Thurifer considers memories and memorials


The eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month of 1918 resonates still after 100 years. It is as if the words themselves toll in solemn measure for the fallen. This centenary year, 11 November falls on a Sunday, and so at the heart of it will be the Mass. Christ’s sacrifice for the living and dead will be offered on our altars. The pitiless hours of war can never be vitiated by mere remembering, but by remembrance: ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ National remembrance has the Cenotaph in Whitehall as its centre. On the first anniversary of Armistice Day a temporary structure had been erected to the design of Sir Edwin Lutyens. It captured the national sentiment, and a modified design was erected in Portland stone and unveiled the following year. It was part of the ceremonial in which the body of The Unknown Warrior was conveyed from the battlefields in France to lie in Westminster Abbey. An army chaplain, David Railton, had conceived the idea. It was enthusiastically supported by David Lloyd George, Prime Minister at the time, and Herbert Ryle, the Dean of Westminster. Six bodies of unidentified soldiers were exhumed, their coffins draped in Union Flags, and one was selected by Brigadier L.J. Wyatt. The coffin was placed in a casket made of oak from Hampton Court and a medieval crusader’s sword, selected by King George V (initially hesitant about the proposal) was affixed, as was an inscribed shield: ‘a British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914–1918 for King and Country.’ The casket was conveyed to England with full military honours on HMS Verdun and to London by rail. A plaque on platform eight at Victoria Station commemorates its arrival in the capital.

On the morning of 11 November the body of The Unknown Warrior was borne on a gun carriage and drawn by a troop of the Royal Horse Artillery to the Abbey. The cortège paused at the Cenotaph, which was unveiled by the King and who also placed a wreath on the casket. He followed the coffin on foot with other members of the Royal Family. It entered the Abbey between an honour guard of an hundred recipients of the Victoria Cross. Inside the Abbey was a vast congregation which included a large number of women who had lost husbands and sons. The Unknown Warrior was interred in soil from the battlefields and entombed under a slab of black Belgian marble bearing the inscription, composed by Dean Ryle, rendered in brass melted down from wartime ammunition:


‘Beneath this stone rests the body

Of a British warrior

Unknown by name or rank

Brought from France to lie among

The most illustrious of the land

And buried here on Armistice Day

11 Nov: 1920, in the presence of

His Majesty King George V

His Ministers of State

The Chiefs of his forces

And a vast concourse of the nation

Thus are commemorated the many

Multitudes who during the Great

War of 1914–1918 gave the most that

Man can give life itself

For God

For King and country

For loved ones home and empire

For the sacred cause of justice and

The freedom of the world

They buried him among the kings because he

Had done good toward God and toward

His house.’


Around the text are four biblical quotations: ‘The Lord knoweth them that are his. Unknown and yet well known, dying and behold we live. Greater love hath no man than this. In Christ shall all be made alive.’

Perhaps, as ever, the last word should go to Shakespeare: ‘When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.’


For the second time, HM The Queen will not lay her wreath personally on behalf of the nation. It will be done by the Prince of Wales while she watches from the balcony of the Home Office. This is perfectly understandable and will not detract from the gravity and significance of the most solemn public commemoration of the year. It is, nonetheless, a significant shift in the milestones that mark out our public life. As the 100th anniversary passes, there may be a psychological feeling that the Great War is confined to history and may be remembered as Waterloo or Trafalgar or Agincourt are remembered. Memories fade. In a world of hectic change and instant gratification, interest in and respect for the past are not in the forefront of the collective consciousness. It is easy to forget, but we do so at our peril.


Lord Jesus Christ, king of majesty, deliver the souls of the departed from the pain of hell and from the fathomless waters. Free them from the lion’s mouth, lest the grave devour them, and save them from the darkness. But let St Michael, the standard bearer, lead them into the holy light which thou of old didst promise to Abraham and to his seed. Sacrifices and prayers of praise to thee we offer, O Lord. Do thou receive them on behalf of those souls whom we commemorate. Grant them, O Lord, to pass from death to life, which thou of old didst promise to Abraham and his seed. May the angels receive them in paradise; at their coming may the martyrs receive them and bring them into the holy city of Jerusalem. May the choir of angels receive them and with Lazarus, once poor, may they have eternal rest.