‘It was a silence that was almost pain’

Whittington businessman Stuart Clarke's account from World War I was first published by the 'Village Market' newspaper, in 2012.

At the time Britain was heavily engaged in combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

History has since shone new light on those wars and reflected deep shame on the western powers for their opportunism and corruption.

That shame belongs to the politicians whose venality and self-serving deceit caused the unnecessary deaths of countless thousands of innocent people.

They opened Pandora's Box and brought turmoil to the Middle East that now imperils the globe.

None of our leaders' shame is shared by the selfless and courageous servicemen and women to whom Stuart pay's tribute.

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I recall how, at the stroke of 11am, on November 11, pupils and teachers at school all stood, heads bowed in remembrance.

Then, all Englishmen proudly observed two minutes silence for those who gave their lives for us.

This simple act gradually became less well observed. Maybe it was the passage of time. Perhaps a feeling it was a celebration of war.

Whichever it was, it seemed easy for many of us to forget.

Modern sacrifice

But the appalling loss of life in today’s conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have again transfixed our nation, reminding we non-combatants to be grateful for our armed forces, past and present.

As ‘Poppy Day’ approaches it is more important than ever for us to remember how it became a focus for commemoration.

World War I (1914-1918) is still called 'The Great War' – the 'War to End All Wars'.

Its 40 million casualties and deaths seem an inconceivable number now.

Unimaginable slaughter

On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, on July 1, 1916, Britain suffered 67,470 casualties, including 19,240 dead. It was the bloodiest day in the history of her armed forces.

Our story starts one evening in France, in 1916, following a bloody battle. Army padre Reverend David Railton was returning to his billet from the trenches, at Armentieres.

Wading through the blood and mud to his tent he stumbled across a simple wooden cross.

It was just two pieces of wood bound together marking the remains of British soldier.

Simple wooden cross

Upon it was a very simple inscription.  But it was an inscription that changed history.

After the war Railton wrote in his memoir:

I came back from the line at dusk.

We had just laid to rest the mortal remains of a comrade. I went to a billet in front of Erkingham, near Armentieres. At the back of the billet was a small garden, and in the garden only six paces from the house, there was a grave.

At the head of the grave there stood a rough cross of white wood.

On the cross was written in deep black-pencilled letters, ‘An Unknown British Soldier’, and in brackets beneath, 'of the Black Watch'.

It was dusk and no one was near, except some officers in the billet playing cards. I remember how still it was. Even the guns seemed to be resting.

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The armistice between the Allies of World War I and Germany was signed in a railway carriage at Compiègne, France. It took effect at eleven o'clock in the morning, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, of 1918.

Two million British lives were lost during the war. Every family in our country was affected, husbands, fathers, brothers, cousins, all wiped out.

Symbol of solace

Rev. Railton believed the nation needed comfort - something to explain why a generation had died on foreign soil.

Then he had an idea. He wrote to Dr Herbert Ryle, Dean of Westminster, suggesting people needed some kind of closure on this, their greatest of catastrophes.

He felt Britain needed to symbolise her grief and huge sacrifice.

Magnificent idea

Then, on May 8, 1919, Australian soldier and journalist Edward G. Honey wrote to the London Evening News under the name, 'Warren Foster'.

He urged for there to be a commemoration of the first anniversary of The Armistice Treaty.

He wrote:

Five little minutes only. Five silent minutes of national remembrance. A very sacred intercession.

Communion with the Glorious Dead who won us peace, and from the communion new strength, hope and faith in the morrow.

Church services, too, if you will, but in the street, the home, the theatre, anywhere indeed, where Englishmen and their women chance to be, surely in this five minutes of bitter-sweet silence there will be service enough.

The homecoming

That idea was sparked by Honey’s sadness at people celebrating the day of the Armistice with dancing in the streets.

Growing public demand led Prime Minister, David Lloyd George and King George V to appoint a Memorial Service Committee.

And on November 17, 1919, The King proclaimed, "that at the hour when the Armistice came into force, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, there may be for the brief space of two minutes a complete suspension of all our normal activities … so that in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead."

Solemn remembrance

But to which fallen soldier would the country bow its head in remembrance?

On November 7, 1920, Brigadier General L. J. Wyatt, marched into the Chapel St. Pol, Northern France.

