Thinking allowed — 09 November 2018

Just inside Westminster Abbey’s Great West Door in St. George’s Chapel there hangs a faded, flimsy Union Jack, this unprepossessing 8ft-wide flag is one of the poignant artefacts from the First World War. The flag was in the possession of the Rev. David Railton, MC who had witnessed 900 casualties on the Somme in his brigade alone. It fell to him to oversee the young soldiers tasked with recovering the corpses.

HE HAD CARRIED THE FLAG throughout his war service in his backpack alongside a small wooden cross and two candlesticks. His team had spent four days recovering the bodies, along with the remains of their commanding officer buried in a shallow crater, after a battle they had supposedly won. Many casualties had lost their dog tags and some were hardly recognisable as humans.

This exceptional man of the cloth had followed his charges into the trenches, battle, the hospitals and inevitably the graveyards. His heroism had seen him running the gauntlet with stretcher-bearers and was credited with carrying at least one wounded soldier to safety.

One day whilst sitting in a cottage garden his eye fell on a mound of earth and a rough white cross, set amongst the rubble of this French village his wondered who was interned below this simple symbol.

When he was demobbed he became the vicar of Margate, but suffering from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder he would walk the streets at night, unable to sleep. He couldn’t get the ‘unknown comrades’ of the war out of his mind. By August 1920 his PTSD drove him to write a letter to the Dean of Westminster, suggesting burying the body of an unknown soldier in the Abbey.

The idea rapidly gained momentum, with Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, ensuring that in a few weeks at the next Remembrance Day not only would the newly erected Cenotaph by Edwin Lutyens be unveiled, but an unknown disinterred body of an unknown soldier also is selected from a selection of four, six or even eight. Accounts vary as do the method of selection, one being that a blindfolded major selected the individual at midnight.

A moving speech from French Marshal Foch bidding farewell to ‘Tommy Anonyme’as he was put on a British destroyer bound for Dover. As the train steamed through the Kent countryside bound for London thousands paid their silent respects from every vantage point. Once placed on a gun carriage, draped with Railton’s flag, escorted by the highest officers in the land, the people lined the route to Westminster Abbey, twenty deep in some place.

After internment the flag was draped over the makeshift grave until the following year when a black marble was placed over the grave bearing the inscription: ‘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 the flag was hung from a pillar nearby.

It would remain there until 1953 when the BBC bosses moved it to its current position, claiming it obstructed the television shots of Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation.

The Flag by Andrew Richards, published by Casemate Books.

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