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Selection of the Unknown Soldier candidates


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The original ideas for the selection of the Unknown Warrior were:-
“The Body must be an English Soldier, and that there could be no means of him being identified.                        
A Body should be chosen from each of the four Big Battle Areas
Aisne, Somme, Arras, Ypres

The Bodies should be brought to my Hd. Qrs. At St. Pol and placed in the Chapel there on the 8th November 1920,

The parties bringing the Body should at once return to their Areas.“


Is any information available as to how and where the various candidates were chosen or who did the choosing? It seems that only “bags of bones” were ultimately sent and I can see that a fleshy corpse would not have been appealing so maybe they were limited to old burials.

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It really does narrow down when you begin to think about it- it could not be a wholly unidentifiable  body, as the risk of it not being British  would be too great,=-whether that person was friend or foe. As I suggested in the original tease about this- I suspect it was done from the GRU sheets. Thus, partial ID could be excluded eg "A Sergeant of the Buiffs"  Thus, any entry by rank or by regiment would have to be excluded. 

   Again, UBS  recovered after the selection process have, obviously, to be excluded for obvious reasons.  So we should know that it was a "UBS"  that was  on the stocks of GRU records at the date of the selection process. I suspect also  that it would be very difficult indeed to be identify the actual cemeteries- though I have a memory that this is known.    It would not do,for example, if there were 99 men,for example of the Argylls missing on one day but many others identified in one cemetery- it might fuel endless speculation if there were 98 UBS in that cemetery. So I think this eliminates the smaller cemeterie or those from one regiment or action.s-it was not going to be from the Devonshire Cemetery at Mametz.  

    It would not surprise me if the choice was made from "New Arrivals" as concentration and clearing went on.

Edited by voltaire60
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Presumably one cemetery record shows a body to have been removed at the time of selection and not returned. Or was the permanent removal of a body not unusual?

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Dai Bach y Sowldiwr

Might it have been the case that the process was double blind?

In that a first initial selection was made of an unidentified  soldier of an identifiable British regiment.

But that the identifiers  were removed by the next person in the chain, and that person was not known to the first.

Thus you could guarantee the selection of an UBS.

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Dai Bach y Sowldiwr
3 minutes ago, PhilB said:

Presumably one cemetery record shows a body to have been removed at the time of selection and not returned. Or was the permanent removal of a body not unusual?

I would think that as the process  and the purpose was known to the higher echelons of HMG and IWGC, it would not be difficult to not record the removal  of a body. I seem to recall that the bodies not selected were subsequently buried in shell holes with the intention of being 'rediscovered'.

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All possibilities, Dai. I would like to know that ultimately it wasn`t a matter of "Sergeant, we have to supply an unidentified body - see to it will you?"

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18 minutes ago, Dai Bach y Sowldiwr said:

Might it have been the case that the process was double blind?

In that a first initial selection was made of an unidentified  soldier of an identifiable British regiment.

But that the identifiers  were removed by the next person in the chain, and that person was not known to the first.

Thus you could guarantee the selection of an UBS.

   I think that was the case- the original 6 (?) choices were kept together and an officer selected one at random-the others were re-buried locally.  So,yes, blind certainly- but the main work was at the Western Front end to make it a double blind. 

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19 minutes ago, Dai Bach y Sowldiwr said:

Might it have been the case that the process was double blind?

In that a first initial selection was made of an unidentified  soldier of an identifiable British regiment.

But that the identifiers  were removed by the next person in the chain, and that person was not known to the first.

Thus you could guarantee the selection of an UBS.

 

Would they on purpose strip a body from the last, remote chance of actually being identified for this purpose? Surely there must have been bodies available that could be identified as British by uniform and/or gear, but found without any unit and rank badges?

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There is a good piece from the Grauniad online about this, concerning the Rev. George Kendall, who was responsible for getting the 6 bodies from the battlefields. He wrote an autobiography in which he says:

 

In his autobiography, only discovered among his papers after his death and still unpublished, the chaplain wrote: “It has been stated that this is the greatest mystery of the first world war. I have been interviewed from time to time by the correspondents of nearly all our great national newspapers, asking me if I knew who he was, could I say where he was actually found, who was responsible for the idea? All I can say was that he was chosen from the countless unnamed dead in France and Flanders, that the nation might honour him, and this without distinction of rank, birth or service.

“Of course one might ask from what cemetery the bodies were selected! That I cannot answer, and the knowledge I have will die with me … The location can never be revealed, but again I stress this great fact – 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’.”

 

    What we could infer was that  each man selected was a "UBS" was was already in a cemetery.

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Another intriguing quote taken from the Westminster Abbey website also makes you stop and think.

