‘Known unto God’ – The Headstone of the Unknown Soldier

The oh-so-familiar headstone of the unknown soldier. 

Familiar if you get the opportunity to visit the cemeteries on the Western Front,…

…not so much if you are unable to do so, although most of us, I suggest, are aware of the distinctive, whiteish, headstones,…

…sparsely inscribed, a Latin cross between the lines ‘A Soldier of the Great War’ and ‘Known Unto God’,…

…that signify the graves of men whose identity can only be found on one of the huge memorials to the missing, where the lists of names numb the senses.

Across hundreds of cemeteries, thousands of headstones – including the sixty eight pictured in this shot – bear these simple words,…

…although you might be less aware of the number of variations to the basic design that also exist, such as this early grave of a man known to have been killed in 1914,…

…or these two men killed in 1917, the headstone on the left bearing a significant date, 7th June 1917 being – all together now – the day that nineteen huge mines exploded in the German front line trenches at the start of the Battle of Messines.  And so, in this post, we shall take a look at some of the different headstones, all marking the graves of unidentified men, that you might come across in the military cemeteries of Flanders & the Somme.

Two quite unusual variations, in that the vast majority of the unknown dead are British privates, and thus you rarely see the words ‘British Soldier’ or ‘British Private’ included in the inscription,…

…three unknown soldiers with specific dates of death, August 1915 on the left, July & November 1916 centre & right,…

…and two variations with identical meanings, which probably proves something.

An unknown serjeant and an unknown officer,…

…although you are far more likely to come across ‘A British Officer of the Great War’, as in the centre here,…

…or on the left here,…

…again sometimes with a date of death, if known.

On occasions, rank, if established, can be found added in parentheses, as in the lieutenant on the right here,…

…or the second lieutenant and captain pictured here.

I am unsure if I have ever seen a headstone inscribed with ‘An English Soldier of the Great War’, but you do sometimes find ‘A Scottish Soldier of the Great War’ (above left & below) or ‘An Irish Soldier of the Great War’ (above right), and, doubtless, a Welsh soldier too, although I don’t have an example, or at least I can’t find one.

Row of variation Scottish headstones marking the graves of soldiers from ‘A Scottish Regiment’.

Headstones marking the graves of multiple soldiers are far from unusual,…

…six of these seven headstones in the front row, which all mark the graves of unidentified men, inscribed with ‘Three Soldiers of the Great War’.

Headstones of two unidentified soldiers (left), an unknown soldier & an unknown corporal (centre), and, possibly uniquely, twenty two soldiers, on the right,…

…and here, on the left, the graves of three, four, & three unknown men, with another unusual headstone, ‘To the Memory of Several Soldiers of the Great War Buried in this Grave’, on the right.

Fifteen unidentified men buried beneath four headstones,…

…and another, on the left here, marking four soldiers’ graves, three of whom are completely unknown, the other identified as a serjeant.

A single soldier, four soldiers, and, on the right, six soldiers,…

…and here seven headstones, the middle five marking the graves of eleven unknown soldiers in total, bookended by graves of unknown men whose regiments have been identified, and thus the regimental emblem appears on their headstones even if their names do not.  The three unidentified soldiers buried beneath the headstone at this end of the front row nearest the camera are known to be Cameron Highlanders, as the emblem shows us, and which very handily leads us on to the second post in this series – didn’t I mention that this is the first of a series? – where we shall look at more unknown burials where a regimental identification has been made.

‘Known unto God’

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9 Responses to ‘Known unto God’ – The Headstone of the Unknown Soldier

  1. Filip Jacques says:

    There is that song – in Flemish – mentioning the unimaginable number of graves around Ieper, saying ‘always someone’s father, always someone’s son’. And that says it all.

  2. Andy Mowatt says:

    I had no idea there were so many variations. So moving to see.

  3. Steve Monk says:

    This may sound strange, but when I have walked around a cemetery in Ieper, I have noticed graves like these. I am lucky in as much as I have a focal point in the Grave my Great Grandfather was buried in.
    There must be thousands of people out there that just don’t know the whereabouts of their brave ancestors and I find it thought provoking that they could well be in one of these “unknown graves” The other thought that comes to mind is that maybe these men were so badly injured as to be unidentifiable. So sad.

  4. daz says:

    Poor souls R.I.P

  5. nicholas Kilner says:

    A stark reminder of just how often only parts were found. Some presumably indistinguishable from those of another poor soul, and hence buried together. A very interesting and deeply thought provoking post. I look forward to part 2

  6. Steven Hearnden says:

    A very interesting article of an often overlooked subject.

  7. Magicfingers says:

    Glad you found this of interest chaps – I figured you might. Thanks for your comments, as always.

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