In poignant memory of the padre who created the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior
Gerald Isaaman reports from France as Marlborough News Online goes abroad for the first time
The grandson of the Rev David Railton, the First World War padre who called for the creation of a Grave of the Unknown Warrior, made his own poignant pilgrimage on Saturday to the French town where the idea was conceived.
Barrister David Railton QC, namesake of the brave padre who never carried a gun but won the Military Cross for bravery in the trenches, had never before been to Erquingham Lys, near Armentieres.
He and his family were invited to see where his grandfather was billeted at the time he was conducting the burials of hundreds of soldiers who died on the battlefields – and unveil a unique memorial to him.
It stands opposite the war cemetery where soldiers from the Liverpool Scottish Regiment, who lost their lives, lie in graves decorated with lilies and roses of remembrance. Uniformed veterans of the regiment were present to honour their dead comrades and see the memorial event.
They lowered their banners and flags when kilted Scottish piper Robert Whyte, now a nearby resident of Erquingham Lys, played a lament as the combined French and British flags covering the granite memorial were lifted.
Then slowly raised them in tribute as the ‘into battle’ skirl of the Liverpool Scots – eight of whom won the MC in a celebrated raid on German trenches - followed.
It was a reminder of the fact that Kate Middleton, once a student at Marlborough College, left her wedding bouquet on the tomb in Westminster Abbey when she married heir to the throne Prince William in April.
By coincidence, David Railton too is an old Marlburian, as was his father, attending the College before going to Balliol, and the loyal family link is due to continue when his son, Andrew, becomes a Marlborough student next year.
Speaking first in French, then in English, David Railton told the gathering: “I know my grandfather would be very pleased and proud of this memorial.
“Not because it recognises his idea which led to an Unknown Warrior being buried in Westminster Abbey – my grandfather was a modest man, and had no interest in personal acclaim – but because, nearly 100 years on, it confirms the importance to all of us of the Grave of the Unknown Warrior."
“In his role as padre, my grandfather had to bury hundreds of soldiers whose identities were unknown. He also had to write a lot of letters, to loved ones at home. Like many padres on the front, it was clear to him that more distress was suffered by those who could not be told where their husband, father or son was resting, but who had at best a general map reference as to where he may have fallen.”
And he added: “The Grave of the Unknown Warrior changed that. It provided a place of both comfort and grief – not just for family and friends, but for the nation as a whole."
“It is the most respected Grave in the Abbey – and it provides us all with a lasting reminder of the enormous sacrifice made by so many for us."
“It took a lot of work by others, both in England, and here in France, to make my grandfather’s idea happen – but through the endeavours of your Historical Society, this has been identified as the place where that idea was born, in 1916, inspired by a cross on a simple grave in the garden of a nearby house, inscribed with the words: ‘An Unknown British Soldier - of the Black Watch’."
“So it is fitting that this memorial should be here – and on behalf of my family, I thank you for your generosity in arranging it, and for being here today on its unveiling.”
David Railton was then presented with the Medal of Erquingham Lys by the mayor of the town, Alain Bezirard, and toured a special exhibition in the town’s museum with British-born local historian Jack Thorpe, who inspired the setting up the museum and who organised Saturday’s event.
The Rev Railton, vicar of St John’s, Margate, when he died in 1955, had to wait until 1920 to see the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior created after he had originally written to the Dean of Westminster Abbey and received little initial support.
On November 7, 1920, the War Office issued instructions for four unidentified bodies to be exhumed, from four different battlefield cemeteries, and that night they were brought to the village of Saint-Pol sur Ternise, in the Pas de Calais, all placed on Union Jack-covered stretchers in front of the altar of a military chapel.
Then a blindfolded brigadier chose one of them, the men who had brought the bodies being sent away so that there was no danger of anyone revealing from which battlefield the chosen body had come.
The following morning the wooden coffin of the unknown soldier was ceremoniously brought across the Channel to London, where it received a 19-gun salute. The pall bearers taking the coffin into the Abbey were five admirals, four field marshals and two generals, Earl Haig among them.
“My grandfather never really recovered from the trauma of the war,” David Railton, who knew him only when he was a boy, told me. “He didn’t believe in war and was one of only a few padres willing to go into the trenches.
“He refused to carry a gun yet he was once mentioned in dispatches and was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery in saving a soldier…”