 

“General Wyatt selected one and the two officers placed it in a plain coffin and sealed it. The other three bodies were reburied. General Wyatt said they were re-buried at the St Pol cemetery but Lt. (later Major General Sir) Cecil Smith says they were buried beside the Albert-Baupaume road to be discovered there by parties searching for bodies in the area.”

 

Can anyone enlighten me as to what actually happened? 

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This from the Royal British Legion website:

 

Suitable remains were exhumed from six principal battlefields - The Aisne, Marne, Cambrai, Somme, Arras and Ypres - and brought to the chapel at St Pol near Arras, France on the night of 7 November 1920.The bearer parties were immediately returned to their units and a guard placed on the door. At midnight Brigadier General L.J. Wyatt and Lieutenant Colonel E.A.S. Gell of the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries went into the chapel alone. The remains were on stretchers, each covered by a Union Flag: the two officers did not know from which battlefield any individual body had come. General Wyatt with closed eyes rested his hand on one of the bodies. The two officers placed the body in a plain coffin and sealed it. The other bodies were then taken away for reburial. It seems highly likely that the bodies were carefully selected and it is almost certain that the Unknown Warrior was a soldier serving in Britain's pre-war regular army and not a sailor, territorial, airman, or Empire Serviceman.

 

It seems to me most unlikely that the statement by RBL of the man being almost certainly a pre-war Regular has any substance. 

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10 minutes ago, voltaire60 said:

The other bodies were then taken away for reburial. It seems highly likely that the bodies were carefully selected and it is almost certain that the Unknown Warrior was a soldier serving in Britain's pre-war regular army and not a sailor, territorial, airman, or Empire Serviceman.

I thought  that the whole point of the body being called the "Unknown Warrior" was that the body might have been that of an airman or a member of the Royal Naval Division, and not necessarily an actual soldier.

Martin

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17 minutes ago, tootrock said:

I thought  that the whole point of the body being called the "Unknown Warrior" was that the body might have been that of an airman or a member of the Royal Naval Division, and not necessarily an actual soldier.

Martin

 

  Exactly so-it would be good to know the RBL thinking on this statement.

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Hedley Malloch

I have heard - and I don't know that it is true - that there was a preference for the body of the unknown soldier to be appropriate for its surroundings. He was to lie amongst Kings in a place at the heart of the Church of England in the capital city of Empire. So the body of a non-Christian (and possibly a RC) would have been inappropriate as would that of a black soldier, given the social and cultural mores or the time. Similarly, the possibility of a German unknown making its way into the final six had to be minimised.

 

Thinking was further complicated by the question of what type of British soldier best represented the nation's loss. A 1914 BEF or a Territorial a Kitchener's volunteer or a 1916+ conscript? The prevailing preference was for the first of these, a 1914 BEF member. Of course this ruled out Australian, Canadians, NZ, ... . But this was seen as another advantage.

 

These uncertainties were managed by narrowing down the short-list of cemeteries from which the final six were to be chosen. Clearly, there are some cemeteries which are more likely than others to produce a 1914 BEF unknown. And within these parameters and constraints, 'unknown' has to be 'unknown'. If he was exhumed from Ovillers CWGC, there is good chance that he was from Tyneside and a Kitchener's volunteer. Similarly, if a Catholic deceased soldier was to be avoided, then so would cemeteries with a high concentration of the dead of Irish regiments. On the other hand, if Tyne Cot is chosen then he could be anybody and for the reasons outlined above some selectivity was needed

 

I do not know the short list of six IWGC/CWGC cemeteries from which the shortlist was chosen. But I was told that for many years there was a rumour in the IWGC/CWGC that the body chosen to lie in Westminster Abbey was exhumed from Blauwepoort Farm CWGC, near Ypres.

 

I don't know if any of this is true. I don't have any proof. I pass this on in good faith.

 

 

 

 

Edited by Hedley Malloch
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Dai Bach y Sowldiwr
6 hours ago, voltaire60 said:

the knowledge I have will die with me … 

A splendid vow by the chaplain.

Although  reading about the process is intriguing, I think this  and all future generations should adhere to the belief that the Warrior truly is and  must remain unknown.

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9 hours ago, Dai Bach y Sowldiwr said:

Might it have been the case that the process was double blind?

In that a first initial selection was made of an unidentified  soldier of an identifiable British regiment.

But that the identifiers  were removed by the next person in the chain, and that person was not known to the first.

Thus you could guarantee the selection of an UBS.

 

Sounds like effort to me. Effort of a kind that the folks of those days did not much care for.

