The unknown soldier remembered 100 years on

Unknown warrior: The soldier is buried in Westminster Abbey alongside 17 monarchs. © Getty

Should we embrace the unknown? Memorials to unnamed soldiers affect us on a deep psychological level, but there are also philosophical reasons to accept the unknown and welcome uncertainty.

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, Big Ben chimes and a cannon fires a single shot. Across the country, people fall silent for two minutes of remembrance. It symbolises the moment 102 years ago when the guns stopped at the end of one of the deadliest wars in history.

The silence is broken by a solitary bugle playing the uplifting notes of The Rouse. Across the world, from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris to Arlington National Cemetery in the US, the same solemn rituals are observed.

In London, wreaths are laid at the foot of the Cenotaph. The name of this austere memorial means, literally, “empty tomb” – a poignant reminder of the thousands of dead who never returned home from the First World War.

But one soldier did come back. A hundred years ago, a horse-drawn gun carriage brought a casket through London, past immense silent crowds, to be buried in Westminster Abbey, alongside 16 kings and queens of England.

Who was this soldier? We don’t know. He was picked at random from thousands buried in unmarked graves on battlefields across France. “It literally could have been anybody”, says historian Terry Charman, "It could have been an earl or a duke's son, or a labourer from South Africa”.

And because he could have been anyone, he became everyone. Each grieving family was able to imagine that their loved one lay “among the kings” in the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, a lasting symbol of the universal and human cost of war.

Charman says this ritual created catharsis, transforming the painful unknown of thousands of unidentified dead into a tangible unknown that could be embraced and mourned.

It is a powerful idea that draws on the unique ability of the unknown to incite our imagination and arouse strong feelings. The psychologist Nicholas Carleton argues that the fear of the unknown may be “the one fear to rule them all”, an ancient evolutionary response to danger that kept our ancestors alive.

In the primordial jungles, it was wise to be afraid of the dark or wary of a strange-looking fruit. The unfamiliar could kill and humanity’s powerful imagination filled the unknown with fearsome monsters.

But some choose to face the unknown. From Scott of the Antarctic to Amelia Earhart, explorers have found the blank spaces on maps an irresistible invitation to cross oceans and continents and conquer their fears.

Artists and philosophers have purposefully sought out the unknown. The American poet Wallace Stevens wrote that without it, scholars “would shrivel up with boredom”. David Hume described philosophy as like setting sail on a “boundless ocean” in a “leaky weather-beaten vessel”.

And the unknown may hold the secret to happiness. Psychologists argue that we need to leave our comfort zone and build mental resilience with new experiences. Sociologists warn that society has become risk averse, making it much harder to deal with the inevitability of uncertainty.

The unknown is troubling, scary and maybe even dangerous.

But even so, should we embrace it?

The great unknown

Some say no, we must trust our instincts. The world is a scary and unpredictable place and there is nothing wrong with sticking to the things we know and trust. There is no reason why we should put ourselves in situations where we feel afraid or uncomfortable. And it is humanity’s greatest achievement to have created a society where we always feel safe and secure.

Others say yes, we shouldn’t fear the unknown. It stops us from achieving our full potential. If we don’t embrace it, we resign ourselves to living dull and predictable lives without adventure or discovery. It is far better to imagine the amazing things that await us when we leave the known world behind and stride out into the great unknown.

You Decide

  1. Are you afraid of the unknown?
  2. “Before you can know anything, you must accept you know nothing.” Do you agree?

Activities

  1. What does the unknown look like? Draw a picture of life on another planet where everything is different to life on Earth.
  2. Write a paragraph about something that makes you nervous or afraid. Then write a paragraph describing the positive and surprising things that might result from facing your fear.

Some People Say...

“No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.”

Edmund Burke (1729 - 1797), Irish statesman and British Member of Parliament

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the pursuit of knowledge is the process of exploring the unknown. In philosophy, a theory about how we know things is called an epistemology. In 2002, US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld famously made a distinction between known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. This is the idea that there are many things we do not know. For example, is there life on other planets? But there is also a greater unknown of things we are unable to imagine or predict.
What do we not know?
One area of debate is around whether these unknown unknowns will always remain out of reach. Many religious traditions believe there are some things, such as God, that are beyond human comprehension. We should embrace the idea of the unknowable and find wonder in mystery. On the other hand, empiricist philosophers, like David Hume and John Locke, argue for the wonder of discovery, using critical and scientific investigation to methodically push back the frontiers of the unknown.

Word Watch

The deadliest wars in history
Estimates range between 15 and 22 million people killed worldwide between 1914 and 1918 in the First World War. This includes 1.1 million combatants from Britain and countries in the British Empire.
The Rouse
Traditionally this bugle call was played in military camps to get the soldiers out of bed. It is now played alongside the Last Post at military funerals and memorials.
Cenotaph
In 1920, a permanent war memorial designed by Edwin Lutyens replaced a temporary wood and plaster cenotaph. A national service is held there on Remembrance Sunday, the nearest Sunday to the 11 November.
Tomb of the Unknown Warrior
The unknown soldier lies in a coffin made of oak from the royal palace of Hampton Court, buried in soil from battlefields in France and covered by black marble from Belgium.
Catharsis
Originally used by the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle to explain the power of art to dispel strong negative emotions. The term is used in psychotherapy to describe how patients can overcome difficulties by expressing and facing their fears.
Scott of the Antarctic
Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912) was a British explorer who led the expedition that discovered the Antarctic Plateau, where the South Pole is located. It was the first major scientific exploration of the continent.
Amelia Earhart
The American aviator was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean and disappeared in 1937 in an ill-fated attempt to circumnavigate the world.
David Hume
The Scottish philosopher argued that all human knowledge is acquired through experience and therefore embracing the unknown is a fundamental part of being human.
Comfort zone
Psychologists describe a “stretch zone” in between the safety of the familiar and the danger of the complete unknown. Engaging with new challenges and experiences helps us acquire skills and grow in confidence.
Risk averse
The German sociologist Ulrich Beck (1944 - 2015) argued modern society is preoccupied with controlling risk and eliminating uncertainty. Examples include the extensive insurance industry, health and safety regulations and digital forecasting.

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