Thursday, 04 September 2014 01:00

Behind the Unknown Warrior

Known and yet not well known

Past Grand Chaplain and member of the Supreme Council of the 33rd Degree, Rev Dr John Railton explores the origins of the Unknown Warrior

At the west end of the nave of Westminster Abbey, covered by a slab of black Belgian marble, is the grave of the Unknown Warrior. The body was brought from France to be buried here on 11 November 1920 and, in the week after the burial, it is estimated that over one million people visited the Abbey. Now one of the most visited war graves in the world, my father’s cousin David Railton first conceived the idea when he came across a grave marked by a rough cross, which bore the pencil-written legend ‘An Unknown British Soldier’.

David volunteered as an army chaplain when he was just thirty-one. Leaving his position as a curate in Folkestone, he went out to the Western Front on 11 January 1916 and served with the ‘Tommies’ in the trenches for the duration of World War I. His faith, compassion and courage are all evident from what survives of his wartime correspondence with his wife, Ruby. It was in the late summer of 1916 that he was awarded the Military Cross for his part in saving an officer and two soldiers from certain death in the High Wood action on the Somme. A month later, the idea of a tomb dedicated to an unknown soldier was planted in David’s mind and his vision began to take shape.

Divine inspiration

In an article published in Our Empire in November 1931, David describes vividly how the notion came to him: ‘I came back from “the line” at dusk. We had just laid to rest the mortal remains of a comrade. I went to a billet in front of Erquinghem, near Armentières. At the back of the billet was a small garden, and in the garden, only about six paces from the house, there was a grave. At its head, there stood a rough cross of white wood. On the cross was clearly written in deep black-pencilled letters: “An Unknown British Soldier”, and in brackets underneath, “of the Black Watch”. 

‘It was dusk and nobody was near, except some officers in the billet playing cards. I remember how still it was. Even the guns seemed to be resting, as if to give their gunners a chance to have their tea. How that grave caused me to think! Quietly and gradually there came out of the mist of thought this answer clear and strong: “Let this body – this symbol of him – be carried reverently over the sea to his native land.”’

Plans taking shape

The idea stayed with David throughout the war and after the Armistice, but he was reluctant to do anything about it – mainly because he thought that an idea from a humble padre would be unlikely to find favour with those in authority. After the war, David returned to his curacy in Folkestone and was then appointed vicar of St John the Baptist in Margate. For a long time he contemplated writing to General Sir Douglas Haig, but never did. It was with the encouragement of his wife that eventually, in August 1920, David wrote to Bishop Herbert Ryle, Dean of Westminster Abbey. He suggested that the remains of an unidentifiable serviceman be buried in Westminster Abbey as the representative of the thousands of soldiers who had died in the war.

Ryle appears to have embraced the idea and approached both Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street. Prime Minister David Lloyd George received it enthusiastically because it fitted so well with his own vision of a ‘national memorial’, which Sir Edwin Lutyens had been commissioned to design and which we all now know as the Cenotaph in Whitehall. 

Once the proposal had been adopted and a formal announcement made on 19 October, a Memorial Service Committee under the Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon was established, arrangements were made swiftly and orders were issued. 

On Sunday, 7 November 1920, four individual parties of soldiers were sent out to the four principal battlefields – Somme, Ainse, Arras and Ypres – to exhume four corpses. They were identified as British by their boots and buttons, but their ranks were unknown. The corpses were sewn into sackcloth, taken to a swiftly built temporary Chapel at St Pol, laid out on trestles and covered with Union Flags under the supervision of Rev George Kendall – an army chaplain who had been sent out from London with two undertakers. 

Brigadier General L J Wyatt had succeeded Haig as General Officer Commanding British Forces in France and Flanders. According to his letter to the Daily Telegraph in November 1939, at midnight on that Sunday night, after the chaplain, the undertakers and the exhumation parties had all dispersed, General Wyatt entered the chapel with a member of his staff, Colonel Gell. He selected one covered body and then, with Colonel Gell, lifted it into a prepared plain deal coffin shell, before securing and sealing the lid. 

The chapel stayed under guard overnight. The coffin shell containing the Unknown Warrior was placed in a coffin of English oak and was prepared for transit back to England by train and a Royal Naval destroyer.

On Thursday, 11 November 1920, the Unknown Warrior travelled by gun carriage from Victoria station via The Mall and Trafalgar Square for the ceremony to unveil the Cenotaph in Whitehall at precisely 11.00am. The Union Flag covering the coffin was the one used by David throughout the war, both as an altar cloth for services on the battlefield and as a shroud at the battlefield burial of soldiers killed in action. After unveiling the Cenotaph, the King laid a wreath on the coffin and then walked in procession behind it to Westminster Abbey. The Unknown Warrior was buried at the west end of the nave and the grave filled with soil brought from France.

Westminster dedication

A year later, David carried his Union Flag to the altar in Westminster Abbey where it was dedicated to, and then laid up over, the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. The flag remained there for thirty-two years until 1953, when it was moved because it was obstructing the view of the cameras filming the Coronation. It has hung in nearby St George’s Chapel ever since.

