Each gravestone in a war cemetery is a poignant reminder of a life lost in conflict and those with the epitaph “Known unto God” are particularly moving and sad.
Until recently, the remains of Corporal Thomas Houston MM of 2nd Battalion, The Highland Light Infantry was buried in a grave in Bancourt British Cemetery and the gravestone bore the inscription: “A soldier of The Great War//known unto God”. However, due to dedicated research among the documents held at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the grave was identified as his. Interestingly, the documents recorded that the remains belonged to a private soldier who was a signaller; however, it was Corporal Houston’s medals that proved to be the missing clue to his identity.
Corporal Houston fell on 24 March 1918 during the German Spring Offensive; however, he had been one of the few remaining members of the Battalion which had been part of the British Expeditionary Force and thus had been awarded a Mons Star (1914). Corporal Houston had also been awarded the Military Medal (MM) – an award for bravery introduced in 1916 – records of these medals served to confirm his identity.
A service to re-dedicate Corporal Houston’s grave took place on the 98th anniversay of his death in Bancourt Cemetery, in the presence of members of The Royal Highland Fusiliers, 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland (2 SCOTS), the successor battalion of The Highland Light Infantry and The Royal Highland Fusiliers. 2 SCOTS continue the traditions of the antecedent regiments including carrying The Assaye Colour.
Throughout the war cemeteries across the globe, lie 211,996 soldiers in 75 Countries whose identities are ”Known unto God’. The majority of these being in France (116,459), Belgium (48,578) and Turkey (13,461).
The phrase “Known Unto God” was coined by Rudyard Kipling, whose son, John, fell in September 1915 at the Battle of Loos and whose body was not identified; although a possible identification was announced in 1997. Partly in response to John’s death, Kipling joined Sir Fabian Ware’s Imperial War Graves Commission (now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission), the group responsible for the garden-like British war graves found to this day. Possibly his most significant contribution was his selection of the biblical phrase “Their Name Liveth For Evermore (Ecclesiasticus 44.14) found on stones of remembrance in the large war cemeteries and his suggestion of the phrase “Known unto God” for the gravestones of unidentified servicemen. He also chose the inscription “The Glorious Dead” on the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London.