If you go to Westminster Abbey you can walk on the graves of many famous figures from history, but there is one grave you can’t walk on, which is strange, because nobody actually knows who is buried there.
What it doesn’t seem to mention is that the interment took place in the presence of approximately 100 women who had lost their husband and all their sons in the war. This wasn’t all the women who had lost their husband and all their sons in the war, just the ones who accepted the invitation.
The railway carriage that brought the coffin to Westminster Abbey is preserved and was also used to bring home the bodies of Captain Fryatt and Nurse Edith Cavell. I mentioned them in a post a while ago.
The reason people needed a focus for their grief was due to the unusual nature of the war, where the same few miles of ground were fought over time and time again. Even if a soldier was buried properly, and there are many tales of bravery associated with soldiers giving their comrades a decent burial, it was quite likely that the site would be churned up by shelling, or that the paperwork reporting the site would be lost, or that the poor quality dog-tags of the time would not be up to the task of identifying the body a tear or two later.
That is why there are 315,000 names on memorials in France and Belgium commemorating men with no known grave. Many of them do have graves, but they are marked as Known Unto God. There are 212,000 headstones that use those words, chosen by Kipling and used on the headstone of his son John. That leaves 103,000 bodies unaccounted for, and they are currently still being recovered at the rate of approximately 40 a year in France.
Even now there is still a chance of identification – particularly if you are famous. Researchers eventually identified John Kipling’s grave was identified. The Queen Mother laid her bridal wreath on the tomb when she married in 1923, establishing a tradition for all royal brides to do the same. Her brother Fergus was killed in 1915 and the site of his grave was lost. In 2012 a grave marker was erected in a cemetery – it bears his name and the inscription “Buried near this spot”, as they have been able to identify the cemetery but not the actual grave.
This article gives you some idea of the efforts still going on today.
I always misquote the inscription, and to be honest the misquote fits better as a title – here is the full quote.
They buried him among the kings because he
Had done good toward God and toward