The departure of the British troops (1918-21)

In the aftermath of the Armistice of November 1918 the British started to prepare the repatriation of the troops that fought on the Western front. As the survivors gradually left France the bodies of several hundreds of thousands of Tommies, who died in action, remained buried in French or Belgian soil. The countless military cemeteries which dot the landscapes of these regions bear testimony to this sad memory.

The body of one soldier, however, was returned to his home country. In 1920 the French and British authorities decided to pay tribute to the soldiers who died during the war by giving a ceremonial burial to an unknown soldier. In early November the bodies of several unknown British soldiers were dug up in different battlefields along the Western front. The coffins were covered with the Union Jack and then sent to Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise (Pas-de-Calais). General Wyatt, the Commander of the British troops in Belgium and France, then randomly designated one of these coffins, and this soldier’s remains were sent to the UK to become the Unknown British Soldier. The coffin was transported to Boulogne-sur-Mer, where, after a Franco-British ceremony, it was put on the boat to Dover. On November 11th, 1920, at 11 a.m. precisely, the body of this unknown British soldier was buried in London, in the presence of King George V, in the nave of Westminster Abbey.

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  • Announcement of the sale of British pre-fab structures, 23 March 1919, newspapers, Departmental Archives of Pas-de-Calais – mark PG 224/9

    From 1919 the dismantling of the British camps led to the publication of various proposals of sale in the local press to private individuals of barracks and shacks.

  • Portrait of two Chinese workers, first quarter of the 20th century, photo, Archives de Dunkerque – Centre de la mémoire urbaine d’agglomération

    After the Armistice many of the Chinese workers were employed to clean up the former battlefields: they dug up the bodies of soldiers so they could be transferred to their final resting place, recovered unexploded ordnance and so on….

  • Caron Achille (1888-1947), Construction of the British Cemetery at Etaples, first quarter of the 20th century, glass plate, © Musée Quentovic – Ville d’Etaples-sur-Mer

    The large British cemetery at Etaples bears testimony to the many soldiers who died in the hospitals nearby, during the Great War.

announcement of the sale of British pre-fab structuresportrait of two Chinese workersconstruction of the British cemetery at Etaples