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The Unknown Warrior wasn’t without controversy at the time and for some years to follow it may appear. There were rumours that Wyatt knew who the soldier was and the ceremony of choosing him was all for show. To put the rumours to rest, Wyatt wrote in the Daily Telegraph on 11th November 1939 –

“The four bodies lay on stretchers, each covered with a union jack, in front of the alter was the shell of the coffin which had been sent from England to receive the remains. I selected one, and with the assistance of Colonel Gell, place it in the shell, we screwed sown the lid. The other bodies were removed and reburied in the military cemetery outside my headquarters at St Pol. I had no idea even of the area from which the body I selected had come, no one else can know it.”

 

In a letter sent to Rev Edward Carpenter Dean of Westminster in 1978 Sir Cecil Smith gave the following details –

“It is sometime been said that the three bodies not selected were buried in the military cemetery at St Pol. This is not so. It was, I believe thought that the unexplained appearance in this cemetery in which, being a hospital cemetery, all the names of the buried were known, of three unknown graves, might cause comment and perhaps undesirable speculation. It was therefore decided that the three…[illegible] bodies should be rediscovered and again buried as unknown British soldiers. An area currently under intense search, was selected and reconnoitred; it was the Albert-Banaue road. The party detailed to carry out this operation consisted of two officers of the Graves Commission who had carried out the reconnaissance, a Chaplain (Rev Standing), and myself, then a subaltern. My job was to drive the ambulance to convey the party. At midnight from the chapel the three bodies were placed in a car (I need hardly explain that each amounted to a small sandbag) and were taken over by the burial party. It was a cold night as we set off for Albert and the ambulance cars in those days had no windscreens… [because of the problems with the car], we arrived at the selected burial site long after the time planned which was in the dead of the night. Indeed day was breaking as we halted on the road and we could see on the horizon movements of parties of men who were that very day searching the area. We had to hurry! There was no lack of suitable places in which to deposit the bodies as the area had been fought over of course, and there were old trenches running in all directions. The burial party selected a spot and the bodies were quickly transferred. Soil was thrown on top of them and the Chaplain said an appropriate simple prayer; meanwhile I had turned the car to Albert. Some time later official search records showed that three unknown bodies had been found at the map reference where we had deposited our three and had been duly interred in a military cemetery.

 

The only evidence I have ever seen that has suggested where the remains were exhumed appears in The Illustrated London News, November 1920 in which Sir Philip Gibbs writes “The bringing of the Unknown Warrior from his grave in Flanders…”   which is little more than patriotic journalism of the most synonymous place on the Western Front. Those that were responsible with the tasks involved with the whole exhumation and  selection process were, I’m sure, honourable men and carried these tasks out diligently, but, as it would appear didn’t take everything to the grave with them.

I have no trouble believing the Unknown Warrior laid to rest in Westminster Abbey is completely unknown by name, rank, or regiment and no one can say from where the body was exhumed, all that is known is his nationality. I can also believe what Hedley has touched upon regarding an ‘appropriate selection’ and its probable route to controversy, or that it should be a casualty from an earlier battle. There is only one way to determine who is buried amongst the Kings and that really isn’t going to happen is it… the disdain would be beyond belief and undermine everything the Unknown Warrior perpetuates.

 

The Unknown Warrior travelled 1st Class at our expense only once, dead and anonymously. He was treated royally only when it was impossible to know who he had ever been. the red tabs would not have allowed him to board their train in life. Only in death and without his name was he granted an upgrade.

Edited by jay dubaya
I embarrassingly removed something it was late... and I'm sticking to that
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Heid the Ba

RBL says six bodies and General Wyatt says four.

22 hours ago, PhilB said:

All possibilities, Dai. I would like to know that ultimately it wasn`t a matter of "Sergeant, we have to supply an unidentified body - see to it will you?"

"Sergeant, why is there the body of a French farmer outside?"

 

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Would anyone like to propose a more credible version of the four/six disinterments of the candidates? They wouldn’t have known the state any body until they unearthed it so I don’t think they could have just picked one from the records. I don’t know how long bodies take to become bones in Western Front cemeteries (probably quite variable) but I suspect that a battlefield clearance (of long exposed bodies) would have been a better option.

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44 minutes ago, PhilB said:

Would anyone like to propose a more credible version of the four/six disinterments of the candidates? They wouldn’t have known the state any body until they unearthed it so I don’t think they could have just picked one from the records

 

  I would disagree- the GRU sheets would record what information there was-"Remains of collar badges", "Seergeant's stripes"etc, So it would have narrowed considerably what to dig up.

But I am in  agreement that skeletonised remains not yet formally concentrated by GRU does seem a very practical way out of it. I note the coyness about saying whether the remains-anyof them- were taken from a cemetery- At that time, there were still many,many "Unknowns" in their original graves all across the battlefields.

