The most compelling part of Remembrance Day ceremonies in Ottawa takes place once all the formalities are over and done with. It is then that people lay their poppies on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It is heart-stopping to watch as Canadian after Canadian approaches the tomb, lays down a poppy, perhaps sheds a tear or whispers a prayer, then silently walks away.
This poppy ritual is already an entrenched Canadian tradition although it’s a very new one. In fact, we’ve had an Unknown Soldier to honour in this way only since 2000. That’s when the remains of an unidentified First World War soldier were repatriated from a war cemetery near Vimy Ridge, France. Sadly, there are another 6,846 unknown Canadian soldiers buried in France alone.
We were late to honour our lost warrior. Since 1920, an Unknown Soldier has been entombed in Westminster Abbey, and such tombs were established in both France and the U.S. in 1921. The first Commonwealth country to do the same was Australia in 1993. Canada was a full seven years behind that. At least 42 other countries — from Argentina to Zimbabwe — now also have Unknown Soldier tombs.
Our Unknown Soldier, who lies at the site of the National War Monument, found his final resting place on May 28, 2000. The televised ceremony was attended by a big crowd. The tomb continues to attract visitors, and not only on Remembrance Day.
It was springtime when I last visited Ottawa. Thousands and thousands of tulips were blooming in that city. All were a gift of the Netherlands whose royal family sheltered there when Holland was occupied by Germany during the Second World War. The tulips are an annual “Thank you.”
My cousin, Catherine McArthur, and I strolled around Parliament Hill admiring those beautiful bright blossoms. We were surprised, pleased, and touched to see that someone had left tulips for the Unknown Soldier.
At Culloden Moor, the site of Scotland’s last stand against the English, there is also an Unknown Soldiers’ grave. It isn’t called that.
The tall stone monument you first see when you enter the battlefield cemetery states: “The Battle of Culloden was fought on this moor 16th April 1746. The graves of the gallant highlanders who fought for Scotland and Prince Charlie are marked by the names of their clans.”
There are gravestones everywhere bearing scores of clan names. And then, you find a rough-looking, not very large fieldstone, sitting alone. The inscription on this stone reads, “Mixed Clans.” It is the resting place of nameless soldiers from unidentified clans. Surely, this must be the world’s first recognition of Unknown Soldiers.
The tomb back home in Canada carries a simple inscription in both French and English: “The Unknown Soldier,” and, “Le Soldat Inconnu.”
Before the Unknown Soldier was brought home to Canada, the inscription on his gravestone said he was, “Known only to God.”
But for the Royal Canadian Legion, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Canadian War Museum and most Canadians, it is enough to know that the Unknown Soldier has come home.