Before him were the exhumed remains of four British soldiers.

The unidentified men had fallen at the four bloody corners of the Western Front - Aisne, Somme, Arras and Ypres.

Each now lay on a stretcher covered by the Union Flag.

Wyatt closed his eyes. At random he rested his hand on one of the bodies. And so he chose the soldier who was to receive an Empire's homage - the ‘Unknown Warrior’.

Preparations were made to return this hero to England.

The honoured dead

A great English oak from Hampton Court provided the wood for a magnificent coffin, hand made by the British Undertakers Association.

On its plaque was inscribed: “A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country”.

The Union Flag army padre Rev. David Railton used as an altar cloth in France was wrapped around it.

A 16th Century crusader's sword, presented by The King was brought from the Tower of London and tucked into the wrought iron bands around the coffin.

Six barrels of soil from the battlefields of Ypres accompanied the coffin so it might at last rest on the earth upon which so many British lives were lost.

Funeral cortege

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Carnage: countless young men were sent to their deaths by generals using outdated 19th Century tactics in an industrialised 20th Century war.

The body was carried on a wagon drawn by six horses at the head of a funeral procession more than a mile long.

On November 9, the coffin arrived in Boulogne with a full French military escort led by Marshall Foch.

HMS Verdun then bore the body to Dover in company with six other destroyers. HMS Vendetta, met them halfway, her White Ensign astern at half-mast.

Landfall in England came at 1pm. A Field Marshall's 19-gun salute roared out from the ramparts of Dover Castle.

A nation watched

Then a specially commissioned train took the coffin on to London‘s Victoria Station.

The Daily Mail described the scene:

The train thundered through the dark, wet, moonless night. At the platforms by which it rushed could be seen groups of women watching and silent, many dressed in deep mourning.

Many an upper window was open and against the golden square of light was silhouetted clear cut and black the head and shoulders of some faithful watcher.

In the London suburbs were scores of homes with back doors flung wide, light flooding out and in the garden figures of men women and children gazing at the great lighted train rushing past.

The 11th Hour

And on November 11, 1920, his body was placed on a gun carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery.

Six black horses shied in their traces. A Union Flag, steel helmet, side arms and belt lay on the coffin.

At 9.40am, the ‘Unknown Warrior’ began his final journey through the crowd-lined streets of London to Whitehall.

At the newly-built Cenotaph, King George set a wreath of red roses and bay leaves on the coffin.

After a two-minute silence, he and members of his family followed the soldier’s body on foot to Westminster Abbey.

Children of the fallen

The coffin entered through the north door and was borne to the west end of the nave between a guard of honour of 100 Victoria Cross holders.

Behind them were the widows and children of the fallen.

The hymn 'Lead Kindly Light' was sung.

To its sombre cadences bearers removed their helmets and side arms, and lowered the coffin into the tomb.

Upon it the King scattered earth brought from the battlefields.

Last Post

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At rest: The 'Unknown Warrior' was buried in Westminster Abbey, on 11 November 1920. At the same time a French 'unknown soldier' was laid to rest at the Arc de Triomphe, Paris.

'Reveille' and 'Last Post' sounded - a silk funeral pall covered the grave. On top lay the flag Rev. David Railton had used as an altar cloth, near Armentieres.

The Victoria Cross holders filed past. And over the following week thousands of mourners came to pay their respects while servicemen stood vigil. The grave was closed on November 18.

A stone temporarily lay over it, inscribed: “A British warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and country. Greater love hath no man than this.”

The Dean of Westminster, Dr. Herbert Ryle composed the final inscription, of which part reads:

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 . . .

. . . thus are commemorated the many multitudes who during the Great War gave the most that man can give, life itself . . .

They buried him among the kings because he had done good toward God and toward His House.

Let silence fall

That first ‘two minute silence’ was reported in the Manchester Guardian the following day:

The first stroke of eleven produced a magical effect.

The tram cars glided into stillness, motors ceased to cough and fume, the mighty-limbed dray horses hunched back upon their loads and stopped also.

Someone took off his hat. 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 'attention'.

An elderly woman 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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Please remember all those who have died for us and those who are still fighting for us.

Be proud to be British. Hold your heads up high and support our heroes.

Stuart Clarke.