Leaving a touching memorial service at the Royal Hospital, home to the renowned Chelsea Pensioners in London, and as the sun was setting, I came across a life-size silhouette of a silent soldier, known as ‘Tommy,’ wearing a red poppy.
Images of Tommy stand silently around Britain, and on this 101st anniversary of the end of the Great War, the poignant memorials remind us of the Unknown Soldier.
The idea for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier came to a wartime chaplain, who had seen a grave marked by a rough wooden cross bearing the pencil-written words ‘An Unknown British Soldier.’ Later he proposed the idea that the body of an unknown soldier from the battlefields of France be buried with full honours in Westminster Abbey. His proposal was enthusiastically embraced.
As a result, four unidentified British bodies were exhumed from temporary battlefield cemeteries at Ypres, Arras, the Aisne and the Somme. They were taken to a chapel at Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise, France, on the night of 7 November 1920. Two senior officers chose one body at random. The next morning the remains were placed in a coffin made of oak from the royal palace at Hampton Court, bound in iron and surmounted by a mediaeval Crusaders’ sword chosen personally from the Royal Collection by King George V.
With great ceremony, the single coffin was taken to Boulogne, where it remained for another night in the castle. The next morning it was loaded onto the destroyer HMS Vernon for the journey across the English Channel, escorted by several other Royal Navy ships, to Dover. There it received a field marshall’s 19-gun salute. Then a special train took the coffin to Victoria Station in London.
On the morning of 11 November 1920 the Unknown Soldier was taken to Westminster Abbey, on a gun carriage, through immense and silent crowds. Followed by the King, the royal family and ministers of state, the coffin was borne into the West Nave of the Abbey, flanked by a guard of honour of 100 recipients of the Victoria Cross.
After the coffin was interred, servicemen from the armed forces stood guard as tens of thousands of mourners filed silently past. The grave was capped with a black Belgian marble stone engraved with brass from melted down wartime ammunition.
The ceremony served as a form of catharsis for collective mourning on a scale not previously known, but which continues to this day, as we remember family, friends and loved ones who served with honour.
The following year, in 1921, the poppy became the symbol of an appeal to raise money for servicemen in need after the First World War. The idea for this came from the American War Secretary, who had read the poem In Flanders Fields, written by the Canadian doctor, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, whose inspiration was the sight of poppies growing in battle-scarred fields. The poppy has been adopted as a symbol of Remembrance ever since.
In memory of my uncle
Flight Lieutenant Gordon Desmond Lush, Legion d’honneur
24 February 1923 – 8 January 2019
Royal Air Force bomb aimer/navigator, 625 Squadron
1944 – 1945
In memory of my mother
Corporal D.M. ‘Lush’ Napier-Andrews, The Royal Sussex Regiment
13 October 1917 – 2 September 2018
Ambulance driver and dispatch rider, First Aid Nursing Yeomanry
1935 – 1942
In memory of my father
Acting Captain Kenneth Launcelot Napier-Andrews, RASC
21 March 1916 – 27 June 1996
Captured at Singapore and enslaved by the Japanese on the Burma Railway
1942 – 1945
In memory of my grandfather
Chief Petty Officer Basil Stuart Lush, RNVR
10 January 1890 – 2 July 1990
A sailor in the Great War
1914 – 1918
In memory of my grandfather
Launcelot Leonard Napier-Andrews
1882 – 10 June 1944
Killed by a German bomb in Aldwych, London
A soldier in the Great War
In memory of my cousin
Reginald Napier Andrews, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders
Killed in the Great War
Burial place unknown
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them — Laurence Binyon.
The Royal Hospital Chelsea is the home of the iconic Chelsea Pensioners, who are all retired soldiers of the British Army. Since 1692, it has offered care and comradeship for veterans in recognition of their loyal service to the Nation. The scarlet dress uniform, typically worn when they are off hospital grounds, commemorates the traditional infantry ‘red coat.’
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This is Nigel’s 260th blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well if you want to look back and see some of our previous stories, including: THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD, 11 November 2018; THIS WAS THEIR FINEST HOUR, 11 November 2015; and WE WILL REMEMBER THEM, 10 November 2014.