Why 2020 is the perfect year for the ‘Unknown Warrior’

Almost as soon as we get back after half term it will be Remembrance-tide. Secondary Committee member Gemma Hargraves suggests that a focus on the ‘Unknown Warrior’ would be perfect for 2020.

This year I will focus my remembrance assembly on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. Not only because he was carried through the doors of Westminster Abbey 100 years ago this year. But because the idea of the ‘unknown warrior’ is such a perfect analogy for all the unknown, faceless, nameless people who are currently missing from our History curricula.

So here’s the story: At midnight on the 7 of November 1920, a Brigadier entered a hut in a village near Ypres. There were the remains of four bodies lying under Union flags in front of him. Earlier that day, the bodies had been disinterred from unmarked graves in battlefields, including the Somme. Four blank crosses had been chosen from the forest of crosses that covered the shell-cratered landscape. In addition to coming from unmarked graves, the bodies all belonged to soldiers who had died early in the War. The bodies had to be as old as possible to ensure they could no longer be identified.

They were received by a British padre and two undertakers who had travelled to France for the occasion. There, wrapped in sacks, the bodies were examined to make sure they had no identifying marks, then placed inside the hut for the remainder of the day. Later, the Brigadier lifted up his lamp to make his choice. He touched one of the Union flags, and it was done. The body that would inhabit the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior had been chosen.

This anonymous body would soon become the focus of a nation’s grief.

Perhaps Lionel Turpin, born in British Guiana, died too late to be considered for this final duty. He was a proud Brit, who enlisted in 1915 and fought at the Battle of the Somme.

Or Water Tull, perhaps the most celebrated Black British soldier of the First World War. He served in what became known as the Football Battalion. Half of this battalion would be killed in action, and in 1916 Walter was diagnosed with shell shock and hospitalised for a few months. Later, he was selected to become an officer, despite it being very rare at that time for a man of African descent to become an officer. Walter served with distinction, but in March 1918 he was killed while crossing no-mans land in France, and his body was never recovered (although his men tried and tried).

Or a man who I was personally proud to learn about, Jamaican born George Edward Kingsley Bemand, who became a Second Lieutenant in my regiment, the Royal Artillery, in May 1915. Sadly he was killed by a shell on Boxing Day in 1916. Not too late to be the ‘unknown soldier’?

As well as highlighting the story of the ‘unknown soldier’ and mentioning these men, I’ll be encouraging our pupils to research those who served in the First World War with links to their own families and surnames, via the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). By encouraging pupils to engage in their own research I hope to ignite their passion and interest in historical conflicts and remembrance. I may not succeed with all pupils, but like the lone body chosen to be the Unknown Warrior, I hope for one pupil, at least one, this year may be significant. With engaging stories, a diverse and representative mix of characters, and respectful remembrance, this may be the year we ignite the spark that is a lifelong love of History for some.

So for me, this is the year to delve in to the unknown and revisit what we think we know. And what better way than with some recommended reading:

  • The World’s War by David Olusoga
  • Black Poppies by Stephen Bourne

You can find some ideas for remembrance assemblies here:

And a view on the role of CWGC, especially at key anniversaries https://www.history.org.uk/publications/resource/9442/we-will-remember-them-well-most-of-them

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