Wednesday, 11 November 2020

They buried him among kings

Today marks the centenary of the burial of the Unknown Soldier. 100 years ago today, an idea that had first occurred to an army chaplain on the Western Front in 1916 finally came to fruition. An unidentified British soldier previously interred in one of the four main theatres of war was laid to rest in the Royal Chapel among Kings and Princes.

In my novel 'The Glorious Dead' the soldiers still serving on the old Western Front ('first with a rifle, then a shovel') become involved in the process of exhuming not only one of the four bodies from which the one 'unknown' warrior will be chosen, but also the barrel of Belgian soil that will eventually be used to fill in the Westminster Abbey grave: 

‘We have today received orders from Brigadier-General Wyatt,’ Ingham goes on. ‘As General Officer Commanding British Troops in France and Flanders he has a very special request to make.’

‘British Troops sir?’ Ocker says. Did you say British troops?’ 

Ingham laughs nervously. ‘And er, Empire troops too, of course.’

‘Well I’m glad you made that clear sir,’ he says. ‘Otherwise I might’ve had to have a word or two to say to General Wyatt.’

‘So, as I was saying,’ Ingham looks down at his clipboard. ‘We’ve been given something quite unusual to do. Unique, in fact.’

‘Don’t tell me sir,’ says Ocker. ‘We’re going to dig a grave so deep I get to go back home!’

‘Not quite,’ says Ingham.

‘Not quite? Not going to tunnel to bloody Kiwi are we?’

‘No, no, no. Now pay attention. This is a solemn and serious undertaking.’

‘We’ve been undertaking – solemnly and seriously – for the last two years,’ says Mac. ‘I reckon I know more about Funeral Directing –’

‘Hey, listen up lads,’ Jack says. 

‘On a promise are you, Jacko?’ Ocker laughs. The men shuffle feet as they settle to hear Ingham explain the details of their latest mission.

‘Our orders are to exhume an unknown British – that could, of course, be Empire too, Gilchrist, given that he will be an unknown –’

‘Might even be a Sheila too,’ says Ocker. ‘The other day them gardening fellas was showing me the grave of a young nurse buried at Lijssenthoek.’

‘Unlikely, Gilchrist. The few English girls buried here are, of course, in marked graves. And we are being specifically ordered to select an unmarked grave. Other parties will be performing a similar duty in each of the other three main theatres of war – The Somme, Aisne and Arras. We have been selected to locate and remove one brave soldier from our sector, one man who may be chosen to lie where the Kings and Queens of Empire lie. There – if chosen – he will be buried with full military honours and laid to rest in perpetuity in Westminster Abbey.’

‘So we’re digging him up and then shipping him home?’

‘Not quite,’ Ingham replies. ‘The body will be transferred to St Pol where it will lie along with three others draped in the Union Jack and from among which one of the bodies will be chosen at random to be given this symbolic honour.’

The men say nothing. Nothing the Army or the War Graves Commission asks of them comes as a surprise anymore.

‘Right-o then, chaps – here’s the plan.’ Ingham proceeds to issue careful orders about which of the recent graves they are to open, how the body is to be treated and what provision will be made for its onward journey. ‘We are to remove an early burial from Bleuet Farm Cemetery near Elverdinghe. The precise grave has already been selected and I will be accompanying the exhumation party to ensure that everything is carried out to the letter. But otherwise, you may consider it just like any normal exhumation.’

‘Except…’

‘Yes, Gilchrist?’

‘Except you don’t normally come along when we’re digging men up, do you sir?’

‘Maybe not. But as I have already said this is an especially important mission. This isn’t any old exhumation.’

‘Thought you said it was an especially old exhumation, sir?’

‘It is an old burial, yes.’

‘And we won’t be looking for signs, though, will we, sir?’

‘Signs?’

‘ID, effects, that sort of thing. Like we do with any ordinary exhumation.’

‘My goodness me, no – certainly not!’

‘It’s just that you said it was to be just like any normal exhumation but it seems to me –’

‘Dammit man, don’t take things so bloody literally! What I meant was that the body – the unidentified body – will be removed in the usual way and wrapped in a canvas sack. Except that this time the soldier will, I believe… just let me check, ah yes – this time the man will be given a box.’

‘A box, sir?’

‘A coffin, man, a bloody coffin! Good God, it’s like dealing with a group of school children.’

‘Enter clowns with spades and mattock,’ Blake smiles to himself.

‘So not a sack, then?’

‘No,’ Ingham sighs. ‘Not a sack. Any more questions?’ He narrows his eyes.

