“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.” For the Fallen – Laurence Binyon, September 1914
On the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, we as a country fall silent and still as we reflect and think of those who gave their lives for our freedom today. Not just for the First World War, from which came the symbol of the poppy, but for all who sacrificed themselves during times of war. The year 2020 marks 101 years since the first two minute silence that was asked of us by King George V a year after the end of the First World War so that “the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead”. And whilst glorifying the dead isn’t for everyone and understandably so, it is important that we remember, hence Remembrance Sunday.
A well known example of commemorating the remembrance is The Unknown Soldier. On the eleventh of November, 1920, an unknown English soldier who was killed on the battlefield during the First World War was buried at Westminster Abbey, with an unknown French soldier who died in similar circumstances being buried at the Arc de Triomphe at the same time, making both graves the first commemorations of unknown soldiers during World War One.
The idea of this was originally thought of in 1916, by the Reverend David Railton, who was serving as an Army Chaplain on The Western Front at the time. He once saw a grave that was marked out by a rough cross, upon which was etched in pencil “An Unknown British Soldier”. Touched by this, four years later, he proposed an idea to the Dean of Westminster in the form of a letter; a random soldier from the battlefields in France be picked and to be buried “amongst the kings” to represent the hundreds of thousands who died for king and country. This was strongly supported by the Dean and David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister of the time.
Arrangements got underway and were overseen by Lord Curzon of Kedleston, who in committee prepared the location and the service. Various battlefields were searched for suitable remains to exhume, and on the night of the seventh of November, they were brought to the chapel at Saint-Pol-sur-Tenoise, near Arras, France. The bodies were received by Reverend George Kendall OBE. Brigadier L.J. Wyatt and Lieutenant Colonel E.A.S. Gell of the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries, who went into the chapel alone. The bodies were then placed into four plain coffins, each with the Union Flag draped over it and the officers not knowing what specific battle the bodies came from. Tasked with choosing, Brigadier Wyatt closed his eyes and placed his hand on a coffin; The Unknown Soldier. The remaining bodies were taken away by Kendall for reburying and an overnight stay awaited the coffin, ready for its journey.
The following afternoon, under guard and escorted by Kendall, it travelled from the church to the castle within the ancient citadel of Boulogne with troops lining the route it took. The castle library was appropriately decked out for the occasion, being transformed into a chapelle ardante and company from the French 8th Infantry Regiment of whom were recently awarded the Légion d’Honneur stood in an overnight vigil. Two undertakers entered the library the next morning and the coffin was placed in a casket made from the oak timbers of trees from Hampton Court Palace and banded with iron. Affixed to the top was a medieval crusader’s sword that was chosen personally by King George V and came from the Royal Collection, this was also surmounted by an iron shield bearing the inscription “A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914–1918 for King and Country”.
The identity of this soldier remains still unknown to this day, which I personally see to be rather fitting. Not simply because of the name, but what it represents; that it could really be anyone. A father, a brother, a son, a best friend; there was that hope that the unknown soldier was known by them, a hope that many people had, that it was someone close to them. And it is this idea that truly embodies the unknown soldier – it could be anyone and through that, it represents everyone.
Unfortunately, for many soldiers, the battle didn’t end when they left the fields and into the comfort of home again; an unknown condition was wreaking havoc with up to 20,000 soldiers by the end of the war suffering from symptoms such as blindness, deafness, being mute and even paralysis. Doctors were baffled as to what this could be; there were no physical symptoms, so surely they must be fit and healthy. In the body, yes. In the mind, not so much. It wasn’t until 1917 when Medical Officer Charles Myers coined the term ‘shell shock’ or what we now know to be PTSD. And even then, it was thought to be physical as opposed to mental, with it initially being thought to be brought about by soldiers being exposed to exploding shells whilst in the trenches.Unsurprisingly, the horrors of war and what they had gone through changed soldiers considerably, however mental health was not treated the same way back then. Nowadays, there’s doctors, therapists, support groups, medication, you name it. Back in the twentieth century though and it was a different story entirely, with it generally being seen as emotional weakness or cowardice and many soldiers were wrongly charged of insubordination, cowardice and desertion; a crime that was punishable by death. I understand that this may be hard to believe and read, but this was at a time where men were expected to be, well, men. Emotions and mental health were not given the sympathy and understanding like in today’s modern world, it was very much ‘stiff upper lip’ and getting on with the task at hand, even if that meant being sent back into battle; clearly anything but ideal. According to an article from the BBC, many of these victims came from the Battle of the Somme, one of the largest and bloodiest battles from the war, with an estimation of 16,000 men, though it is thought by military experts to be much higher. By 1916, over 40% of casualties reported were struck with the condition and the year before saw a shortage of hospital beds due to the rising numbers. Something had to be done. County lunatic asylums and disused spas were quickly taken over and converted into hospitals to treat those with war neurosis and mental diseases and by 1918, there were over 20 of these hospitals in the UK.
Arguably, the most revolutionary of these hospitals was Newton Abbott’s Seale Hayne hospital in Devon, and this was thanks to the work of one man; Arthur Hurst, an army major who brushed away any controversy and opposition he faced with a miracle treatment that cured 90% of cases in just one session. He made the only film in existence that showcased his methods and how victims were treated in Britain, one of which was Percy Meek, a soldier almost driven mad due to a massive bombardment along the Western Front. Before being guided under Hurst’s wing, Meek was a shell of his former self; regressing to a baby like state and sitting in a wheelchair. Gradually, he recovered, gaining the physical abilities he had lost and eventually returning to normality.
Whilst we have come on in leaps and bounds with understanding and treating mental health in the past hundred years, there unfortunately is still a stigma attached, particularly with the military. People forget that whilst it’s more inclusive than ever, the military is still very much a man’s world and unfortunately, society has dictated that men should behave and act a certain way in order to fit in. Men don’t show emotion, they don’t cry, don’t show weakness, they have to be tough all the time. I do have my own opinion on this but it would literally be a page full of expletives and the higher power that is Rachel states I have to make this ‘user friendly’ if I want any chance of this appearing online. I will say this though; military or not, we are all human. And we as humans do struggle, and that’s okay. Admitting you’re struggling is a big thing, believe me, I know, I’ve been there. You’re not going to be judged for it, I can promise you, this is not how it was a hundred years ago. I understand we still have a long way to go, but if it wasn’t for these soldiers, we wouldn’t even have a future to plan.
Be good, be nice, behave and be kind,