My father was in the Honourable Artillery Company during World War I, having signed up six months before his eighteenth birthday. However, being sixteen years younger than David, he didn’t get out to France. 

I do know from my conversations with my father that he and David were in frequent touch with each other during the immediate post-war years and met several times, probably during the mid 1920s when David was Vicar of St John the Baptist in Margate and my father was a schoolmaster in Essex. The impression I have is that my father found David to be a role model.

The concept of a Tomb of an Unknown Warrior was picked up almost immediately by France and, later, by the United States along with many other nations. 

But the original idea came from David.

David Railton was born in Leytonstone on 13 November 1884, the second son of George Scott Railton, the first commissioner of The Salvation Army. 


David graduated from Keble in 1908 and was ordained the same year, taking his first curacy at Edge Hill, Liverpool. It was there that he met his wife, Ruby. They moved to Kent in 1910 and their first daughter was born in 1913. David was appointed curate in Folkestone in 1914. He moved from Margate to take up a post as curate at Christ Church, Westminster, then took incumbencies in Bolton, Shalford and Liverpool, before retiring in 1945 at the age of sixty-one. 

Letters to the Editor – No. 29 Spring 2015


As a resident of the Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution’s Harewood Court, I am passed a copy of Freemasonry Today by one of my colleagues as I appreciate many of the historical inclusions.

I have known the story well of the Unknown Warrior for my father was one of the bearers of the gun carriage in St Pol in 1920. My late husband was a member of City of London Rifles Lodge, No. 5606, and in the late sixties we attended a ladies night at the Russell Hotel. My father was invited to attend, and shortly after arrival he pronounced that he knew one of my husband’s colleagues. The last time they were together was in St Pol in 1920. The colleague was a sergeant in the Royal Engineers burial party. They had plenty to chat about!

Jeanne N H Kick, Harewood Court, Hove, East Sussex

Published in Features

Bicentenary Celebration Convocation of Supreme Grand Chapter 
16 October 2013 
An address by E Comp the Rev Dr John Railton, PGSwdB

Most Excellent First Grand Principal and Companions, a couple of months ago, a much-loved and highly respected member of our Order asked me what would be the theme of my Oration this afternoon. At that stage, to be perfectly honest, I hadn’t given it much thought, but I muttered something about the inexorable march of time. I won’t tell you exactly what he said, but he clearly wasn’t over-impressed! I’m most grateful to him, though, because it was his question which prompted me to recognise that, in reflecting on the significance of this occasion, my task is to navigate a careful course between the rocks of controversy on the one hand and the sandbanks of platitude on the other. So my aim this afternoon is to be just mildly provocative – in the best sense, that of being gently thought-provoking! No doubt he’ll tell me later whether I succeed!

If I were to suggest that many, possibly most, Freemasons are ‘traditionalist’ by nature, I suspect that there are many here who would have no difficulty in agreeing with me. But there are those, I’m sure, who would take issue with me – for very good reasons. So let me try to put some flesh on the bare bones of that statement. By ‘traditionalist’ I don’t mean in any sense old-fashioned, stick-in-the-mud, living in the past, reactionary – although most of us could probably name a few of our brethren to whom those terms may well apply! No, by ‘traditionalist’ I mean having the ability to appreciate and value the traditions of our masonic Orders; to understand the worth of the experience of our predecessors and the actions they took to keep alive the fundamental principles of Pure Antient Freemasonry while maintaining their relevance for daily life in each and every age.

If life for us is in equilibrium, constant, reliable, predictable and comfortable – then change is a challenge, often an unwelcome challenge. And I’m very much one of those who subscribe to the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ school of thought. But I believe we need to bear in mind that Freemasonry is a living organism. I was trying to remember from grammar school biology classes the characteristics of living things: I can remember some of them – nutrition, respiration, growth, movement, response to stimuli. Well, all of those apply to the Royal Arch – and, indeed, to Freemasonry generally. Our belief in and our commitment to all we do as masons needs nourishment and nurture; it needs to breathe and be refreshed; it needs to reproduce itself through recruitment; and it needs continually to assess just HOW it relates to everyday life – for us as masons, and for our families and communities; and how it responds to external stimuli, most obviously in the way masonry is seen by the wider world and the impact of the image Freemasonry has on the recruitment which is our life-blood.

Well, all of that has been going on from the very earliest beginnings of Freemasonry. Just as Royal Arch Masonry has breathed the oxygen of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so it must breathe the oxygen of the twenty-first. The context of today’s celebration is the passage of two hundred years of growth and evolution. If we could be transported back across those two hundred years, I wonder how much we would recognise in the practice of Royal Arch Masonry? But the Royal Arch as we know it today is the result of something like three hundred years of evolution. An understanding and appreciation of the story of the Royal Arch over those years informs and illuminates our understanding and appreciation of the Order as it is today.

