100 years ago, 2 years ago, 1 year ago, Next year?

One hundred years ago today the unknown soldier was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey, London. At the same time a similar ceremony interred the body of the French unknown soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The idea of returning the body of an unknown soldier home from the European theatre of war is credited to the Reverend David Railton MC (1884-1955) and the body was chosen from a number of servicemen (some accounts say six but confirmed accounts say four) exhumed from four battle areas – the Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres. Final selection was entrusted to Brigadier General L J Wyatt, the then General Officer Commanding troops in France and Flanders, in the chapel at Saint Pol-sur-Ternoise near Arras on 7 November 1920. Wyatt was unaware of the battlefield the body had come from nor the identity of the body he selected. Afterwards the bodies not selected were taken away for reburial by the Reverend George Kendall OBE. The body of the unknown soldier was ultimately brought to Dover from Boulogne in the destroyer HMS VERDUN and from Dover to London by train.

On the morning of 11 November 1920 the casket was drawn through immense and silent crowds in a route that went via Hyde Park corner, down The Mall and onto Whitehall. King George V unveiled the new Cenotaph and laid his personal wreath of red roses and bay leaves on the coffin. The last post was sounded before the gun carriage completed the journey to the Abbey. The casket was borne into the West Nave flanked by a a guard of honour of one hundred recipients of the Victoria Cross drawn from all three services. The escorting pall bearers numbered four Admirals, four Field Marshals, three Generals and the first ever Air Chief Marsal. Also present were a group of one hundred women all of them chosen because they had lost their husbands and all their sons during the war. The unknown soldier was interred in soil brought from the main battlefields and covered with a silk pall. The grave was filled using one hundred sandbags of earth from the battlefields of northern Europe on 18 November 1920 and covered with a temporary stone. The present black marble stone was unveiled on 11 November 1921.

The body of the unknown soldier may be from any of the three services, Royal Navy, Army or Royal Flying Corps/Royal Air Force, and from any part of the British Isles, Dominions or Colonies and represents all those who died who have no other memorial or known grave.

Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day this year were both very different occasions. No packed churches, no large gatherings around city, town or village war memorials. In Eccleshall only the muffled tenor bell rang out and the remaining bells lay silent. My two minutes silence this year was observed from the bottom of my garden, across the road and overlooking the war memorial. Two years ago I was a small part of a small team that helped research and then add to the town war memorial the names of seventeen Eccleshall men killed during the First World War whose names, for various reasons, were missed off the town war memorial when it was originally dedicated and unveiled in 1921. The war memorial was rededicated by the Bishop of Stafford in 2018 to mark the centenary of the end of the fighting, in a ceremony that reflected, as near as we could replicate, the original dedication. We were fortunate to be joined by some of the families of the “missing seventeen”

Exactly two years ago today I wrote a blog entitled We will remember them …. and I’m going to republish it today if full:

“100 years ago today the guns fell silent on the Western Front in Europe, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the Armistice marking the end of the fighting of World War One having been signed at 5.20am that morning. This morning I dusted off my uniform and medals and joined a congregation of over 500 men, women and children to mark Remembrance Sunday and the centenary of the Armistice. I read the second reading in church (Matthew, 5 verses 1-12), the last post rang out at precisely 11am and 39 poppy wreaths were laid at the Eccleshall War memorial. On this centenary year, we have added the names of 17 men from Eccleshall, killed during the Great War, whose names were missing off the war memorial when it was originally unveiled in 1921. Later this afternoon I rang the half tonne tenor bell as I joined 7 other bell ringers in ringing a 47 minute quarter peel to mark the Centenary. The bells had rung a quarter peel, half-muffled, earlier in the day ringing the 6 bells that date back to before 1914 and would therefore have rung to celebrate the end of the fighting 100 years ago today.

The Central Council of Church Bell Ringers (CCCBR) have mounted a campaign to recruit an additional 1,400 new bell ringers this year; 1,400 being the number of bell ringers known to have lost their lives during the First World War. After the original Armistice every bell tower in the country was written to in order to compile a central roll of honour. 1,100 names were recorded. During the Centenary this list has been reviewed and in the process the Council discovered a further 300 bell ringers who died in service. Two bell towers – Edington in Wiltshire and Bamburgh in Northumberland – lost 6 bell ringers each. The Edington ringers were at the heart of the community. While one was a carer in a local hospital, others were farmers and another a wheelwright. Four of the six played in the local football team. None were recorded on the original roll of honour because no one was left in the tower to reply to the original CCCBR letter.

Services, ceremonies and parades often centre on Cenotaphs, war memorials and cemeteries and there are some 2,500 Commonwealth War Cemeteries worldwide. In each of these cemeteries headstones inscribed simply “A soldier known unto God” mark the final resting places of those who could not be identified. The huge monuments at the Menin Gate and at Thiepval list the 55,000 and 72,000 British and Commonwealth troops who have no known graves from the battles around Ypres and on the Somme respectively. It is often surprising to come across sailors at some of these sites so far from the sea but the Royal Navy provided a Division, some 10,000 men, who saw action on the Western Front in the First World War, including during the battles on The Somme and at Passchendaele.

