The story of two Wantage soldiers and the Unknown Warrior

An article kindly supplied by Trevor Hancock - Local Historian

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Bessie Ivey and Bert Hurle's Wedding June 1914. Harry on left Tom on right.

Harry and Tom Ivey

The story starts in 1877 when Mr Charles Ivey arrived in Wantage from Cornwall with his wife Eliza to work as a tailor for Wheeler Brothers in the Market Square. He was to work for them for many years before becoming the licencee of the Wagon and Horses Inn in Wallingford Street. Charles Ivey also became a councillor with the Wantage Urban District Council and an enthusiastic supporter of Wantage Town Football Club.

He and Eliza had six children four sons and two daughters. Two of his sons Tom and Harry were to become regular soldiers. It was Tom who enlisted first into the Coldstream Guards on the 19th February 1901 in Wantage aged 19. His youngest brother Harry followed ten years later aged 18 initially joining the Manchester Regiment in Ashton-under-Lyne but a year later transferred to the Coldstream Guards to join Tom in the same regiment. He by now a Colour-Sergeant in the 3rd Battalion was serving in Egypt where in October 1910 he married Ada Smith at the Garrison Church in Cairo. Both brothers met up in June 1914, when Harry (by now a Corporal) and Tom acted as ushers in their full dress uniforms at the marriage of their sister Bessie to Bert Hurle at Wantage Parish Church.

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Harry and his mum

World War 1

On the outbreak of World War 1 in August 1914, Tom and Harry were both serving in the 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards. Serving with their battalion in France the brothers took part in the retreat from Mons and the Battle of 1st Ypres where Tom was mentioned in despatches. Subsequently Tom was awarded a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Irish Rifles. Wounded again at Hooge, in 1915, Tom Ivey eventually rose to the rank of Major and was awarded the DSO. Staying on in the army post war he retired in the late 1920s.

Harry continued to serve in the Coldstream Guards and in September 1916 was a L/Sergt with his battalion near the village of Ginchy on the Somme. The Coldstream Guards entered the Battle of the Somme on 15th September taking part in the attack at Flers-Courcelette, with the village of Lesboefs as its objective. After going over the top the attack soon stalled in the face of devastating fire and the majority of the 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards officers became casualties. Also the attacking troops became intermingled and a great deal of confusion ensued. Amongst the heroes of that day was L/Sgt Ivey who seeing all his company officers had been wounded sprang forward and led the unit’s attack with the greatest coolness and bravery. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. The battalion’s commanding officer Lt-Col J V Campbell was awarded the Victoria Cross for taking charge of the third wave, rallying the survivors of the battalion and leading them through very heavy hostile fire. His personal gallantry and initiative at a very critical moment enabled the division to press on and capture objectives of the highest tactical importance.

After this battle Harry Ivey remained with his battalion on the Western Front until October 1917 when he was wounded at Broembek near Ypres, and returned to the UK. Here as a Sergeant, he was posted to the 5th Battalion Coldstream Guards and was involved in training drafts for the front.

The Unknown Warrior

In November 1920, there occurred at Westminster Abbey a ceremony in which Sgt Harry Ivey was to take a crucial part.

In July 1916, David Railton an army chaplain had an idea in the garden of his billet near Armentieres after he had seen a grave marked by a rough cross inscribed ‘An Unknown British Soldier of the Black Watch’. That suggested to him a plan that would he hoped comfort relatives mourning a warrior with no known grave. In August 1920, he wrote to Herbert Ryle Dean of Westminster suggesting the burial in the Abbey of the body of ‘one of our unknown comrades’ recovered from France.

Bishop Ryle liked the idea and approached King George V, Lloyd George and Field Marshal Henry Wilson. On the 15thOctober 1920 the cabinet approved the proposal and appointed a committee under Lord Curzon to plan the event.

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The procession about to leave Victoria Station
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The Gun carriage setting off from Victoria Station
The resting place of the Unknown Warrior
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Entering Westminster Abbey

Selecting the Unknown Warrior

The utmost precautions were taken to ensure that the warrior would be truly unknown. Four skeletons were exhumed from separate battlefields: maybe a scrap of khaki to show that the remains were reliably British but lacking any identifying badge or button. They were taken to a makeshift chapel at army HQ St Pol. One was chosen and the others were reburied along a roadside so that it remained unknowable where the selected warriors had fallen.

The selected warrior, in a simple pine coffin with six barrels of soil from a French battlefield was taken to Boulogne. Here the coffin was placed inside a huge ceremonial coffin brought from England decorated with a sword from the Tower of London. On the morning of 10th November the coffin was place aboard HMS Verdun and taken to Dover. At Dover Marine Station it was loaded into the luggage van that had previously been used to convey Edith Cavell’s body and taken to Victoria Station where it remained overnight.

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The Bearer Party marching behind the Gun carriage

The ceremony at Westminster Abbey

On the morning of the 11th November 1920, a bearer party from the 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards under the command of Sgt Harry Ivey DCM entered the luggage van and placed a Union Flag, steel helmet and side arms of a private soldier of the British Army on the coffin, making them secure. Subsequently the party carried the coffin the short distance to the waiting gun carriage and procession. After loading the coffin on the gun carriage, the bearer party stepped back and marched to their position to the rear of the gun carriage.

Twelve distinguished pall bearers including Field Marshals French and Haig took their places alongside the gun carriage and the procession moved off towards Whitehall where the Cenotaph was to be unveiled by King George V. Here the procession halted, and the King placed a wreath on the coffin and the Cenotaph was unveiled. Following the ceremony here, the procession made its way to Westminster Abbey where again the bearer party stepped forward to carry the coffin into the Abbey in-between an honour guard made up of 96 holders of the Victoria Cross. Here the various dignitaries took their places in the nave where the King took his pace at the head of the grave. Then followed a simple ceremony and as the hymn Lead Kindly Light was sung the Bearer Party gently lowered the coffin into the grave into which was also placed the soil from France.

Harry's Final Days with the Army

After his part at Westminster Abbey, Harry Ivey remained with the Coldstream Guards serving with them in Turkey to help keep the peace after the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Marrying Rose Culley in January 1929, Harry finished his service in the army as a Company Sergeant Major the following year.

Grays Inn

From 1930 until his final retirement in 1951 Harry Ivey was Head Porter at Grays Inn in London, one of the Inns of Court and professional associations for barristers in the UK. His burly figure and black cat called Trouble were much missed after he left. During World War 2 Harry was in charge of the Firewatchers at Grays Inn and distinguished himself again in helping to fight the fires that destroyed much of the Inn including its library. This remarkable man sadly died on the 27thMay 1967 at Yeovil.

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Harry and Trouble the cat


  • Bruce Bignold
  • Andrew Mussell, Archivist Grays Inn
  • WO 95/1215 War Diary 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards
  •  WO 95/1213 War Diary 1st Guards Brigade
  • History of the Guards Division in the Great War 1914-1918 by Cuthbert Headlam 1924
  • The Story of the British Unknown Warrior by Michael Gavaghan
Trevor Hancock
White Horse Ancestors
19th February 2020
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The grave of the Unknown Warrior

About The Author - Trevor Hancock

Trevor is a genealogist and local historian offering a research service in the UK both online and at various record offices. He has been involved in family and local history for many years.

White Horse Ancestors is a Local, Family and Military History Research Service based in Wantage Oxfordshire. 

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