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This week marks the 100th anniversary of two events whose significance remains as an important part of our national character as they did when they first occurred in November 1920.

In an attempt to revive the patriotic spirit of World War 1 and to mark the signing of the Peace Treaty on the 28th June 1919 Prime Minister Lloyd George proposed a Peace Day Parade for 19th July 1919 along Whitehall and past a Cenotaph (‘an empty tomb’) dedicated to ‘The Glorious Dead’. Designed by Edwin Lutyens the wood and plaster structure was only intended to stand for one week, but it proved so popular that a permanent replacement was commissioned. After the original was removed in January 1920, the new Portland stone memorial was completed and installed, ready to be unveiled by King George V at 11.00 am precisely on Armistice Day - 11 November 1920, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month which marked the precise moment of the end of the Great War in 1918.

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On the morning of the unveiling the body of an unknown soldier, chosen from six unidentified bodies exhumed on the Western Front was drawn in a formal procession to the Cenotaph and waited for the unveiling at 1.00am. The Manchester Guardian described the ‘Great Silence’ that followed…

“The first stroke of eleven produced a magical effect. The tram cars glided into stillness, motors ceased to cough and fume, and stopped dead, and the mighty-limbed dray horses hunched back upon their loads and stopped also, seeming to do it of their own volition.

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“Someone took off his hat, and with a nervous hesitancy the rest of the men bowed their heads also. Here and there an old soldier could be detected slipping unconsciously into the posture of ‘attention’. An elderly woman, not far away, wiped her eyes, and the man beside her looked white and stern. Everyone stood very still … The hush deepened. It had spread over the whole city and become so pronounced as to impress one with a sense of audibility. It was a silence which was almost pain… And the spirit of memory brooded over it all.”

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As the silence ended the body of the Unknown Soldier was taken to Westminster Abbey where it was buried at the west end of the nave in an oak coffin made from a tree hewed at Hampton Court. To the surprise of the organisers, in the week after the burial, an estimated 1,250,000 people visited the abbey, and the site is now one of the most visited war graves in the world. The text inscribed on the tomb is taken from the bible (2 Chronicles 24:16): ‘They buried him among the kings because he had done good toward God and toward his house’.

The idea of having a symbolic funeral for an unknown soldier in a place of such high honour took on an unexpected significance particularly for all those who had lost loved ones during the war but had no idea where they might be buried. One elderly man said “My two sons are buried out there, but the third may be here. The mystery as to whose son he is makes him the son and brother of us all.”

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When Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon married Prince Albert, Duke of York - later to become King George VI - on 26 April 1923 in Westminster Abbey she unexpectedly laid her bouquet on the Tomb of The Unknown Warrior in memory of her brother Fergus who was killed at Loos in 1915. His final resting place is not known… but for Lady Elizabeth, he could have been lying there. Ever since, the bouquets of subsequent royal brides have traditionally been laid at the tomb, though after the wedding ceremony rather than before.

Armistice Day provided a moment for this nation, its Empire and allied countries to stand as one and remember the war that was supposed to end all wars. The Cenotaph provided a focus for homage not just to the dead of the Great War but from all other wars and conflicts since. The Unknown Warrior offered the possibility that it might be your son or father now lying in such hallowed soil. On that day, 11th November 1920 J.F Kendall, the Vicar at Richmond Parish Church said…

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“I hope that the observance of the day will become a permanent feature of our national life to keep always in mind the great service rendered by those who made the supreme sacrifice during the Great War…but an observance of this kind is of little account unless it serves to make our people resolve to be worthy of those who have given their all for their country.”

Observance of the Armistice does continue to this day, virtually unchanged in practice since first originated as a Peace Day Parade for 19th July 1919. COVID-19 may have put paid to Armistice Day Parades for the time being but they will return just as the millions of men and women remembered on this day will return in our hearts and memories.

Silent footage of the body of the Unknown Warrior being brought to London from the fields of France and presented to the nation at the Cenotaph.

Silent footage of the body of the Unknown Warrior being brought to London from the fields of France and presented to the nation at the Cenotaph.

– from Martyn Day