On the 8th November 1920, the School shared in forming a guard of honour with the 2nd Connaught Rangers to salute the body of the Unknown Soldier received at the Marine Railway Station, Dover, by Sir George Macdonagh along with officers of the garrison, the Mayor and Corporation of Dover. The carriage which bore the coffin was the same vehicle that had carried home Nurse Edith Cavell (1865-1915) and Captain Fryatt (1872-1916). Edith Cavell, a devoted Anglican nurse working in Belgium, numerous soldiers escape from captivity - a figure of 200 has been given - for which, when discovered, she was shot by the Germans. Captain Charles Fryatt, Master of the merchant ship SS Brussels, regularly plied the British East Coast to and from Rotterdam. The Germans tried twice to sink Fryatt's ship with U-boat attacks. Fryatt rammed on U-boat and evaded a second. Eventually, the Brussels was trapped by a flotilla of E-boats and Fryatt taken prisoner to Zeebrugge where he was tried by court-martial as a francs-tireur (guerilla) and shot.
The story of the Unknown Warrior and his recovery from the Western Front in 1920 was the brain-child of the Rev. David Railton, MC (1884-1955), a British Army Chaplain. It is reported that during World War 1 near Armentieres he came across a grave bearing the inscription An Unknown Soldier of the Black Watch. This later gave him the inspiration for a national memorial.
In 1920, the year the Cenotaph in London was unveiled, Railton suggested to the Dean of Westminster, the Right Rev. Herbert Ryle that an unknown soldier be brought from the western front and interred among the nation's renowned dead in Westminster Abbey. The Dean, for his part, put the idea to the government and had the suggestion accepted.
Lord Curzon, Foreign Secretary in the government of the day, headed the committee that arranged for the disinterment of an unknown soldier from the battlefields of France and brought in state to Westminster Abbey for burial on Armistice Day. How the choice of the unknown soldier was made remained unknown until Brigadier General L.J. Wyatt, DSO, wrote to The Daily Telegraph in 1939 to make public the facts of the return of the Unknown Soldier to London for internment in the Abbey.
General Wyatt records that as general officer commanding troops in France and Flanders, as well as director of the Imperial War Graves Commission, was instructed to recover the bodies of four British soldiers, one each from four battle areas: Aisne, the Somme Arras and Ypres. On the night of 7 November 1920, the four bodies were brought to the chapel at St. Pol and the bearer parties returned to their areas to make sure there was no chance of anyone knowing which one of the four would be chosen. The Reverend George Kendal, OBE, received the four corpses at the chapel and a guard placed on duty at the door. A coffin sent from Britain to receive the remains chosen stood in front of the chapel altar.
The four bodies on stretchers were placed in a row, each covered with a Union Jack and, at midnight, the Brigadier in the company and with the assistance of Colonel Gell selected a body, placed it in the coffin, and secured the lid. Brigadier Wyatt wrote, "I had no idea even of the area from which the body I selected had come, and no one else can know it." The other bodies were then buried in the military cemetery at St. Pol.
The following morning, on 8th November 1920, chaplains of the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and a nonconformist churches held a joint service. At noon, the body was taken by ambulance under escort to the port of Boulonge where, at 3.30 pm after passing through troops on the outskirts of the city, it drew up at a castle, local headquarters of the French Army. The castle library had been converted into a chapel for the occasion and to which eight pall bearer carried the coffin through corridors lined with French soldiers. The pall bearers comprised a sergeant-major of the Royal Army Service Corps, a sergeant of the Royal Engineers, a gunner of the Royal Field Artillery, an Australian Light Horseman, a private each from the Canadian infantry and Machine Gun Corps, and a rifleman from the 21st London Regiment (First Surrey Rifles). A French company provided the throughout the night of the Unknown Soldier's last night on French soil. No British troops were in attendance.
At noon the following day, the wooden shell in which the Unknown Soldiers had been placed was, in turn, put in a plain oak coffin sent from Britain. Wrought-iron bands bound the oak coffin and through one of the bands was secured a 16th Century Crusader sword from the Tower of London collection. The coffin, made of Hampton Court oak was presented by the British Undertakers Association and bore the inscription A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-18 for King and Country. This was places on a French military wagon drawn by six horses, escorted by French troops, and taken in Boulogne.
There, waiting to received the coffin was the destroyer HMS Verdun sent by the Admiralty as a tribute to the French nation and the defence of that city. To pay their last tribute the French sent a division of all arms to the Boulogne departure. There, Marshal Foch spoke on behalf of the French nation and Lieutenant General Sir George Macdonagh responded on behalf of King George. Numerous other British and French officers of high rank were present at the ceremony.
The bearers laid the coffin on the deck of HMS Verdun. Six barrels of earth from the Ypres salient were also placed on board to be put in the tomb at Westminster Abbey so that the Unknown Soldier would rest in soil on which so many had perished in the conflict. As HMS Verdun got underway, bluejackets on shore fired a salute. An escort of six destroyers escorted the Verdun to Dover and, as the destroyer entered Dover harbour a 19-gun salute was fired from Dover Castle.
Six warrant officers of the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines, the Army and Royal Air Force served as bearers to bring the coffin ashore. In the cortege to the Marine Railway Station were Sir George Macdonagh, officers of the garrison and the Mayor and Corporation of Dover where a guard of honour of the 2nd Connaught Rangers and the Duke of York's Royal Military School was waiting to salute Unknown Soldier. The coffin was then placed in the same carriage in which Nurse Cavell and Captain Fryatt had been carried to London.
During the hour wait before the train began its journey to London, four sentries, one from each service, stood guard. It remained on the train overnight and the next morning was taken over by the 1st Battalion of the Grenadier Guards. A Union Jack, covered the coffin with a steel helmet, side arms and a webbing belt placed on it, was then put on a gun carriage and, drawn by six horse, taken to the Cenotaph. The bands of the Coldstream, Scots, Irish and Welsh Guards together with the firing party led the cortege to the Cenotaph followed by a contingent of troops from all services.
At the Cenotaph, King George placed a wreath of red roses and bay leaves on the coffin. Following the Silence, the cortege moved off with King George taking his place behind it, followed by the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York, Prince Henry, the Duke of Connaught, the Marquis of Milford Haven, the Prime Minister and ministers of state.
Met at the door of Westminster Abbey by the clergy, the coffin, borne by NCOs of the Guards, passed between two lines of 100 holders of the Victoria Cross under the command of Colonel Bernard Freyberg VC. Behind the lines stood the widows and mothers of the fallen.
After a drum roll, the Last Post was played followed by Reveille. The two lines of VC holders filed past. The honours paid to the Unknown Warrior were those due to a field marshal, which was a fitting homage to all who died in the service of King and Country.
Source: with courtesy to the Royal British Legion