How This Came About
On 11 November 2020 Simon Armitage, Poet Laureate and local Marsden man, read his poem, ‘The Bed,’ at Westminster Abbey as part of a service to commemorate the interment of the Unknown Soldier exactly a hundred years ago. Simon generously allowed Honley Ladies Choir to use his poem and the Choir commissioned Simeon Wood, well known local flautist, to set it to music. Our Musical Director, Emily Reaves-Bradley, produced this hauntingly beautiful video which has been released for Remembrance Day 2021. It includes images from WW1 and was shot on Castle Hill, Huddersfield. and in our rehearsal church. The full text of the poem and its background can be found below.
The Poem - The Bed
Sharp winds scissor and scythe those plains.
And because you are broken and sleeping rough
in a dirt grave, we exchange the crude wooden cross
for the hilt and blade of a proven sword;
to hack through the knotted dark of the next world,
yes, but to lean on as well at a stile or gate
looking out over fens or wealds or fells or wolds.
That sword, drawn from a king’s sheath,
fits a commoner’s hand, and is yours to keep.
And because frost plucks at the threads
of your nerves, and your bones stew in the rain,
bedclothes of zinc and oak are trimmed
and tailored to fit. Sandbags are drafted in,
for bolstering limbs and pillowing dreams,
and we throw in a fistful of battlefield soil:
an inch of the earth, your share of the spoils.
The heavy sheet of stone is Belgian marble
buffed to a high black gloss, the blanket
a flag that served as an altar cloth. Darkness
files past, through until morning, its head bowed.
Molten bullets embroider incised words.
Among drowsing poets and dozing saints
the tall white candles are vigilant sentries
presenting arms with stiff yellow flames;
so nobody treads on the counterpane,
but tiptoeing royal brides in satin slippers
will dress and crown you with luminous flowers.
All this for a soul without name or rank or age or home,
because you are the son we lost, and your rest is ours.
Simon Armitage, Poet Laureate
The Grave of the Unknown Soldier - Background
In 1916, the Reverend David Railton, an army chaplain serving in Belgium, saw a dirt grave marked by a crude wooden cross, which bore the pencil-written legend ‘An Unknown British Soldier.’ This inspired him to write to the Dean of Westminster, Herbert Ryle, suggesting the burial of an unknown soldier in the Abbey to represent all those who could not be laid to rest by their families.
Subsequently, on the evening of 7th November 1920, four British soldiers exhumed from different battlefields were brought to the chapel at St. Pol sur Ternoise. Each was placed in a plain coffin and covered with a Union Jack. Brigadier Wyatt, Commander of the British troops in France and Flanders, with closed eyes rested his hand on one of the caskets. It then remained in the chapel overnight whist the other three were reburied at St. Pol.
The following day the chosen coffin was transferred with all due ceremony to the castle at Boulogne where a French Regimental company maintained an overnight vigil before it was placed inside a second coffin made from Hampton Court oak bound with metal from the battlefields. A Crusader's sword, personally selected from the Royal Collection by King George V, was fixed to the top together with an iron shield bearing the inscription ‘ A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country.’ With full military honours the Unknown Warrior was then taken to London. On 11 November 1921, transported on a gun carriage drawn by six black horses, the hearse processed through immense silent crowds towards Westminster Abbey. At Whitehall there was a pause whilst the King laid a wreath on the coffin and also unveiled the new Cenotaph memorial.
A guard of honour of a hundred Victoria Medal recipients and a congregation of bereaved widows and mothers awaited the cortège at the Abbey. As the choir sang, the coffin was interred at the western end of the nave and the King sprinkled onto it a handful of battle field soil. The grave was filled using a hundred sandbags of earth from the trenches and servicemen kept vigil at each corner as thousands of mourners filed past. Later a slab of black Belgian marble capped the tomb, the letters of its inscription picked out using brass from melted down wartime ammunition. It is the only tombstone in the Abbey on which it is forbidden to walk.
On Armistice Day 1921 the Padre’s Flag, David Railton’s Union Flag, which had served as both altar cloth and shroud at the Front, and which had covered the Warrior’s coffin at the funeral, was presented to be hung close by the grave.
When Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon married King George VI in 1923 she laid her wedding bouquet on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in memory of her brother, Fergus, killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915. It has since become a tradition for royal bridal bouquets to be similarly placed there the day after the wedding.