The steam train slowly chugs through the idyllic Kent countryside on its way from Tenterden to the tiny village of Bodiam, 10 miles away. But the heritage station at Bodiam, kept in immaculate condition by the staff and volunteers of the Kent and East Sussex Railway line, offers more than a plethora of preserved rolling stock.
The station is also the home to General Utility Van No 132, which once carried the bodies of British nurse Edith Cavell, shot for helping 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium during WWI, and of British mariner Charles Fryatt, executed by the Germans for attempting to ram a U-boat in 1915. On its third important public outing – 100 years ago today – Van 132 brought home the remains of the Unknown Warrior.
Reverend David Railton, a curate in Folkestone also serving as an Army Chaplain during WWI, is credited with the idea of transporting the body of an unknown serviceman back to Britain to be buried with full honours. In 1916, when he was serving on the Western Front, he was standing in a small garden in Armentieres, northern France, having just buried a comrade when he saw a small wooden cross marking a grave with the words 'an unknown British soldier, of the Black Watch'.
'How that grave caused me to think,' Railton later wrote. 'What can I do to ease the pain of father, mother, brother, sister, sweetheart, wife and friend? Quietly and gradually there came out of the mist of thought this answer clear and strong... let this body, this symbol of him, be carried reverently over the sea to his native land.'
Railton wrote to the Dean of Westminster, the Rt Rev Herbert Ryle, suggesting that an unidentified body, representing the many hundreds and thousands of soldiers, pilots and sailors lost in the conflict, be buried in Westminster Abbey 'amongst the Kings'. The Dean strongly supported the idea, as did Prime Minister David Lloyd George. King George V took longer to be persuaded but, gradually, Railston's idea came to fruition.
Just before midnight on 7 November 1920, four bodies were brought to the makeshift chapel at the Army headquarters at St Pol, near Arras, from four different parts of the Western Front – the Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres. They had been exhumed from the unmarked graves of those who died early in the war – this was decided so that decomposition would mean the bodies were entirely unrecognisable and the officers present did not know from which battlefield any individual had come.
Brigadier Louis John Wyatt, general officer in command of British troops in France and Flanders and director of graves, registrations and enquiries, closed his eyes and rested his hand on one of the bodies. Wyatt rarely spoke about what happened that night although he did later let it be known exactly how he chose the body, because he was concerned that rumours were circulating that the identity of the Unknown Warrior was known from the beginning.
He wrote: 'The four bodies lay on stretchers, each covered by a Union jack. In front of the altar was the shell of the coffin which had been sent to receive the remains. I selected one and, with the assistance of Colonel Gell, placed it in the shell and we screwed down the lid. The other bodies were removed and reburied in the military cemetery outside my headquarters at St Pol. I had no idea even of the area from which the body I had selected had come; no-one else can know it'.
The following afternoon the coffin was transferred under guard, with troops lining the route, to the medieval castle at Boulogne, a company from the French 8th Infantry Regiment standing vigil overnight. The following morning the coffin was placed within a casket of oak timbers of trees from Hampton Court Palace and banded with iron straps through one of which was fixed a medieval Crusader sword, chosen by George V from the Royal Collection. On the top of the casket was an iron shield, bearing the inscription: A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country
At 10.30 the next morning, the casket – covered with a soiled and torn Union flag, which had been used by an Army chaplain throughout the war – was placed on a French military wagon, drawn by six black horses, and was taken along the mile-long route, led by 1,000 local schoolchildren and escorted by a division of French troops, down to the quayside where Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Supreme Allied Commander in WWI, who had accepted the German request for an armistice on 11 November 1918, saluted the casket before it was carried on to the destroyer HMS Verdun and escorted across the Channel by six battleships.
On 10 November, the casket was landed at Dover Marine Railway Station to a 19-gun Field Marshall salute, and was transferred to Van 132, then owned by the South Eastern and Chatham Railway Company. The van was decorated with laurels, palms and lilies and covered with wreaths and flowers brought by the crew of the Verdun.
Van 132 took some three hours to make the journey to London, every station on its route thronged with mourners. It arrived at Platform 8 in Victoria Station at 8.32 that evening and remained there overnight, watched over by the Grenadier Guards. On the morning of 11 November 1920, the casket was placed onto a gun carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery, drawn by six black horses through silent crowds. At 10.45am, the procession halted opposite the Cenotaph, where King George V laid a wreath on the coffin. At 11am, as Big Ben began to strike, the Union flags shrouding the Cenotaph fell away and for two minutes there was complete silence.
The gun carriage then made its way to Westminster Abbey where, among the guests of honour to receive the casket, were 100 women, chosen because they had each lost their husband and all their sons in the war. The casket was interred in the far western end of the Nave in soil brought from each of the main battlefields and its black Belgian marble gravestone bore an inscription, engraved with brass from melted-down wartime ammunition: 'Beneath this tomb rests the body of a British warrior, unknown by name and rank, brought from France to lie among the most illustrious of the land and buried here on Armistice Day 11 November 1920'.
Three years later, when Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon married Prince Albert, Duke of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth), she laid her bouquet on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, in tribute to her brother Fergus, who had died at the Battle of Loos in 1915. Royal brides who marry at the abbey have continued that tradition to this day – their bouquets laid on the tomb the day after the wedding.
Later memorials to the Unknown Warrior were also erected – in St Pol, where he was selected, at Dover Harbour, where he was brought ashore, and at Victoria Station, where he rested before burial. Van 132 was bought and restored and, now known as the Cavell van, is a permanent small museum in Bodiam to Cavell, Fryatt and the Unknown Warrior. Padre Railton ended his days in Scotland, retiring to Onich, before sadly losing his life falling from a moving train in Fort William station in 1955. But his remarkable tribute to the 886,000 military fatalities of WWI is still a powerful and important symbol, 100 years later.
Barbara Millar is a funeral celebrant and chief adjudicator of the Young Programme