The Unknown Warrior

The Unknown Warrior

Date: 06/11/2020 14:01

In 1920, an unidentified body was selected from the battlefields of the Great War, to be interred with all due ceremony in Westminster Abbey in the tomb of the Unknown Warrior. The initial idea came from Rev. David Railton on seeing a soldier’s grave that was marked ‘Known Unto God’ and for so many families who had lost their loved ones without trace, the Unknown Warrior came to symbolise ‘The Missing’. Enormous care was taken to make sure that the initial operation was carried out in secret, so that no-one would know where the body had come from, allowing the figure to represent all of the fallen who had no known resting place. For that reason, the events have been shrouded in secrecy over the decades. However, an amazing piece of footage has been rediscovered from the UTV archive. Filmed in 1966 as part of the commemorations of the Battle of the Somme, the interviewee has recently been identified as Major Ernest Fitzsimon, known as ‘Fitz’. In his interview he speaks about how he submitted a scheme for the operation, which was accepted and implemented under his supervision. He talks about sending Cedric Hardwicke -later Sir Cedric Hardwicke, a well-known actor -to create a smokescreen for inquisitive journalists so that they couldn’t uncover the operation’s secrets. 

The discovery of this amazing story is all the more poignant as it came about, coincidentally, so close to the 100th Anniversary of the events described. The selection of the body took place just after midnight on 8th November 1920, at St. Pol. Once selected, the remains were removed to the destroyer Verdun at Boulogne, not by gun carriage, as Fitz had arranged, but by a more utilitarian military wagon. Although he makes light of it in the footage, his son remembers that he was furious about it at the time, as evidenced by the expression on his face in a photograph of the event, now held in the Imperial War Museum. The unscheduled presence of Marshall Foch, Supreme Allied Commander in France and Flanders, on the quayside in Boulogne may have been as a result of his meeting with Fitz on 7th Nov at Amiens cathedral, a meeting which could have prompted him to come and pay his respects.

This clip comes from a longer interview which is, in turn, part of a bigger collection of interviews that were made around a programme called With Heart and Hand: Battle of the Somme. Fitz can be seen in the crowd at about three minutes into that clip. Northern Ireland Screen's Digital Film Archive team is in the process of researching the material in partnership with the Somme Association and other organisations and individuals who can shed light on this incredible footage.

Northern Ireland Screen staff were supported in identifying Fitz by Carol Walker MBE, Director of the Somme Association & Somme Museum, where Ernest Fitzsimon’s collection is held, and historian Mark Scott, who has been researching this story for over 8 years and has just published a book entitled Among the Kings, which uncovers some of the stories behind the Unknown Warrior, particularly the connection with a number of soldiers from Ireland and Northern Ireland who took part in the scheme. Dan Gordon has written a play with the same title, with actor Michael Condron as Fitz.

“This amazing piece of unearthed footage shows Ernest Fitzsimon sitting in his garden in Bangor in 1966, casually discussing his pivotal role in one of the greatest mysteries of the First World War- The Unknown Warrior.  The Nation has honoured this Warrior, who was buried without distinction of rank, birth or service for generations and Fitz, a local man carried many secrets from this historical event to his own grave.” 
-Carol Walker MBE, Director, The Somme Association & Somme Museum