We can look back on the Great War with pride

The ceremony next Monday offers British Jews the chance to recognise their part in the war.


By Martin Gilbert, November 6, 2008
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Each year, on the evening of November 10, a remarkable ceremony takes place at Victoria Station. This year will be no exception.

Eighty-eight years ago, at 8.32 in the evening, the body of the British Unknown Soldier arrived at platform eight. The coffin rested overnight in the station.

The next morning, November 11 - the very first Armistice Day - the coffin was taken from the station on a gun carriage covered with a Union Jack, along Victoria Street to the Cenotaph, and then, led by King George V, to Westminster Abbey, for internment just inside the great West Door, where the unknown soldier lies to this day.

In the course of my work, I found the background to the story in the archives of Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for War, who, recognising the profound significance of such a memorial, supported Lord Curzon, who headed the Cabinet committee set up to make the plans.

The unknown soldier was to represent the hundreds of thousands of British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in action. A body, brought from the battlefield, was taken from Boulogne to Dover on the British destroyer HMS Verdun, and from Dover by train to London.

Today, there is a plaque at the head of platform eight. I often pause there for a few silent moments on my way through that busy station. Each year, at 8.32pm on November 10, a bugler sounds the solemn notes of the Last Post.

This is followed by a two-minute silence, after which a member of the Western Front Association reads from the poem by Laurence Binyon:

"They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old./Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn./At the going down of the sun and in the morning/ We will remember them."

A wreath is laid, and the ceremony ends with the bugler sounding the Reveille. It is entirely in the realm of possibility that the Unknown Warrior was Jewish: 2,324 British and Commonwealth Jews were killed in the war. Many have no known graves.

Five Jews won the Victoria Cross in the First World War. Two of them - Captain Robert Gee, Royal Fusiliers, and Sergeant Issy Smith, Manchester Regiment - formed part of the Guard of Honour at that re-burial in Westminster Abbey on 11 November 1920.

Churchill had written earlier that year: "British Jews can look back with pride on the honourable part they played in wining the Great War."

Robert Gee was born in Leicester and died in Australia in 1960, aged eighty-four. A former miner, in 1921 he stood as the Conservative candidate at the Woolwich East by-election, beating the Labour leader Ramsay Macdonald by 700 votes. Gee lost the seat the next year.

Issy Smith was born Ishroulch Shmulovitch in Alexandria, Egypt.

Severely gassed and wounded five times on the Western Front, after the war he became an Australian Justice of the Peace, dying in 1940, aged 50.

This year, 10 November is a Monday. Jewish Ex-Servicemen will be among those gathering that evening at the head of platform eight.

Anyone who joins them will witness - and take part in - one of London's unknown ceremonies: for an unknown warrior.

Sir Martin Gilbert's book, ‘The First World War', has just been reissued as a paperback

Last updated: 4:54pm, November 9 2010