‘Yes, sir’ Jack says. ‘Just the one.’

‘Speak up, man,’ Ingham says. ‘What is it?’

‘Well sir, I was wondering… If the body we dig up isn’t the one that’s chosen, what happens to it afterwards? And what happens to the others from the Somme and Arras and so on if they don’t get the nod?’

‘Those not selected are to be interred at the military cemetery at St Pol. That will be their final resting place,’ says Ingham. ‘Well, in the case of the three not chosen, that is. The corpse selected by Brigadier-General Wyatt will be sealed in an oak coffin and transported by boat to England on its final glorious journey to the Abbey.’

‘Very good, sir. But sir?’

‘What is it this time, lance-corporal?’

‘Wouldn’t it ’ave been easier just to pick a grave at random, you know – rather than digging up all four of ’em first?’

‘Perhaps,’ Ingham says. ‘But these are our orders. Well, most of us, anyway.’

‘Sir?’

‘You, Patterson –’ Ingham smiles like a snake. ‘You have a very specific task.’

‘Oh, aye?’

‘Yes. Your job is to be slightly different from the rest of the men. You will be filling six barrels with clean soil from the Salient. I suppose you had better take somebody along with you to help with the lifting. MacIntyre, Skerritt and… maybe Gilchrist as well. But you are to do the digging. Is that understood?’

‘Yes, sir. Very good, sir.’

With that, the men are dismissed.

***

The exhumation party takes the old RAMC ambulance with Blake at the wheel; Jack and his men load six empty barrels into the back of the Albion then climb aboard the truck and squeeze together in the cab. The men head east towards Ypres, skirting north of the ruined city past the Minneplein. The old, open playing field and park is now covered from corner to corner with neat little temporary houses – Albert Houses, paid for by a special fund provided by the Belgian King.

‘A man could really grow to love a little house like that.’ Mac winks at Skerritt. ‘Especially if a man had a wee lassie there to share the bed with him of a night and to keep him warm.’

‘He’s working on it, aren’t you, Jacko?’ says Ocker.

‘Don’t you lot ever give up?’

‘I’m sure he is working on it. And why wouldn’t he be? She’s a grand lassie, man. Belgian, mind. But a grand wee lassie all the same.’ 

Skerritt mumbles something but the noise is drowned by the rumble of the truck as Jack changes gear and heads off along Weverustraat, then out of town along the Menin Road. Passing Hell Fire Corner then  turning left down the Cambridge Road, Jack decides to bring the truck to a halt next to the line of the old Ypres-Roulers railway.

‘This’ll do, I reckon.’ The men roll the barrels down the long path and up-end them at the chosen spot.

‘Right, Jacko,’ Ocker passes him a shovel.

‘Come on,’ Jack says. ‘You an’ all.’

‘No, mate! Ingham was most particular wasn’t he, fellas? Said it was you had to do the digging. Isn’t that right, Mac?’

‘Oh aye,’ Mac says, lighting up his pipe. ‘We’ll stand here and make sure no-one interferes, won’t we Skerritt?’

‘Like heck, you will,’ Jack throws them both a shovel. ‘Come on you lot - get bloody digging.’

With mock reluctance the others slowly pick up their tools and set to work. Before long they’ve dug a small trench, shallow so as to collect only the drier, cleaner top-soil near the surface. But so far they have filled only one of the barrels. The early November rain has made the rest of the ground sticky and wet. Eventually it becomes easier to slice out brick-sized chunks like peat and then bag each one before placing it in the remaining barrels – leaving it to the journey and the Abbey to dry the soil out.

Meanwhile, across the Western Front as far apart as the Somme, the Aisne and Arras and all the way back to Elverdinghe, four bodies are now en route to St Pol on board four old, ex-RAMC motor ambulances. Arriving at their destination each truck is met at the gates by the padre. The men unload the stretchers, draping a Union Jack over each of the bodies. And inside the small cemetery chapel, a single huge oak coffin waits. 

‘Our fella’ll rattle around a bit in that, won’t he, sir?’ asks Fuller. ‘If he’s chosen, that is.’ Ingham doesn’t answer. Townend is thinking they could probably get all four men in the enormous box. But at midnight tonight, November 9th, Brigadier-General Wyatt will enter the chapel by candle-light and place a hand on one of the stretchers, after which the load it bears will be placed in the coffin and the lid sealed and secured for its final journey.

Extract from The Glorious Dead, now just 99p to download https://www.amazon.co.uk/Glorious-Dead-Tim.../dp/1783525894/



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