Monday, July 18, 2011

Honoring the dead at Westminster Abbey

For anyone who has visited the tomb of the unknown soldier in Washington, D.C., it turns out that we got the idea for that particular memorial from the British.

Today we toured Westminster Abbey. Photos are not permitted inside of the church.

The Unknown Warrior was buried as a tribute to all of the fallen soldiers from World War I. He was interred at Westminster Abbey on Nov. 7, 1920, and he remains the last full body to be buried in the church. Among the thousands of people buried on the grounds, his is the only grave that cannot be walked upon.

The idea to honor an unidentified solider as a tribute to all the soldiers who had died is attributed to a chaplain serving on the Western Front, David Railton, after he saw a cross marking the grave of "An Unknown British Soldier." He suggested his idea to the Dean of Westminster, Herbert Ryle, who embraced it and ultimately wrote the inscription for the slab.

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Unknown Warrior was selected from between four and six unidentified soldiers disinterred from graves at the major battlefields of the Western Front. The commander of British troops in France and Flanders, Brigadier General LJ Wyatt, made the final selection, according to the BBC. The selected soldier was transported to Dover, while the others were reburied. A French soldier was chosen for a similar honor and buried at the Arc de Triomphe in France.

It is intentionally not known whether the soldier is from the Army, Navy or Air Force. He was buried along with soil from France in a coffin of English Oak. The slab covering the grave is made from Belgian marble and is constantly ringed by poppies for remembrance. This flower was one of the few flowers to grow on barren battlefields, according to the BBC. The poppy was widely adopted as a symbol of remembrance after the publication of the poem In Flanders Fields by Canadian surgeon John McCrae.

Poppies are worn for remembrance. Photo by Hobvias Sudoneighm.

Brides married at Westminster Abbey typically put their bouquets on the Unknown Warriors grave after the ceremony. The first bride to do so was Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. Her brother Fergus perished in the Battle of Loos during the First World War. Kate Middleton recently upheld the tradition at her wedding to Prince William in April.

We had another excellent Blue Badge guide today, Brian (in center). He shared this story and many others with us.

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