Tag Archives: Remembrance Day

The Flag

Just inside Westminster Abbey’s Great West Door in St. George’s Chapel there hangs a faded, flimsy Union Jack, this unprepossessing 8ft-wide flag is one of the poignant artefacts from the First World War. The flag was in the possession of the Rev. David Railton, MC who had witnessed 900 casualties on the Somme in his brigade alone. It fell to him to oversee the young soldiers tasked with recovering the corpses.

[H]E HAD CARRIED THE FLAG throughout his war service in his backpack alongside a small wooden cross and two candlesticks. His team had spent four days recovering the bodies, along with the remains of their commanding officer buried in a shallow crater, after a battle they had supposedly won. Many casualties had lost their dog tags and some were hardly recognisable as humans.

This exceptional man of the cloth had followed his charges into the trenches, battle, the hospitals and inevitably the graveyards. His heroism had seen him running the gauntlet with stretcher-bearers and was credited with carrying at least one wounded soldier to safety.

One day whilst sitting in a cottage garden his eye fell on a mound of earth and a rough white cross, set amongst the rubble of this French village his wondered who was interned below this simple symbol.

When he was demobbed he became the vicar of Margate, but suffering from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder he would walk the streets at night, unable to sleep. He couldn’t get the ‘unknown comrades’ of the war out of his mind. By August 1920 his PTSD drove him to write a letter to the Dean of Westminster, suggesting burying the body of an unknown soldier in the Abbey.

The idea rapidly gained momentum, with Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, ensuring that in a few weeks at the next Remembrance Day not only would the newly erected Cenotaph by Edwin Lutyens be unveiled, but an unknown disinterred body of an unknown soldier also is selected from a selection of four, six or even eight. Accounts vary as do the method of selection, one being that a blindfolded major selected the individual at midnight.

A moving speech from French Marshal Foch bidding farewell to ‘Tommy Anonyme’as he was put on a British destroyer bound for Dover. As the train steamed through the Kent countryside bound for London thousands paid their silent respects from every vantage point. Once placed on a gun carriage, draped with Railton’s flag, escorted by the highest officers in the land, the people lined the route to Westminster Abbey, twenty deep in some place.

After internment the flag was draped over the makeshift grave until the following year when a black marble was placed over the grave bearing the inscription: ‘Beneath this stone rests the body of a British warrior unknown by name or rank, brought from France to lie among the most illustrious of the land’, and the flag was hung from a pillar nearby.

It would remain there until 1953 when the BBC bosses moved it to its current position, claiming it obstructed the television shots of Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation.

The Flag by Andrew Richards, published by Casemate Books.

The Tin Nose Shop

Should you take your eyes from the chaotic traffic flow as you approach Hyde Park Corner from Park Lane you cannot but help noticing a statue of a naked rather lithe young man with his back towards you.

The Machine Gun Corps Memorial was, in 1925, at the time of its unveiling a controversial subject, for it is David the biblical figure who defeated the giant Goliath.

[F]lanking David, himself depicting vulnerability are two genuine Vickers machine guns encased in bronze wrapped in laurel leaves. The subject would be apt for the Machine Gun Corps who in World War I nicknamed the Suicide Club, and the casualty rates make for grim reading, having lost over 13,000 during the Great War with another 48,000 injured or missing.


The sculptor of the Machine Gun Corps Memorial was Francis Derwent Wood whose contribution to World War I went far beyond the Hyde Park statute. Too old for military service Derwent Wood volunteered to serve in the Royal Army Medical Corps. After a time spent near the conflict he came back to London and was based at the Third London General Hospital on Fitzhugh Grove, the building is now better known as the Royal Patriotic Building.

Such were the numbers of wounded returning from the trenches of World War I a railway station was built enabling the swift discharge of wounded bound for the adjacent hospital. Inevitably the numbers returning the Third London General overflowed and field tents were erected across Wandsworth Common providing temporary wards.

As a consequence of modern warfare and improved nursing, soldiers were returning from the front line with severe facial injuries, some had literally lost half a face yet miraculously managed to survive.

Affectionately known as the Tin Nose Shop the Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department was set up within the Third London General Hospital by Francis Derwent Wood for the creation of lightweight custom made masks designed to hide the wounds and blend in with the undamaged part of the face.

Each taking weeks to create, painted in realistically coloured skin tones and with slivers of tin foil to replicate eyebrows and moustaches they were works of art.

Due to financial constraints and the sheer numbers of men requiring masks his Wandsworth studio was wound down in 1919. The masks had given back the wounded men’s self esteem and Francis Derwent Wood would receive many letters of thanks.

Francis Derwent Wood would go on to design many war memorials around the country and Canada, but his greatest contribution to Britain has been lost. The masks lovingly created in his studio were so cherished by the recipients that it is believed that all were taken to their graves enabling the wearers to meet their Maker with dignity.

I am indebted to my colleague View from the Mirror for much of the information included in this post.