After all, when you think about it, for each one of us as an individual, what we are today is the result of our personal history, our life story, our journey, our experience, our relationships, our joys and sorrows. We find our individual identity in that story, and our understanding of ourselves now is informed by a deeper understanding of that story. So it is with the Royal Arch – the better we understand how it has evolved the greater is our appreciation of what it is today.

If any one of us were to reflect on major events in our lives, it may be that we could identify two significant milestones: first, reaching a conclusion and making a decision; and second, acting on that decision. That might apply to deciding to buy a house or a car – and later completing the purchase. It might apply to deciding to seek a change of job or career – and later implementing that change. It might apply to proposing marriage and being accepted – and later entering into that marriage. In the final analysis, I wonder what YOU feel was the most significant, the most life-changing of those stages? In my case I’m quite clear – without in any way diminishing the celebration or the completion, in terms of my own growth and development it was the moment of decision which was of greatest significance.

If we translate that perception into our Masonic lives, we can acknowledge that the key to change is not the implementation of structural change, but rather the inner conviction and the decision that change is needed.

Well, we all know that the bicentenary of Supreme Grand Chapter, the celebration of structural change, is still a few years away. What we are celebrating today is the fulfillment of discussion and debate which led ultimately to the change of heart which opened the way for the later merger of the two Grand Chapters and the formation of this Supreme Grand Chapter – the final acceptance by both Grand Lodges that the Royal Arch is indeed an integral part of ‘Pure Antient Masonry’.

So let me invite you to reflect on the notion that outward change is the visible and tangible consequence of inner change; but that it is the inner change which represents true growth and progress, and it is inner change which has lasting impact.

Our predecessors in this Order did what they believed to be right in enabling the Order to flourish and take its rightful place in the structure of Freemasonry. One perspective of our celebration today is to look back with gratitude to all they achieved. We don’t live in the past, but it is the past which has given us the present. A second perspective is to value what our Order is today, and to continue to nurture what we have inherited. And the third perspective concerns our task and our duty to make sure that what we do today honours the heritage of our predecessors, because what we do will impact future generations of Royal Arch masons. May we prove equal to that challenge. In another two hundred years, I wonder what Royal Arch masons will be saying about us and about our contribution to the on-going growth of the Order we love.

I can do no better than to end with the prayer with which every Royal Arch meeting begins, the prayer which is known to many church congregations as the Collect for Purity and is used at the beginning of every Communion service. ‘Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid; cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love Thee and worthily magnify Thy Holy Name. So Mote It Be.’

Published in Speeches
Friday, 16 September 2011 17:05


The consecration of a new Grand Lodge is a rare event - and when such an occasion took place in Monaco it proved to be a day to remember, writes John Railton

It’s probably fair to say that Freemasonry in Monaco has been low-key for a number of years, following its conditional acceptance by the Monégasque authorities in the first half of the twentieth century.

The Port of Hercules Lodge was formed in 1924 under the English Constitution, and many Monégasques who wished to become Freemasons sought membership outside the principality. In more recent years, three lodges were formed under the German Constitution, but it became apparent that the Monégasques who had joined lodges in France would like one of their own. Accordingly, the first steps were taken three years ago to establish a Grand Lodge in Monaco, and this meticulous planning came to fruition on 19 February in Monte Carlo.

The Grande Loge Nationale Regulière de la Principauté de Monaco was formed by seven lodges, one formerly meeting under the English Constitution and three each under the German and French.

The consecrating officer was Pro Grand Master, Peter Lowndes, assisted by the Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of Germany, Rüdiger Templin, as Senior Warden; and the Past Grand Master of the National Grand Lodge of France, Jean-Charles Foellner, as Junior Warden. The ceremony was directed by Oliver Lodge (Grand Director of Ceremonies) with the help of Nick Bosanquet and Sebastian Madden (Deputy Grand Directors of Ceremonies) and Malcolm Brooks (Grand Tyler). The team from UGLE also included Nigel Brown (Grand Secretary), Alan Englefield (Grand Chancellor), Reverend Dr John Railton (Grand Chaplain) and Ron Cayless (Grand Organist).

The consecration ceremony proceeded without a hitch, and included the unveiling of the lodge boards, the familiar scriptural readings from the Bible, the symbolic use of corn, wine and oil, and the censing of the lodge and its officers. It was conducted almost entirely in English, but the Rulers-designate took their obligations in their own languages. Jean-Pierre Pastor was installed as the first Grand Master, and he then appointed and installed Claude Boisson as Deputy Grand Master, and Rex Thorne, Knut Schwieger, Renato Boeri and John Lonczynski as Assistant Grand Masters.

Other Grand Lodges were represented by more than a hundred delegates and many presented gifts to the newly installed Grand Master, including a magnificent ceremonial sword from the United Grand Lodge of England. The new Grand Master appointed and installed his officers, before the UGLE team withdrew, leaving the Grand Master and his new team to complete essential business. Monaco’s Grand Lodge had been launched in splendid style.

Published in International

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