Justin Welby praises sacrifice of ‘anonymous’ millions during pandemic

By Tony Jones, PA Court Correspondent
·4-min read

The Archbishop of Canterbury has paid tribute to the sacrifices of millions of “anonymous” people who have “put aside all they hold dear” during the pandemic.

Justin Welby’s words were delivered during a service marking the centenary of the burial of the Unknown Warrior, which has become a place of pilgrimage for those whose military loved ones have paid the ultimate sacrifice but whose grave is not known.

As the Westminster Abbey service began, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, wearing face masks, led the nation in observing a two-minutes silence on Armistice Day from the warrior’s graveside.

Charles and Camilla wore facemasks during the service like the rest of the congregation. Aaron Chown/PA Wire
Charles and Camilla wore face masks during the service like the rest of the congregation (Aaron Chown/PA)

Charles laid a wreath of red roses and bay leaf, a replica of the floral tribute left by his great-grandfather King George V in 1920, and at the end of the event Camilla left a posy.

Mr Welby told the socially distanced congregation, which included Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and leading figures from the armed forces: “Sacrifice is not only in time of war.

“In war and peace sacrifice is the virtue that smooths the rough roads over which our societies travel.

“This year sacrifices have been made and are being made by thousands, even millions, unknown. People have put aside all they hold dear. We may never meet them or read their names.

“We might not know what they have suffered or given up. They may be anonymous, but their actions are glorious.”

The senior cleric went on to say: “The Unknown Warrior sounds the call of sacrifice for every person.”

Exactly one hundred years ago, the Unknown Warrior was laid to rest at Westminster Abbey following a campaign by the Reverend David Railton who served as a chaplain on the Western Front during the First World War.

The body was chosen from four unknown British servicemen, exhumed from four battle areas, by Brigadier General Louis Wyatt, commander of British forces in France and Flanders, and transported back to Britain.

The Unknown Warrior’s coffin resting in Westminster Abbey
The Unknown Warrior’s coffin resting in Westminster Abbey (PA)

On November 11 1920, the coffin was draped with a union flag and taken on a gun carriage to the Cenotaph, where George V placed a wreath upon it and the King was present as the warrior was buried at the Abbey.

The Archbishop said: “On this centenary of the burial of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey we pay tribute to the many millions of men and women who have died on so many battlefields, unnamed and unclaimed except by God.”

He went on to say: “Even this warrior had his mother and father, had a birth, had those with whom he trained and marched and fought and died.

“All of those whose graves are so anonymous, so reluctant to tell their story, had those who did not know where their friends died, never found the ground.”

Colour Sergeant Johnson Beharry too part in the service. Aaron Chown/PA Wire
Colour Sergeant Johnson Beharry too part in the service. Aaron Chown/PA Wire

Poet laureate Simon Armitage read his poem The Bed, written to commemorate the Unknown Warrior’s burial centenary, as the socially distanced congregation of around 80 listened.

It chronicles how the fallen soldier is transported from being “broken and sleeping rough in a dirt grave” to being buried “among drowsing poets and dozing saints” in Westminster Abbey.

Victoria Cross hero Colour Sergeant Johnson Beharry, who was awarded Britain’s highest military honour for twice saving colleagues under fire in Iraq, took part in the service as did Charles and the Prime Minister, who gave readings.

Colour Sergeant Beharry said after the service: “I was sitting there reflecting on the Unknown Warrior, what he was like, trying to imagine what they would have been through, and even reflecting on my time in Iraq in 2004 – how difficult it was for me and my colleagues.

“Yes, I was badly wounded, but I came back. Even though I have colleagues who didn’t come back, their family had a body to grieve over.”