Dover turns clock back a century to welcome home Unknown Soldier … again

Sir Michael Morpurgo is supporting a large-scale public performance to honour the warrior at the spot where his body returned to British soil

In 1916, the Rev David Railton, a former curate in Folkestone, was serving as a chaplain on the western front in France when he came across a makeshift grave in the back garden of a house at Armentières. The wooden cross above it bore the pencilled words “An Unknown British Soldier”.

Two years later, after armistice, Railton remembered that simple cross and suggested Britain might commemorate its own unknown warrior as a symbol of the many anonymous dead left in France. This November, a century after the first world war ended, the port of Dover is to stage a large-scale theatrical event to commemorate the arrival of that chosen soldier’s body back in Britain. The planned performance, announced in the Observer today, will involve drama, music, dance, digital art and a simulated “time tunnel”, and will be led by the Marlowe theatre in Canterbury.

The Return Of The Unknown is to be performed with a company of 400 volunteers from across Kent and will centre on Dover marine station, where the unidentified soldier’s body arrived back in Britain in 1920. The railway terminal on the western docks was also the embarkation point for many soldiers leaving Britain for the last time and the place where 1.26 million wounded servicemen returned. Sir Michael Morpurgo, author of War Horse, and patron of the Marlowe theatre, spoke in support of the project this weekend.

“How should we remember? We can’t. They are all gone. All we can remember is what they have done, and the peace they gave us, a peace we must hold dear. All we can do is sing the anthem; tell the story,” he said, adding that it is “wonderful” that the Marlowe will continue to tell the story with a new production set in a place “with so many stories to tell”.

The Return Of The Unknown is written by the Marlowe’s James Baldwin and directed by his colleague Andy Dawson, while the Jasmin Vardimon Company will train 60 young dancers. The people of Kent are also being asked for stories, poems and photographs from the first world war to form part of an exhibition.

“We were inspired by the space really,” the show’s producer, Fiona Banks, said. “And by the extraordinary numbers of the wounded that returned there. And then of course there are some wonderful descriptions of how the band played Land of Hope and Glory to the crowds as the Unknown Warrior arrived two years after the war. This is the right moment to mark it, as we remember the centenary. We really want to tell the story of this homecoming.”

In 1920 the task of finding an unidentified body to represent so many dead fell to another army chaplain, the Rev George Kendall. He and a team of five exhumed the remains of several candidates from battlefield cemeteries thought to have included sites at the Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres. They were brought to a military base at Saint Pol, near Arras in France, on 7 November.

Kendall, who died in 1961, never revealed where the remains were found. “But again I stress this great fact,” he once wrote. “The soldier lying in Westminster Abbey is British and unknown. He may have come from some little village or some city in this land, and he may be the son of a working man or of a rich man, ‘Unknown to man, but known to God’.”

King George V places a wreath on top of the coffin of the Unknown Warrior on 11 November 1920.
King George V places a wreath on top of the coffin of the Unknown Warrior on 11 November 1920. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The final selection of the warrior was made by the officer in charge of troops in France and Flanders, Brigadier General L J Wyatt. He simply placed his hand on one coffin, it is believed. The next day this coffin was taken to Boulogne and placed inside another, made of oak sent over from Hampton Court. It carried the inscription, “A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country” and had a 16th century sword from King George V’s private collection placed on the lid.

The oak coffin reached Dover aboard the destroyer HMS Verdun and went on to London by train. On the morning of 11 November, exactly two years after the end of the war, it was drawn on a gun carriage through London to Whitehall, where the new cenotaph was unveiled by George V.

A two-minute silence followed at 11am and then the cortege moved on to Westminster Abbey for the burial at the west end of the nave, after passing through a guard of honour of 100 holders of the Victoria Cross. The grave was filled with earth from French battlefields and the tomb inscribed with words from the Bible: “They buried him among the kings, because he had done good toward God and toward his house.” At the same moment in Paris, at the foot of the Arc de Triomphe, France buried its own Soldat Inconnu.

In the week after the interment an estimated 1,250,000 visited the abbey to pay their respects, and in October the following year, Britain’s unknown soldier was awarded the US Medal of Honor. Railton, who earned a Military Cross for a rescue carried out under heavy fire on the Somme, returned to Kent after the war to work as a parish priest in Margate, despite suffering severe depression. The “padre’s flag” he once used as an altar cloth and shroud in France was consecrated after the burial of the Unknown Warrior and now hangs in Westminster Abbey.


Vanessa Thorpe, arts and media correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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