Monthly Archives: January 2021

January 2021 meeting: Unknown and yet well-known – the story of the Unknown Warrior

On 11 January Dick Richards described the final journey of the Unknown Warrior to his burial in Westminster Abbey on 11 November 1920.

The idea had come to David Railton, an army chaplain, in July 1916. In the garden of his billet near Armentières he saw a grave marked by a rough cross inscribed ‘An Unknown British Soldier of the Black Watch’. That suggested to him his plan, which he hoped would comfort relatives mourning a warrior with no known grave. But he decided it would have to wait until the end of the war; and was then uncertain about who to approach. In August 1920 his wife said: ‘Now or never’. He wrote to Herbert Ryle, Dean of Westminster, suggesting the burial in the Abbey of the body of ‘one of our unknown comrades’ recovered from France.

Bishop Ryle liked the idea, and did know who to approach, up to and including the (initially reluctant) King George V. Lloyd George and Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson were enthusiastic. On 15 October 1920 the Cabinet approved the proposal, and appointed a committee under Lord Curzon to plan the event – in an astonishingly short time.

They took the utmost precautions to ensure that the warrior would be truly unknown. Four skeletons were exhumed from separate battlefields: maybe a scrap of khaki to show that the remains were reliably British but lacking any identifying badge or button. They were taken to a makeshift chapel at Army HQ, St Pol. Brigadier General Wyatt chose one, and the others were reburied along a roadside, so that it remained unknowable where the selected warrior had fallen.

The bones, in a simple pine coffin, were taken, with 6 barrels of soil from a French battlefield, to the Château at Boulogne. Here the simple coffin was placed inside a huge ceremonial coffin brought from England, decorated with a sword from the Tower of London. On the morning of 10 November British soldiers carried it through Boulogne to the quayside, watched by large crowds. At the quayside, Marshal Foch, present on his own initiative, joined the ceremony. The coffin was put on board HMS Verdun (chosen as a compliment to France), and taken to Dover. At Dover Marine station it was loaded into the luggage van that had previously been used to convey Edith Cavell’s body. A plaque on platform 8 at Victoria station records the Unknown Warrior’s overnight stay there.

On 11 November huge crowds watched the procession from Victoria to the Abbey via Constitution Hill, The Mall and Whitehall. The sergeant in charge of the bearers was Harry Ivey, great uncle of a History Club member. The King unveiled the new Cenotaph in Whitehall and laid a wreath there. He had also placed a wreath of red roses and bay leaves on the Unknown Warrior’s coffin: ‘In proud memory of those Warriors who died unknown in the Great War. Unknown, and yet well-known … George R[ex] I[mperator]’.

The procession continued to the Abbey, entering by the north door. Tickets for the service had been allocated by ballot, except that 99 widows who had lost both their husband and one or more sons were guests of honour. The Union Flag which had served David Railton in France as an altar cloth, and sometimes as a shroud, was used as a pall, and still hangs in the Abbey. The grave was filled with the French soil.

You can watch a short (silent) Pathé News film of scenes from the journey.

Reports of earlier meetings

Patrick (Paddy) Dockar-Drysdale, 1929-2020

Patrick (Paddy) Dockar-Drysdale pictured at his house, Wick Hall
Paddy pictured at Wick Hall in 2006

Paddy died in hospital on 9 December, aged 91. His wife Olwen had died not long before, in May.  

His family roots were in Radley and he lived as a boy in Park End farmhouse. He went to school and university in Oxford, with a spell of national service in between. After that he had two main ambitions: to work in the theatre and to travel abroad.  He was soon to combine the two, as stage manager for a theatre company which set up in St John’s, Newfoundland.  By then he had met Olwen, while working together as stage managers for a theatre in Surrey. They married shortly before travelling.

Paddy and Olwen stayed in Canada from 1955 until 1982. Paddy switched from theatre to teaching English as an assistant professor at Newfoundland’s university and then to publishing in Toronto. His specialisms were the use of language, dialects and lexicography. While in Canada he and Olwen had four children, two boys and two girls. They travelled widely and enjoyed the excitement of living in a young and fast-growing country.

On their return they came to live in Wick Hall and threw themselves into restoring and enhancing the grounds and gardens. They planted over a thousand trees and introduced fallow deer into the park. Olwen led on the gardens and became technically qualified. She also became a highly successful chair of the Radley Flower Show – and a keen competitor too!  Once a year they opened the Hall grounds to the public, who could see the transformation they had achieved, enjoy teas provided by the Radley WI and contribute much needed funds to the Flower Show.

Paddy became an expert on village history and was one of the founder members of Radley History Club. He was elected chairman at the Club’s second AGM in September 1999, having previously served as secretary. He was chairman until September 2002 and stayed on the committee until September 2005. He was instrumental in the Club’s production of the Millennium Map and was the editor, financier and lead writer of the Club’s first book, The History of Radley, published in 2002. This remains the best overall account of our village’s origins and past. Later he wrote a well-regarded book, Faith and Heraldry, on the stained glass in the church. His publishing background is evident in the editorial and presentational quality of both books and in their readability. His continued support for the Club included hosting its meeting in July 2007 at Wick Hall with a conducted tour of the grounds by Paddy and Olwen, followed by supper on the front lawn. In recognition of his long-standing dedication to the Club Paddy was made an honorary member in May 2014. 

He owned land in the village and was conscious of the contribution which the land could make to the community. He was a strong supporter of the Radley Neighbourhood Plan, and of the Radley Lakes strategy in particular, and was always ready to discuss how his own holdings might help improve access to the Lakes. He was very happy for people to walk freely in Radley Large Wood, the ancient Abbey deer park, and last October signed a historic agreement for this to continue securely into the future.

In recent lockdown months, and by now over 90, he was to be seen at Zoom meetings of the History Club and of the Parish Council, still taking a very active interest in the things in the village that mattered to him. Paddy had a quiet and courteous manner and was very well-liked by everyone who knew him. He will be widely remembered with affection and as a force for good in the village.

This obituary is an extended version of that by Richard Dudding published in the January 2021 issue of the Radley News.