The final journey of the Unknown Warrior, 100 years ago

Prince Charles will follow in his great-grandfather’s footsteps on Wednesday at Westminster Abbey, a hundred years to the day since King George V attended an historic ceremony at the burial of a fallen soldier of unknown name and rank from the First World War.

On 11 November 1920, the body of one of the tens of thousands of British war dead was carried from Victoria station, where he had arrived from France, and taken through the London streets to be "buried among Kings" in the Abbey.

It remains, 100 years on, one of Britain’s most important war memorials.

His Majesty King George V paid his tribute as he placed a wreath on the coffin, mounted on a gun carriage. Credit: PA

Both the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior and the Cenotaph on Whitehall were unveiled on Armistice Day 1920 – just two years after the end of the Great War.

King George laid flowers on the coffin as it passed the new Cenotaph – which had replaced a temporary wooden structure erected for the first anniversary in 1919 – and he then scattered soil from the Western Front in France on the coffin as it was lowered in place.

More than a million people subsequently queued up to visit it and to honour the war dead.

Among them many widows and grieving mothers and fathers who had lost their sons and husbands in the war.

ITV News Royal Editor Chris Ship has more on the events of Armistice Day:

On Thursday, the King’s great-grandson, the Prince of Wales, will give a reading at Westminster Abbey in a much smaller ceremony than planned because of Covid-19.

The original plans had involved the Queen following the route of the coffin from the Cenotaph to the Abbey to mark the centenary.

But the 94-year old Monarch visited the Tomb on her own last week to pay her "personal" respects.

The Queen, who wore a mask for the first time in public, attended with only the Dean of Westminster, her Equerry and the Queen's Piper to keep the numbers as small as possible.

Queen Elizabeth II at the grave of the Unknown Warrior. Credit: PA

The story of the unknown warrior is a fascinating one and the idea was signed off by the Prime Minster, the Cabinet and then King George in August 1920.

It involved teams of soldiers returning to several battlefield sites in northern France and Belgium to exhume a number of bodies – it’s not known known exactly how many but most historians believe it was either four or six.

Those bodies were secretly taken to a chapel at a British base near the French town of Arras where the Commanding Officer chose which one of them would represent all those who had been recorded as missing in action, presumed dead, without a grave or a proper funeral.

The nation falls silent for two-minutes to mark Armistice Day:

He was not told which unit had exhumed which body, nor which battlefield they had died in.

No official record of how the Brigadier made his choice was ever released.

The selected body was transferred to a Royal Navy warship, HMS Verdun, who carried the coffin to Dover where, on 10 November 1920, a dark brown carriage lined with purple cloth was attached to the 5:20pm Dover to London service.

It arrived alongside platform eight of Victoria Station at 8:32pm where a plaque to commemorate the arrival still stands today.

Sentries guarded the coffin overnight and it made its final journey to the Abbey the following day, Armistice Day.

At Westminster Abbey meanwhile, they had begun the process of lifting the stone flags to starting digging the grave.

It was the first time soil at that site had been disturbed since the Abbey was built in the 11th Century.

When the coffin arrived at the Cenotaph just before 11am, it was met by King George who placed flowers on it and a personally written note.

The Unknown Warrior's coffin resting in Westminster Abbey, in London, before the burial ceremony. Credit: PA

He then unveiled the Cenotaph, newly built from Portland stone, and the huge crowds who had gathered in Westminster fell silent for two minutes.

King George and his two sons, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) and the Duke of York (later King George VI) followed on foot as the coffin made it way to Westminster Abbey.

The unknown soldier was buried under sandbags of soil brought to the site from the Western Front and the Abbey remained open for several days as so many bereaved families wanted to pay their respects.

The union flag draped over the coffin for its journey from France to the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior still hangs in the Abbey to this day.