represented their fathers, sons, brothers and friends who had also made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of freedom.

The burial of the Unknown Soldier was symbolic of all those men who were unable to return home after the Great War of 1914-18, with roughly 700,000 British men dying during the war, out of 6 million who were enlisted. The war touched every family whether through death, injury or trauma. But this wasn’t just a ceremony for the British people, the Great War touched six continents with soldiers serving from as far afield as New Caledonia and Japan as well as Brazil and Newfoundland, battles were fought from the River plate to Port Moresby, 100,000 men from China would serve on the western front as labourers, and Moroccans would be the first soldiers to suffer the horrors of chlorine gas. Men from across the world fought and died, families everywhere mourned. The First World War was an industrial war fought on a hitherto unseen scale, men often died without seeing their attacker as artillery reigned down upon them miles away from their trenches; the German Paris Gun had to take into account the rotation of the globe as it fired shells into the stratosphere, the first manmade objects to do so, bringing death to the streets of Paris from greater heights than had ever previously been managed.

A case in point for the unprecedented horror of the war is the tale of the Accrington Pals. When Lord Kitchener, Minister of War and national hero for his service in Sudan and South Africa, asked for volunteers to fight in France, the Mayor of Accrington received a complete battalion’s worth of men within 10 days. As part of the 31st division they were to attack the village of Serre on the 1st of June 1916, one of the first actions in the infamous Battle of the Somme. Within minutes 585 men had become casualties, out of a force of 700, with 235 killed after half an hour. It is said that every family in the town of Accrington lost a member, the town unable to recover for decades as an entire generation of townsmen had fallen in the fields of France. In 1914 the players of the Scottish team Heart of Midlothian volunteered into the 16th Royal Scots, 7 of their players would die over the next 4 years, Bradford City would lose 9 players. The war touched every part of British society. Many Lords and Baronets would serve in the war- some sources suggest that those 4 years of military conflict were more deadly for the British aristocracy than the Hundred Years war as the flower of nobility were often enlisted from Oxford, Cambridge, Harrow and Eton to serve as NCOs, leading suicide attacks into No-Mans Land. 24 peers would be killed in action during the Great War, Rudyard Kipling and Prime Minister Herbert Asquith would lose a son each. But the war also made later great men with the experience it had given them and the horrors they had witnessed. Churchill, Macmillan and Attlee would all fight in the trenches, Sir Oswald Mosley would fight in the skies against the fighters of Hermann Goring. Douglas MacArthur would fight in the Argonne Forest whilst Erwin Rommel would fight in the Alps. The Great War unarguably shaped the 20th Century by shaping the men who would lead the world.

Therefore, commemoration of a conflict which killed millions in the most brutal battles seen in human history should still remain pertinent to this day. There are no veterans of the war alive anymore, and very still live to remember it. But everyone will have distant relatives who fought across the globe from 1914 to 1918, some may have medals and postcards still in their possession. The Unknown Soldier acts as a point of contact between the past and the present, representative of all those men who died more than a century ago. We can still carry the legacy that Field Marshal Haig, whatever his faults, initiated back in 1920, to remember the fallen and revere their sacrifices. Remembrance for the fallen of all subsequent wars can be embodied through the veneration of the Unknown Warrior, therefore, he acts as the physical embodiment of commemoration and remembrance which is still so important today.


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