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The Story of Revd David Railton MC and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior
With a Foreword by The Dean of Westminster, The Very Revd Dr John Hall
by Andrew Richards

The Flag is a timely book, as we enter the final year of the First World War commemorations, with the focus shifting to how the nation came to terms with the terrible losses of war. The Reverend David Railton was a humane and caring man, serving as a battalion padre, often in the trenches, and later as a divisional chaplain with 19th Division, commanded by a Grenadier Guardsman, ‘Ma’ Jeffreys. He spent time with soldiers awaiting execution, refusing to condemn them. He was a good man, and extremely modest, reluctant to talk about his Military Cross awarded for bravery. His role in originating the idea of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, something else he rarely spoke about, deserves to be told, and Andrew Richards has done a splendid job in doing so.

Soon after arriving in France in 1916, Railton requested a few items from home, including a large Union Jack, a ‘symbol of our national life and radiant colour in the midst of all the horrors of France’. He used the flag to cover the body of a private soldier whose short funeral service he conducted. Later that evening, he wrote to the soldier’s parents, a practice he maintained for the rest of the war. Those ‘known’ soldiers, with names and next of kin, were in one sense the lucky ones: their families at least knew where they had been killed and buried. But there were many others who had no known grave or no grave at all.

Railton, writing in 1931, recalled the occasion that he first saw an unknown grave, a ‘rough cross of white wood’, giving him the idea about returning a ‘comrade’ to England, to lie in Westminster Abbey for all those families whose loved ones had no known grave. He had thought about writing to Douglas Haig, but kept the idea until after the war. Finding the right person to approach was key, and in August 1920, Railton wrote to the Dean of Westminster, who acknowledged the letter within a few days, saying he would give the idea some thought. In mid-October, Railton received his answer.

In the latter part of this book, the author tells the story of this simple and poignant idea that has been copied around the world, proving to have a universal appeal that transcends all other cultural and religious barriers. The author lists those countries that adopted the idea of the ‘unknown warrior’; there are many. 

The King was initially doubtful about the idea but was soon persuaded by Lloyd George. Lord Curzon was tasked with forming a committee, to bring together the whole undertaking: the unveiling of Lutyens’ Cenotaph, the ‘Great Silence’, and the interring of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, all on 11th November 1920. David Railton was there, as was his flag, which covered the coffin during its final journey from Victoria Station, where it had been guarded by the Grenadier Guards, and then escorted by the Coldstream through the streets of London.

The author describes how the body of the Unknown Warrior was selected in great secrecy in France, noting that we cannot be sure what precisely happened, given several conflicting accounts. However, the poignancy of the overall event, the reverence given to this fallen warrior, and the impact that it had on a nation, is beyond doubt. Both men and women cried as they saw the coffin pass by, and so many members of the public wished to file by the grave in Westminster Abbey and see the flag-draped coffin, that the tomb remained open for a week after the burial.

The young Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyons, at her wedding in the Abbey in 1923, laid her bouquet on the tomb before being escorted up the aisle by her father, to wed The Duke of York. In 2002, on the day following the funeral of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, the Dean of Westminster carried out one of her very last requests, by laying the wreath from her coffin on the tomb. Those two events somehow sum-up the meaning and symbolism of Railton’s idea. A young woman, on her wedding day, remembering her brother, killed with no known grave eight years earlier; and an elderly and much-loved queen, doing just the same from beyond her own grave, many years later. But perhaps equally wonderful in this gesture was that Queen Elizabeth was not just paying her own tribute to a lost brother, but to all those unknown warriors who have given their lives in the service of their country.

The way in which Britain commemorated the human losses of the First World War is a remarkable story, demonstrating how the ‘Everyman’ concept of remembrance was grasped. From Fabian Ware and his colleagues who created the Imperial War Graves Commission, determined to respect all the dead as equal, regardless of rank, race or creed; Edwin Lutyens, who wished his Great Stone in the cemeteries and the Cenotaph in Whitehall to be devoid of religious symbolism that might exclude those of a different or indeed no faith; and, of course, David Railton with his own very special idea.
We have waited nearly a century for Reverend David Railton’s story, and this book does this humble and decent man a great service. It is an extraordinary story.

The Editor

Published by Casemate Publishers. www.casematepublishers.co.uk

© Crown Copyright