Memorial Plaque to the Unknown Warrior
(This article written by Hilary Wheeler appeared in The Western Front Association Bulletin No.53, February 1999)
It began with an article in the Bulletin (February 1996) when Michael Gavaghan, author of The Story of the Unknown Warrior described the dedication of a commemorative stone at St Pol on 7th November 1995. It ended three years later with the unveiling of a plaque at Victoria Station in central London on 10th November 1998. The time between the two dates was marked by planning, hard work and the occasional heartache.
Michael Gavaghan’s article ended with a suggestion that a memorial should be placed at Victoria Station where the Unknown Warrior rested overnight before interment on 11th November 1920 in Westminster Abbey. WFA member John Barnes from Derby suggested to Kathy Stevenson, Chairman of the WFA London Branch, that this was something for the London Branch to consider: a suggestion which she readily and quickly formulated into a proposal which she put to the Branch Committee. After recovering from their initial shock, the Committee members endorsed the idea and then started to think about how this might be achieved – and the potential problems. At the end of that discussion, everyone felt a little apprehensive but nevertheless remained keen to go ahead with the project. The first step was to seek the endorsement of the Branch which was enthusiastically given and if anyone did think that perhaps the Branch was biting off more that it could chew, they kept it to themselves.
It was immediately obvious that noting could happen unless Railtrack was willing to have the memorial plaque sited at Victoria Station. Kathy Stevenson contacted Railtrack who proved to be most supportive of the plan while indicating that the Branch would have to obtain the necessary historic-building consent. Railtrack was sympathetic to the project throughout but one of the difficulties of dealing with a large organisation soon became apparent; namely staff changes. It seemed that no sooner had one person been apprised of the situation than it would be necessary for someone new to be briefed. These vicissitudes were dealt with by Kathy with her customary fortitude. The granting of historic-building consent was straightforward and this was undertaken for the Branch by Stanley Goodhew, architect and professional consultant, who provided valuable advice throughout the two years.
Within a short time, the plan had been put together and the necessary permissions obtained. Now all that was needed was the plaque, and more importantly, the money to pay for it. Although the WFA does not promote the erection of new memorials, the National Committee endorsed the plan and allocated it some funds. The Branch discussed various fund-raising schemes and donations were invited. For a time, the proceeds from the monthly raffles were set aside for the plaque. More energetic Branch members played a significant part in fund raising. Jules Lyne was sponsored for running in a fun-run and managed to attend a monthly meeting to report – a tad breathless – on her success a little later that same evening. In July 1998,
Charles Harvey, Arthur Potton and three friends undertook a sponsored bike-ride to the Somme, during which they visited some of the many Somme cemeteries. Their exploits were recounted to an eager audience at the Branch’s summer meal.
Anticipating the success of the fund raising, the plaque was commissioned and made. It bears the inscription:
THE BODY OF THE BRITISH
ARRIVED AT PLATFORM 8
10th NOVEMBER 1920
AND LAY HERE OVERNIGHT
AT WESTMINSTER ABBEY
ON 11th NOVEMBER 1920
The Western Front Association
A simple oak frame was made for the plaque in the wood-occupations department at the Vauxhall Centre, Lambeth College. This was facilitated by the course-manager, Charles O’Madden, and made by John Tufts from English oak supplied by Angelo Harrison. They very generously decided to donate their time, work and materials.
At long last, the end was in sight and it was time to plan the unveiling ceremony at Victoria Station. First and foremost, it was crucial to remember that space was limited and that the station – and especially Platform 8 – would be operational throughout the occasion. Railtrack was sympathetic to the Branch’s plans and did its utmost to cooperate. Michael Gavaghan, who was present at the unveiling, spoke to the London Branch about the Unknown Warrior at the meeting in the preceding week. His talk served to remind everyone of the true focus of the commemoration, a timely reminder to those of us who had been bogged-down with the logistics of the event.
Frank SumpterThe unveiling and dedication service, led by Brother Nigel Cave, was of the utmost simplicity and all the more moving for that. The plaque was unveiled by Mr Frank Sumpter (pictured below), a veteran of the Great War, who was one of the pallbearers for the coffin bearing the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey. Following the unveiling, Last Post was the prelude to two minutes’ silence, followed by Reveille. After the laying of a poppy wreath, the exhortation was followed by the prayers and blessing which ended the poignant ceremony. It was gratifying to see that a number of people passing through Victoria Station during the course of the ceremony stopped to see that was happening and to observe the silence.
It was especially moving that a veteran of the Great War could be present to unveil the plaque, but as Mr Sumpter had been one of the actual pallbearers, he also provided a tangible link with the service in Westminster Abbey on 11th November 1920. His presence emphasised the debt the nation owes not only to the Unknown Warrior, but to all the service personnel who served and died in the Great War.
Representatives of the WFA present at the ceremony included the Patron, John Terraine; President, Correlli Barnett; Vice-President, The Earl Haig of Bemersyde; Vice-President, Col Terry Cave; National Chairman, Chris Baker; London Branch Committee members and members of the London Branch. Also present were Andrew Railton (son of the Rev David Railton MC whose idea the Unknown Warrior was); representatives from the embassies of Great War allied countries; Railtrack; The Royal British Legion; the National Army Museum; the Imperial War Museum; the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst; and other guests.
Following the ceremony, there was a reception at BAFTA in Piccadilly.
It is perhaps not too fanciful to say that the unveiling of the plaque to the Unknown Warrior at Victoria Station was the final chapter in a story which began with the death of an anonymous man on the Western Front. 1 It is an event with which all who were most closely involved can feel justly proud. It is an event which, in the person of Mr Frank Sumpter, linked a living present to yet living past. This account cannot end without a tribute to Kathy Stevenson who responded so positively to the initial suggestion that a memorial be placed at Victoria Station and whose sense of purpose kept the project focused from its inception to its completion.
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