Kirkby Lonsdale - the home of the original tomb of the unknown warrior

PUBLISHED: 00:00 04 November 2020

Kirkby Lonsdale Churchyard tour feature. Guide Tess Pyke at the unassuming grave of Brigadier General Wyatt in St Mary's Church yard

Kirkby Lonsdale Churchyard tour feature. Guide Tess Pyke at the unassuming grave of Brigadier General Wyatt in St Mary's Church yard

Milton Haworth 2020

For a hundred years the Cenotaph as been the focal point for a nation’s grief, but few know its connection to Kirkby Lonsdale.

Brigadier General Louis WyattBrigadier General Louis Wyatt

In the corner of the well-kept cemetery at St Mary’s parish church in Kirkby Lonsdale lies a modest grave. There is no headstone to draw the attention of the thousands of visitors who amble through on their way to the famous Ruskin’s View over the River Lune to the fells beyond.

Yet the grave marks a poignant link between the picturesque village and perhaps the most famous legacy of the First World War. For the grave is of Brigadier General Louis John Wyatt DSODL, the man who chose the unknown warrior to represent across the world the sacrifice and suffering of all those who fought in the Great War and battles ever since.

Blue Badge Tourist Guide Tess Pike has organised a series of charity walks in support of the Armed Forces charity SSAFA to mark the 100th anniversary of the interment of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. She is also organising a special commemoration on Armistice Day, November 11th, to be held in Lunesdale Hall.

She said: ‘I was inspired to offer the walks because I was intrigued that this highly decorated Brigadier General, who played such a significant role in the country’s history, should have chosen to retire to our little town and be buried in the churchyard.’

The headstone of James Roland WillanThe headstone of James Roland Willan

Ms Pike, whose business as a tourist guide across the north of England was put on hold during lockdown, added: ‘Once I started researching the stories of those men who died in World War One who have memorials in the churchyard, I became increasingly intrigued by their stories and wanted to bring people whose names appear on the war memorial gravestones to life.

‘Instead of offering my walks on a commercial basis, I decided to do them as a fund raiser to support one of the many charities that will be struggling with donations this year in the current economic climate.’

The main charity to benefit is SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association. It is the UK’s oldest military charity, being founded in 1885. It provides lifelong support to serving men and women and veterans from the British Armed Forces.

It is split into 91 branches across the UK, and Branch Secretary of Cumbria, Rachel Mitchell, said: ‘We are extremely grateful for Tess’s support and are looking forward to attending the celebration she is organising in Kirkby Lonsdale.’

Kirkby Lonsdale Churchyard tour feature. Guide Tess Pyke in St Mary's Church yard in Kirkby LonsdaleKirkby Lonsdale Churchyard tour feature. Guide Tess Pyke in St Mary's Church yard in Kirkby Lonsdale

Brigadier General Wyatt was born in Islington, London, in 1874. By the age of 20, he was already a 2nd Lieutenant in The King’s Liverpool Regiment. He moved to the North Staffordshire Regiment in 1895 and fought in The Boer War from 1899 to 1902, being injured at Jackfontein in 1900.

In 1904 he married Marion, known as Gipsy due to her Spanish heritage, who was one of six daughters of a family from Daresbury, near Liverpool.

By the end of World War One, Louis Wyatt had attained the rank of Brigadier General commanding forces in France and Flanders, and was given the task of choosing the body of the ‘Unknown Warrior’.

There had been more than 850,000 deaths among British military personnel in the Great War. Many of these were buried in war graves.

An Anglican Army chaplain, Rev David Railton, is attributed with having the idea of burying an unknown warrior. King George V disliked the idea, but the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, intervened and arrangements were put in place for the ceremony.

So four decomposed bodies were exhumed from the battle fields at Somme, Aisne, Arras and Ypres. They were taken to a makeshift chapel in St Pol, covered and concealed.

Brigadier General Wyatt chose one of them. The body was guarded and honoured and taken to Boulogne, where it was put into a coffin made of oak from Hampton Court.

On Armistice Day, November 11th 1920, the coffin was draped with a union flag and taken on a gun carriage to the Cenotaph. The king placed a wreath upon it. From there it was taken to Westminster Abbey where a short funeral service was held and the soldier’s body was entombed just inside the west entrance.

Wyatt rarely spoke about the Unknown Warrior, but he did write a letter detailing exactly how he chose the body because he had concerns over rumours that the body he chose had actually been identified.

Wyatt wrote to the Telegraph on November 11th 1939, two months after the outbreal of World War Two, and on the 21st anniversary of the armistice.

He said: ‘The four bodies lay on stretchers, each covered by a union jack, in front of the altar was the shell of the coffin which had been sent from England to receive the remains.

‘I selected one, and with the assistance of Colonel Gell, placed it in the shell; we screwed down the lid. The other bodies were removed and reburied in the military cemetery outside my headquarters at St Pol. I had no idea even of the area from which the body I selected had come; no one else can know it.’

Wyatt and Marion had two daughters, Patricia and Laetitia. After leaving the army, he took up various directorships and moved to Kirby Lonsdale with his family. In 1939, he was chair of John Hare (colours), Bristol, Director of the Mersey White Lead Company, Warrington and Director of the Moore Management Trust Ltd. In 1945 he was appointed Sheriff of Westmorland and held the post for at least five years. He died in 1955, aged 80.

Wyatt was a founding member of the Old Comrades Association, an organisation offering a support network for military veterans, allowing them to maintain friendships and seek employment advice.

When Wyatt died, soldiers crowded into the service in Kirkby Lonsdale’s St Mary’s Church to play the Last Post.

A family member recalled: ‘It was very moving. The soldiers wanted to pay their respects to the officer who had chosen the Unknown Warrior – allowing an entire nation to focus its grief.’

In memoriam

Brig Gen Wyatt is not the only World War One veteran buried in Kirkby Lonsdale graveyard.

As well as three Commonwealth memorials, there is another simple stone gravestone, beneath which are the remains of James Roland Willan, who was sent home from the trenches after being gassed in 1917.

He spent five years in Westmorland General Hospital before dying in 1922. The cut-off date for being included on memorials to the war dead was August 31th, 1921, hence his lone grave.

Ms Pike’s walks and talks include his and many other stories, finishing with the bench overlooking Ruskin’s View.

Any servicemen or families needing support can contact SSAFA on 0300 365 1885.

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