Lochaber’s link to the Grave of the Unknown Warrior

Rev Railton's grave in St Bride’s churchyard, at Onich. PICTURE IAIN FERGUSON, THE WRITE IMAGE NO F46 REV RAILTON COMMEMORATION02

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In the first week of November, The Queen paid a visit to Westminster Abbey, in order to commemorate the centenary of the burial of the Unknown Warrior.

It was actually 100 years ago this week that a casket containing the body of an unknown British soldier was interred in the abbey.

It is now a well-known story of how the body had been selected from a total of four exhumed on November 7, 1920, from battlefields at the Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres.

The following the day the body was moved to Boulogne and placed inside a casket that was sealed and adorned with a Crusader’ s sword.

The casket was then placed aboard HMS Verdun for the overnight  trip across the English Channel, before being transported by rail to London.

The coffin was borne on a gun carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery to Westminster Abbey and once interred, the Grave of the Unknown Warrior was covered over with soil that had been specially brought from the battlefields of France.

What is less well known, however, is the Lochaber link to how the idea of burying an unknown soldier came about.

The concept had originally come from Reverend David Railton, a minister in Folkestone who served as a chaplain on the Western Front.

Never far from the dangers of the front line, in 1916 he was awarded the Military Cross for saving the lives of three men.

Rev Railton would travel around the different battlefields setting up makeshift altars wherever he could, delivering his ministry and words of comfort to the troops.

Mud, rain, shells, bullets and bombs – Rev Railton would let nothing stop him reach the fighting and it was during these trips he started to think about the many dead men with no grave and their relatives with nowhere to visit and grieve.

He observed the makeshift graves, some of which had no name and reportedly, one in particular caught his eye at  Armentières in 1916, where a plain wooden cross bore the inscription ‘’An unknown soldier of the Black Watch’ .

It was in 1920 that Rev Railton wrote to the Dean of Westminster, who contacted Prime Minister, Lloyd George, soliciting his support and who ultimately persuaded King George V to give his sanction for a permanent memorial to the fallen of the Great War who had no known grave

It was decided the body would be buried with full honours in Westminster Abbey and on November 11, 1920, Rev Railton saw his dream become reality.

The grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. Photograph: © Dean and Chapter of Westminster. NO-F46-grave-unknown-warrior-scaled.jpg
The grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. Photograph: © Dean and Chapter of Westminster.

The following year, the Union flag which he had draped over his makeshift altars during the war – and over the bodies of dead soldier – was donated to the abbey. The Padre’s Flag, as it is known, now hangs close to the Warrior’s grave.

After a long career in the church, Rev Railton retired to Ard Rhu in Onich, where he is still remembered by some of the locals. He often helped out with church services and it was whilst in 1955, while returning from one these ‘missions’, that he died after falling from a moving train in Fort William railway station.

He was buried under a simple headstone in the graveyard at St Bride’s Church in Onich, where in 2016, to mark the 100th anniversary of his idea, a party of ex-servicemen from the 1st Battalion, The Queen’s Dragoon Guards, held an all-night vigil by the grave, leading into Remembrance Sunday.

The inscription on the spear presented to the church at Onich. Photograph: Iain Ferguson alba.photos NO-F46-Rev-Railton-ribbon.jpg
The inscription on the spear presented to the church at Onich. Photograph: Iain Ferguson alba.photos
NO-F46-Rev-Railton-ribbon.jpg

Just before 11am on the Sunday they held a ceremony and presented the church with a spear in Rev Railton’s memory bearing an engraved metal plaque made from a First World War shell casing.

In his own account, written for a magazine in 1931, Rev Railton said: ‘They have all grasped something of the true meaning. Those whose loved ones were amongst the ‘unknown’ know that in this Tomb there may be – there is – resting the body of their beloved.’