02 May 2023
The general who chose
the ‘Unknown Warrior’ and
links with an architectural
dynasty from Staffordshire
I have spent some time in recent weeks working on a paper on the era of the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War in Co Limerick. During my research, I once again came across the story of Brigadier General Louis John Wyatt, who was commanding British troops in Limerick and who unveiled the War Memorial in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, at a service 101 years ago on 2 May 1922.
The Cathedral War Memorial in Limerick is dedicated to the ‘men from Thomond.’ General Wyatt was chosen to unveil the memorial not just because of his senior army role in Limerick, but because he had become a popular public figure in the aftermath of World War I because of his role in creating the Grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey in 1920.
This story about General Wyatt creates an interesting link between Limerick and Lichfield, for he was descended from the Wyatt family, an important architectural dynasty from Lichfield. The Wyatt family originated in Weeford, south of Lichfield and west of Tamworth. I spoke on the Wyatt family in Lichfield at the invitation of the Lichfield Civic Society five years ago (24 April 2018), and there is an open invitation to give a similar talk to the Tamworth and District Civic Society.
http://www.patrickcomerford.com/2018/04/the-wyatt-family-of-weeford-lichfield.html Brigadier General Louis John Wyatt (1874-1950) was a senior officer in the North Staffordshire Regiment for many years, and in recent years his story has been researched by Danielle Crozier, formerly of the Staffordshire Regiment Museum in Lichfield, and the Cannock historian Richard Pursehouse.
Louis Wyatt was born in Islington, London, on 14 September 1874, the youngest of five children of James Matthew George Wyatt (1835-1889), a civil engineer, and Eliza Pinta (Hearn). Louis Wyatt’s grandfather, James Wyatt II (1808-1893), an architect, was a son of the painter and sculptor Matthew Cotes Wyatt (1777-1862), and a grandson of the architect James Wyatt (1746-1813), who was born in Weeford and whose great works include the Radcliffe Observatory and many college buildings in Oxford.
Louis Wyatt’s parents lived in Kingston-on-Thames, and he was sent to Aldenham Grammar School in Elstree, Hertfordshire. From there he joined the army. He was a second lieutenant in the King’s Liverpool Regiment by the age of 20, and transferred to the North Staffordshire Regiment in 1895. He took part in the Dongola Expedition in the Upper Nile in 1896, fought in the Boer War in 1899-1902, and was injured at Jackfontein in 1900.
He married Marion Jessie Sloane in All Saints’ Church, Daresbury, Cheshire, in 1904. She was known in her family as ‘Gypsy’, and was a daughter of William Sloane, who owned the Mersey White Lead Company in Warrington.
Wyatt was an officer in the North Staffordshire Regiment throughout World War I. He was awarded the DSO (Distinguished Service Order) in the king’s birthday honours in 1916. At the time, he was the commanding officer of the 4th York and Lancaster Regiment. The President of Portugal also decorated him as a Grand Officer the Military Order of Aviz after a battle in April 1918 in which many Portuguese soldiers suffered badly. By the end of World War I, he was a brigadier general, commanding forces in France and Flanders.
There were over 850,000 British military deaths in World War I. Many were buried in unidentified war graves, their headstones inscribed simply: ‘A soldier of the Great War known unto God.’ An Anglican army chaplain, the Revd David Railton, came up with the idea of burying an unknown soldier. King George V disliked the idea, but the prime minister, Lloyd George, intervened and arrangements were put in place for the ceremony.
As General Office Commanding the British forces in France and Flanders, Wyatt was entrusted with the task of choosing the body of the ‘Unknown Warrior’ to be buried in Westminster Abbey.
Four or six bodies were exhumed from each of the battle areas – the Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres – and taken to a makeshift chapel in St Pol, covered and concealed. There Wyatt chose one of them to represent all the soldiers, pilots and sailors who died in that war, and all wars.
The body was guarded and honoured and taken to Boulogne, where it was put into a coffin made of oak from Hampton Court. The coffin arrived in Dover on the morning of Armistice Day, 11 November 1920. The quayside was lined with people as it was taken by train to London, before being placed on a gun carriage drawn by black horses. The coffin passed through hushed crowds of thousands of people, some weeping. At the Cenotaph, George V placed a wreath on the coffin. It was brought to Westminster Abbey on the 11th hour of the 11th month, for a short funeral service and the soldier’s body was entombed inside the west entrance.
In the following days, more than a million people came to Westminster Abbey to pay their respects.
After leaving the army, Louis Wyatt 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. During World War II, he was also an honorary colonel of the North Staffordshire Regiment.
He became Sheriff of Westmorland in 1945. He died in Kirby Lonsdale on 28 April 1955, aged 80. Louis and Marion Wyatt were the parents of two daughters, Patricia (Boumphrey) and Laetitia (Hardie).
Wyatt rarely spoke about the Unknown Warrior, apart from one occasion in 1939 when he wrote an open letter to several newspapers, setting the record straight about how the process was undertaken. His daughter Laetitia Hardie thinks she understands why. ‘My view is that he regarded it as a sacred trust that had been committed to him, and that some things are just too sacred to ever be discussed.’
Laetitia Hardie, who was born on 21 August 1918, just a few months before the armistice on 11 November 1918, gave an interview with the Guardian at the age of 100. She recalled her childhood near the North Staffordshire barracks, growing up with her sister Patricia, their mother Marion, and her ‘quiet and high principled’ military father.
During World War, II Laetitia Hardie was a voluntary aid detachment nurse with the Red Cross and became an expert in anti-gas treatment. ‘Though my father rarely talked about the war,’ she recalled, ‘I do remember him abhorring the use of gas because of the horrific injuries it caused, and this inspired me to do anti-gas training.’
Her husband, Dr Patrick John Hardie, was an army doctor during World War II, and treated some of the emancipated prisoners when the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was liberated.
Laetitia Hardie contacted the Staffordshire Regiment Museum in Lichfield in 2018, asking for photographs of her father’s medals. The curator Danielle Crozier began looking into Wyatt’s story and realised he had left behind an extraordinary legacy by choosing the Unknown Warrior.
Danielle Crozier believes that the symbolic significance of the Unknown Warrior cannot be overstated. ‘It was an inspirational idea – the idea of bringing back someone who could have been anybody – to allow those families, the daughters, sisters, the wives, to think, ‘you never know, he could be mine’. I think the Unknown Warrior gave so much hope to people. It allowed them to grieve.’
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