The tomb of the real unknown soldier
A tattered old notebook written in indelible pencil on the now yellowing pages found in a loft in a house in Pinner records an account of his last days on the battlefields of Flanders, written by the house owner’s great-grandfather, Lance Corporal Arthur Howers of the Rifle Brigade, at the conclusion of the First World War. While waiting for demobilisation his battalion had been set the task of guarding the many ammunition dumps around the Arras area. With the war now over and restrictions on keeping a diary lifted, he had decided to write down his impressions of France before going home. However, amongst his various observations around the shattered trees and rusty barbed wire of a shell-scarred plain of treacherous mud, one episode contains an event with truly explosive connotations.
‘Wednesday. Lucheux. St Pol. Arras.
Same old thing. Up and down up and down all day keeping me eye on the sentries. What they want guards on this lot for I don’t know, there’s nobody here to nick anything anyway, just mud for miles around.
Thursday. Same place.
Got clobbered for special guard-duty tomorrow, Sergeant Rowley told me to smarten meself up and get a polish on me boots. ‘There’s some big brass coming down from H.Q. so I want you well turned out.’ he says. So tonight I’ll have me work cut out getting some of this mud off meself.
Friday. Same place.
The Sergeant came and got me early this morning. ‘Not bad,’ he says when he’s finished giving me the once over and he leads off right away, threading his way between the shell-holes two or three miles it must have been till we gets to a wood. Not much left of the trees but on the other side is the Chapel of Pol. It’s not knocked about too much, except of course the windows is all blown in and some of the roof has gone. The Sergeant pushes the door open and we goes in. A section of stretcher-bearers are bringing in some bodies, lying them down on two trestle tables and covering them with Union Jack flags. Four of them there were side-by-side on the tables.
‘Come on then,’ says the Sergeant to me. ‘We have to make sure there are no bits missing, everything must be right when the officers get here and I can’t trust these dozy bastards.’
He begins lifting the flags off one-by-one, and when he gets to the third body he gives an angry shout and calls in some stretcher bearers.
‘What’s this then?’ he roars. ‘This one’s got two left arms. He picks up an arm and throws it on their stretcher. ‘Go and find a right arm.’ he says. The bearers go off grumbling that they can’t see what difference it makes anyway. But the Sergeant won’t have any of it. ‘Get on with it!’ he shouts and then continues checking the bodies. When he gets to the last one I couldn’t believe me eyes. It was Private George Philpots, who I hadn’t seen since the Vimy ridge days. I knowed him anyway on account of his ginger hair. His face was a bit messed up but I recognised him straight away and the Sergeant saw me gaping.
‘What you looking at then?’ he says. ‘Haven’t you seen enough dead ’uns to last you a lifetime?’ So I tells him it’s George on the end there, who was in my platoon at Neuve Chapelle and Vimy Ridge.
‘Oh is that so?’ says the Sergeant. ‘Then you’d better just forget all about it see. The officers are coming up here to choose an unidentified body from this lot and you’d better not upset the apple-cart.’
One of the stretcher bearers come in then with a right arm and the sergeant takes it over to the table and fixes it more or less in place. Then he steps back and takes a look. ‘That looks all right,’ he says. ‘As long as they don’t muck about with it.’ He straightens all the flags up so they looks neat and we goes outside and he locks the door.
‘Right me lad,’ he says. ‘You wait here until you see the staff-cars coming and mind you give a good snappy salute, these are bigwigs from the Army Council and we don’t want to upset them. Then off he goes along the duckboards leading up to the road.
Once he was gone I took it easy, I could see the road from where I was so would get plenty of warning. I pulled an empty ammo-box against the wall and sat down to have a fag while I thought about poor old George. I’d known him as a kid, he only lived a few streets away and we both went to the same school. When we left he got a job at the local milk-depot and I’d often seen him leading his nag around the streets on my way to work of a morning. Anyways, he started dipping into the till and fiddling his books. But he got rumbled right quick, not being very bright he hadn’t covered himself. So he got given the choice of two year’s hard or take the King’s shilling. So that’s how George joined up, and now he’s lying under that flag and won’t be delivering any more milk.
I sat watching the road and the long line of ambulances from the War Graves Commission which blocked it all along one side. They were loading up with bodies brought in by the stretcher parties who were crossing backwards and forwards like ants across the mud as far as the eye could see. I thanked God to be on such a cushy number and not out there digging those poor buggers out of that muck. After a while I see two staff-cars and a special ambulance stop on the road, so I put out me fag and got meself into position beside the door.
Two Staff Officers and the Sergeant got out of the cars and walked along the duckboards with two bearers with a stretcher between them following. The officers looked like sponcey peacocks strutting along with boots as polished as new conkers and red hatbands and tabs the only bit of colour for miles around. I comes to attention when they gets close, then shouldered arms and slapped me butt so hard I hurt me hand.
The Sergeant comes forward and unlocks the door and in goes the officers. They’re not in there for two minutes before one of them comes to the door. He has a silk handkerchief up to his nose and doesn’t seem too happy. He beckons to the two bearers and they trots forward and goes in. Two or three minutes more and out they come again. I gives another smart salute but I needn’t have bothered, the officers looked as if they were about to throw up and left in quite a hurry with the stretcher-bearers following with a body. Back into the cars they get still waving their silk handkerchiefs around while the bearers put the body in a coffin, threw the flag over it, puts it in the ambulance and they was gone.
The Sergeant comes back to me. ‘Come on,’ he says, ‘Let’s get rid of the ones they left,’ and we goes inside.
I only needed one look to see they’d taken George, and so I mentions it to the Sergeant. ‘They’ve taken George Philpots,’ I says. ‘What are they going to do with him?’
‘Oh, that’s right,’ he says. ‘You knowed that one didn’t you.’ He goes over to the door and shouts over a stretcher detail. ‘Get rid of these,’ he orders, pointing at the three bodies left on the tables and they go to work. Then he turns back to me. ‘They’re going to take that body back to Blighty tonight, there’s a French destroyer waiting at Boulogne to take it over, and then they’re going to bury it in Westminster Abbey,’ he says. ‘It’s going to be the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. If you’ve got any different ideas about that you’d be sensible to keep them to yourself. So keep your bloody trap shut tight about it. All right?’
I saw what he meant. If one word of what I know gets out my life won’t be worth living. I felt sorry for George’s mum though, such a nice old lady and she would be so proud to know her son George, the ex-milkman, was going to be buried in Westminster Abbey. I’ll be going home soon, but even if I see her in the street I won’t say a word. She would be bound to go around boasting about her son George, and then the cat will be out of the bag. The Sergeant knows but he’ll soon forget it, and me, I’m not saying nothing. I’ll probably burn this diary when I get back, just in case…
The relevant section of the diary ends here and it is doubtful, for obvious reasons whether it still exists, although it is interesting to speculate how Her Majesty and the great and good might feel were they to discover that they had been for many years paying their respects to a dodgy milkman.
From ‘Tales from the Embassy’ by Dave Tomlin
Art: Nick Victor