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It appears that:-

" in August 1914, in the British army there were 28,000 Irish-born regular soldiers and 30,000 reservists who were immediately called up back to the colours." 

https://www.qub.ac.uk/sites/irishhistorylive/IrishHistoryResources/Articlesandlecturesbyourteachingstaff/IrelandandtheFirstWorldWar/

As the BEF of 1914 was about a quarter of a million strong, the UW could well be an Irishman. I doubt that matters much except to the purist.

 

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On 01/09/2020 at 09:36, PhilB said:

The original ideas for the selection of the Unknown Warrior were:-
“The Body must be an English Soldier, and that there could be no means of him being identified.                        
A Body should be chosen from each of the four Big Battle Areas
Aisne, Somme, Arras, Ypres

The Bodies should be brought to my Hd. Qrs. At St. Pol and placed in the Chapel there on the 8th November 1920,

The parties bringing the Body should at once return to their Areas.“


Is any information available as to how and where the various candidates were chosen or who did the choosing? It seems that only “bags of bones” were ultimately sent and I can see that a fleshy corpse would not have been appealing so maybe they were limited to old burials.

Where is this quotation from please? I do not recognise it from published sources.

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Hedley Malloch
6 hours ago, PhilB said:

It appears that:-

" in August 1914, in the British army there were 28,000 Irish-born regular soldiers and 30,000 reservists who were immediately called up back to the colours." 

https://www.qub.ac.uk/sites/irishhistorylive/IrishHistoryResources/Articlesandlecturesbyourteachingstaff/IrelandandtheFirstWorldWar/

As the BEF of 1914 was about a quarter of a million strong, the UW could well be an Irishman. I doubt that matters much except to the purist.

 

 

The key to this is knowing the cemeteries from which the bodies were chosen. If one chooses Etreux, the chances favour the selection of an Irishman. Five miles up the road there is Landrecies where the odds of landing an Irishman are much reduced. So who chose the cemeteries from which the selection was to be made and how? And assuming that they did not use some method based on chance, then what criteria did they use? But it is certain that four (or was it six) parties of soldiers climbed on to the back of lorries, which were then sent in the direction of the named battle areas with instructions to dig up the first UBS they came across. Presumably there was a commanding officer in charge of these parties. Who were they, what were they told and who told them?

 

There had to be some screening criteria used for the selection of the cemeteries. And you don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to accept that these might have favoured a 1914 BEF regular or reservist, who was English, and therefore almost certainly white and most likely protestant. The decision might have emerged from the unspoken values, tacit assumptions and implicit values of whichever officers and/or CoE clergy made the decision. In other words, the decision was the product of the culture of the British army officer class of 1920.

 

Why is this topic being discussed in two separate threads?

 

 

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3 hours ago, Muerrisch said:

Thank you I have found the post by Dr Sutton, using SEARCH. 

 

There are so many discrepancies between so many accounts of the Selection of the British Warrior that we may relax in the knowledge that he will for ever be Unknown except to God.

 

Clearly the Sutton transcribed account is a most important contribution. Unfortunately it seems not to have been dated, but appears almost verbatim with Wyatts' letter to the D Tel some 19 years after the event.

For a coherently written and properly referenced booklet see The Story of the British Unknown Warrior by Michael Gavaghan. He leans most heavily on Wyatt but differs [as do several other important contributors] on the disposal of the rejected three bodies.

 

My purpose in adding to the dialogue is to point out the absurdity of even attempting to choose an "English" corpse, or an Irish one, or a Scottish one, or Welsh, or RC ,or C of E, or whatever.

Even if the suggested preference for a 1914 death were true, the received idea that any given battalion had an overwhelming membership from a particular area of the nation is risible. A glance at the 1911 census should convince anyone of that. The ground-breaking analyses of national/area/county origin in the various infantry regiments by GUEST have surely put to bed for ever that simplistic belief. 

If the caricatured English Protestant Officer Class had subconsciously wanted to choose 4 or 6 cemeteries ,each guaranteed to contain a randomly chosen Tommy Atkins, or exclude a RC Irishman, the odds were very stacked against them.

 

 

If one searches 1911 Census Demographics  led by GUEST it becomes obvious that many units had vast spreads of origins for their men. I will find some examples.

 

At random: 

1st Bn Scots Guards - Egypt  - 1911 Census. 753 named men of whom 749 recorded their place of birth. Very slightly more Scots-born than the 2nd Battalion. 

 

Country of Birth

England      429     = 57%
Scotland     266     = 36%
Ireland         38
Wales            8
SA                 2
US                 2
Australia        1
India              1
Jamaica         1
S America      1

Unknown       4
Total          753

Edited by Muerrisch
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