ROBERT HARDMAN watches the poignant Armistice Day ceremony in London
100 years on, and a singular salute to Unknown Warrior: ROBERT HARDMAN watches the poignant Armistice Day ceremony in London
Published: 22:12, 11 November 2020 | Updated: 22:13, 11 November 2020
Their loss had been so great that the threatened resurgence of a deadly influenza virus did nothing to deter the colossal crowds which turned out 100 years ago. Here were commemorations of a type never seen before or since.
Yet, in its own, socially distanced way, yesterday’s centenary of the Funeral of the Unknown Warrior was something of a one-off, too.
Back on Armistice Day 1920, the state funeral for an unidentified British serviceman killed on the Western Front electrified a nation still dumb with grief.
Millions mourning a missing loved one now had two magnetic points for their grief – the Cenotaph, which was unveiled during the funeral procession, and a grave in pride of place in Westminster Abbey.
Yesterday, exactly a century on, a congregation of just 85 had been admitted to the abbey to honour both the Unknown Warrior and Armistice Day itself.
Back on Armistice Day 1920, the state funeral for an unidentified British serviceman killed on the Western Front electrified a nation still dumb with grief
A very grand state occasion had originally been planned. Covid-19 forced its distillation down to the bare essentials.
Yet the dignity and gravity of the occasion remained undiminished, with the Prince of Wales, the Prime Minister, the chiefs of staff and the Archbishop of Canterbury all spaced at appropriate intervals down the nave.
The Queen had come to pay her respects alone the week before. Given Covid-19 outbreak, which struck after the last royal service at the abbey on Commonwealth Day in March (laying low both Prince Charles and the PM soon after), it was deemed wiser for Her Majesty to avoid an indoor crowd.
The prince had come bearing a huge and rather striking wreath of bay leaves and red roses.
Though the nation has come to regard the poppy as the symbol of remembrance, that idea had yet to emerge in 1920. The Prince’s wreath was an exact replica of that laid by his great-grandfather George V a century before.
However, the royal party had been determined to include the poppy in yesterday’s proceedings.
But, in its own, socially distanced way, yesterday’s centenary of the Funeral of the Unknown Warrior was something of a one-off, too. Pictured: Boris Johnson lays a red rose on the grave of the unknown warrior at Westminster Abbey
The royal Rolls-Royce had a spray of red and black sprouting from its radiator grill – much like a patriotic cab or truck – while the Duchess of Cornwall wore a Royal British Legion mask covered in poppies. The prince wore a more sober purple one, hand-crafted by his Turquoise Mountain charity.
It did little to muffle those familiar tones as he read the first lesson – ‘Greater love hath no man’ – before the Archbishop stepped up to the pulpit.
From this position, Justin Welby was regarded as sufficiently distant from everyone else to deliver his sermon unmasked.
Honouring all those on every battlefield who were ‘unnamed and unclaimed except by God’, he drew parallels between then and now through the themes of shared sacrifice and anonymity: ‘This year sacrifices have been made and are being made by thousands, even millions, unknown.’
The royal Rolls-Royce had a spray of red and black sprouting from its radiator grill – much like a patriotic cab or truck – while the Duchess of Cornwall wore a Royal British Legion mask covered in poppies
Boris Johnson read from the diary of a blind veteran who had been present in 1920.
The singer Cerys Matthews recited a heartbreaking letter from a grieving mother in absolutely no doubt that the Unknown Warrior was her husband.
Back in 1920, the foremost seats in the abbey had gone to women who had lost both husbands and sons. The guard of honour had included around 100 holders of the Victoria Cross, including Lt-Col Bernard Freyberg VC and the most decorated non-commissioned soldier of the Great War, Lance Corporal William Coltman VC, DCM & Bar, MM & Bar.
Yesterday, those invited to read prayers included Freyberg’s grandson, Lord Freyberg, and Colour Sergeant Johnson Beharry VC, whose heroism under enemy fire (and while seriously wounded) saved many lives in Iraq.
Afterwards, the latter reflected on the trauma facing all those families a century before with no clue to the whereabouts of a beloved father, husband or son.
‘Even if I didn’t come back alive, my family would have had a body
The dignity and gravity of the occasion remained undiminished, with the Prince of Wales, the Prime Minister, the chiefs of staff and the Archbishop of Canterbury all spaced at appropriate intervals down the nave
to grieve over,’ he said. ‘So I cannot even imagine what it was like 100 years ago. It makes you think how important this grave is to so many.’
A short walk away on Whitehall, a similar ceremony was taking place at the Cenotaph.
It is organised each year by the Western Front Association, the charity that educates future generations on the Great War and which today launches a powerful film for this centenary.
At the eleventh hour, Lance Sergeant Stuart Laing of the Welsh Guards played the Last Post on a regimental bugle recovered from the Somme.
Though there had been no publicity, in order to deter crowds, a few hundred turned up regardless. They included some of those who had been unable to take part in Remembrance Sunday’s Royal British Legion parade due to Covid restrictions.
‘It was a pity we couldn’t march. But we’re servicemen and we’re used to taking orders,’ said ex-Chief Petty Officer Coxswain Iain Mackenzie, 67.
He drove from Sussex to lay the wreath of the Submariners’ Association.
Unlike last weekend, when police sealed off Whitehall, they were standing back yesterday. Unfortunately, this was exploited by a tiny group from Extinction Rebellion, who saw fit to unravel a climate change banner on this most sacred of monuments on this most sacred of days.
As everyone else was quick to point out, such a protest was only possible thanks to the freedoms secured by those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
‘There’s a place for protest and a place for remembrance and it is sad and wrong to confuse them,’ said Richard Hughes, trustee of the Western Front Association.
Whatever the protest hoped to achieve, it was monumentally inappropriate. Take just one of the tributes laid at the Cenotaph yesterday.
It read: ‘To the world a soldier, to me a son.
Love and miss you always and forever, Mum.’
It was dedicated to Lance Sergeant David Greenhalgh of the Grenadier Guards, killed in action in 2010.
A century on, let no one think that yesterday’s events and what they represent are now somehow consigned to the history books.
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