The memorials to the officers and men of the Royal Navy and Commonwealth navies who were killed at sea and have no known graves are at Plymouth, on Plymouth Hoe overlooking Plymouth Sound, , at Southsea in Portsmouth overlooking The Solent and e memorials the approaches to Portsmouth Harbour, and at Chatham. They list a total of 66,500 officers and men. Other naval memorials can be found at Halifax and Victoria in Canada, Auckland, Mumbai, Chittagong and Hong Kong and in each case the men listed have no other grave than the sea. More than 3,000 British flagged merchant vessels and fishing vessels were lost during the First World War. 4,700 were lost during WW2. Civilian merchant sailors and fishermen are remembered on memorials in coastal towns and cities throughout the country. The Tower Hill Memorial is a pair of memorials in Trinity Square on Tower Hill, London that commemorates 12,000 civilian merchant sailors and fishermen killed as a result of enemy action in the First World War and 24,000 merchant seamen killed during the Second World War, all of whom have no known grave other than the sea.

In ocean wastes no poppies blow,

No crosses stand in ordered row,

There young hearts sleep… beneath the wave…

The spirited, the good, the brave,

But stars in constant vigil keep,

For them who lie beneath the deep,

‘Tis true you cannot kneel in prayer

On certain spot and think “He’s there.”

But you can to the ocean go …

See whitecaps marching row on row;

Know one for him will always ride…

In and out… with every tide.

And when your span of life has passed,

He’ll meet you at the “Captain’s Mast.”

And they who mourn on distant shore

For sailors who’ll come home no more,

Can dry their tears and pray for these

Who rest beneath the heaving seas…

For stars that shine and winds that blow

And whitecaps marching row on row.

And they can never lonely be

For when they lived … they chose the sea (Eileen Mahoney, 2001)

HMS COVENTRY, sunk with the loss of 19 officers and men, May 1982

HMS COVENTRY (above) was hit by three 1,000lb bombs in the South Atlantic on 25 May 1982. She sank in 12 minutes. HMS BARHAM (below) was hit by three torpedoes in the Mediterranean on 25 November 1941. She blew up within five minutes of being torpedoed with the loss of 859 officers and men. Next of kin were asked to keep their husbands/sons loss secret ….. “it is most essential that information of the events which led to your husband’s loss of life should not find its way to the enemy until such time as it is announced officially.” The sinking of HMS BARHAM was announced on 27 January 1942.

Remembrance Sunday services on board Her Majesty’s Ships will have been held this year as they alweays are by those warships, men and women who are on patrol. In the larger of our ships these services will be conducted by the ship’s own chaplain. In ship[s away for 6 month periods, such as the Falkland Islands or the Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean, chaplains will; be deployed and will conduct such services, but in other minesweepers, frigates, destroyers and submarines the Captain will often lead and conduct the service. Traditionally, and where possible such services are held on the upper deck (ie outside) and are attended by all personnel other than those required to keep the ship functioning. The ship’s Battle Honours Board (a carved wooden board on which all the Naval battles in which ships of that name have seen action are engraved) often acts as the centre piece on which poppy wreaths are laid by the Captain and, often, the most junior person onboard. Wreaths are not as a matter of course put into the sea except on occasions when ships are in the vicinity of known naval wrecks (classified themselves as war graves) where every effort will be made to lay wreaths in the vicinity. Services where such wreaths are laid on the site of a wreck of a ship of the same name can be particularly moving. Ships operating in the South China Sea nearly always divert to hold services over the wrecks of HMShips PRINCE OF WALES and REPULSE, the final resting place of over 800 officers and men killed in December 1941. Both wrecks, upside down in about 65m of water, have buoys and wires fixed to their propeller shafts to which large white ensigns are attached and regularly replaced beneath the surface of the sea.

This time next year, on Armistice Day, I will be about 12 days or so into the Clipper 2019-2020 crossing of the Southern Ocean. I will be somewhere like 2,400 miles from South Africa and a similar distance from Western Australia, pretty much right in the middle. It is highly possible that, with the exception of the other Clipper yachts, the nearest humans will be those manning the International Space Station, but …….. with “whitecaps marching row on row” …. I will remember them.

It turned out I was wrong about my future location. One year on from that blog, and this time last year, I was still in Cape Town, South Africa with the UNICEF team, the exact race dates having been adjusted between writing my We will remember them blog and the race starting in the summer of 2019. This time last year we were only about half way through our period in Cape Town having completed Leg 2 of the Race from Punta del Este in Uruguay to South Africa. 4050 nautical miles across the South Atlantic completed in 15 days. max wind force 11 (violent storm 56-63 kts, 37ft+ waves, knocked down and washed down the deck by large waves three times, Jerry and Christian both broke ribs! And we came second!! I couldn’t get to the 11 November service in Cape Town as crew duty had me wielding a drill, sailmakers needle and a sailmakers palm inside a tent on the quayside helping repair sails but I was pleased that my friend and fellow UNICEF team sailing colleague Tim Chappell was representing us all. Tim, at the ripe old age of 71 was about to join the team for our even more eventful crossing of the Southern Ocean to Fremantle in Western Australia.


So what about a prediction for 11 November 2021??? I guess much still hangs on COVID-19. Should I tempt fate? On current (rather sketchy) long term 2021 planning I should be in the UK. But should that read back in the UK? Or will it read still in the USA having crossed the Pacific? Or might it read still in the Pacific if Leg 3 last year and our diversion/late arrival into Fremantle is anything to go by? I think that covers most bases! Good night.