The flag: the story of Revd David Railton MC and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior
by Andrew Richards
published by Casemate, 2017
ISBN 978 1 6100 447 1
Content: 250 pages plus appendix, end notes, bibliography, no index. Illustrated.
Cover price £20
Reviewed by Chris Baker
The name of Reverend David Railton MC will be forever remembered as that of the man who first conceived the idea of commemoration of an “unknown soldier” to represent all those who had lost their lives but whose body or grave could not be found or identified. The thousands who pass by the tomb of the unknown warrior in Westminster Abbey, or the similar tombs in many countries across the world have him to thank, for the thought is said to have come to him when seeing a grave to an unknown soldier in Erquinghem-Lys in 1916. The Abbey visitors may not be aware that they are close by the original Union Flag that accompanied the soldier’s coffin from France for burial in London, or that the flag belonged to David Railton. Indeed, that he carried such a flag throughout his time in France and Flanders, using it for an altar, for burials and for various other purposes, is at the core and title of this book.
The biography of Railton’s life, before, during and after his work as an Anglican Chaplain to the Forces during the Great War, is well covered and appears to be deeply researched by the author. He places the life story into the context of events of the times, and amply demonstrates that Railton was a good and inspiring speaker and a man who many came to trust and love. “The Flag” will certainly be of interest to those who are interested in the Army Chaplain’s Department; the 1/19th Battalion of the London Regiment; and the 47th and 19th Divisions, all of whom had the privilege of having him as a Chaplain. That he was a well-regarded “front line” man soon becomes evident and is evidenced not least by his Military Cross, gained for his work in bringing in wounded men. The passages covering the time at Vimy Ridge and the terrible toll of human life in the attacks at High Wood in 1916 are particularly atmospheric and the reader can well understand how the episodes affected Railton’s outlook and well-being for the rest of his days. There is also good coverage of the decisions that led to the bringing home of the unknown warrior and the role that he played in it. So overall, a worthwhile biography and one well worth reading.
Having said that, I left the book with rather mixed feelings. At the outset is a chapter titled “Sleepless nights”, describing events in Railton’s life in Margate, Kent, in 1921. It is fictional, in the sense that the author puts words to Railton’s thoughts and conversations he had with men at the local police station. I confess almost gave up the book at that point: it will be a matter of taste to those who choose to read “The Flag”, but I thought that it diminished what would otherwise be a very good work of reliable history.
Chris Baker was reviewing a paperback pre-release copy of “The Flag” which may differ from the finally-published version.