ALL Saints Church in Langley Park is a humble building with a peaceful, leaf-strewn churchyard where the occasional visitor leaves damp footmarks over the long, dewy grass.

By contrast, Westminster Abbey is one of the grandest places of worship in the country, surrounded by the constant hubbub of London and visited by more than one million people every year.

But All Saints and the abbey have one thing in common: they have graves of unknown soldiers.

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The Unknown Warrior was buried in the abbey on November 11, 1920, amid solemn ceremony to represent all the thousands of men who had died during the First World War but had no known resting place.

Langley Park’s unknown soldier was laid to rest on June 6, 1940, in the belief that he was one of the village’s sons – William Bolton – who had perished in the evacuation of Dunkirk.

But when Mr Bolton turned up in the pit village unannounced three weeks later, there were scenes of great joy for his family – and the growing realisation that no one now knew whom they had buried behind the church.

The dead soldier had succumbed on a hospital ship on May 30, 1940, in the middle of the evacuation. In his uniform pocket was an educational certificate that suggested he was the son of Mr and Mrs Newrick Bolton of Langley Park, and on June 1, they received a telegram informing them of the death of their son, William, a trooper, who was known to be fighting in France.

The authorities offered the parents a travel warrant for two people to attend a funeral service in the south of England, or the body could be sent home for burial.

The Boltons chose the later option, and the coffin was delivered to their door. It was suggested to them that the poor fellow had been terribly disfigured in battle and it might be too distressing for them to inspect the body, and so the coffin remained nailed shut. It was placed in the church hall, and ARP members watched over it until the funeral, although one apparently remarked: “If that’s Billy Bolton, he must have shrunk since I last saw him.”

Hundreds of villagers attended the service on June 6 in which, with full military honours, the coffin was draped with a Union flag and laid to rest.

Three weeks later, the Boltons’ daughter, Edna, was standing at the door of the family home when a motorcycle noisily drew up. Astonishingly, it was William, whose regiment was moving north to Dumfries and he had been given a few minutes of leave to drop in on the folks.

Mrs Bolton was so shocked that she fainted.

After a quick cup of tea and a wash, Billy was off, leaving many unanswered questions. The police, the military and even Sir Edward Grigg, the Under Secretary of State for War, conducted inquiries and sent letters of regret, but no one ever named the body in the grave.

Tpr Bolton survived the war – his only injury was an eardrum damaged in Italy by an exploding enemy bomb – and in peacetime, he married and settled in Workington. His mother and sister continued to tend the grave, afterall, as Mrs Bolton said, “whoever he is, he is someone’s son”.

After much debate, in 1977, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission adopted the grave and installed a regulation Portland stone headstone. The stone was dedicated on the 38th anniversary of the burial in 1978, with Billy and Edna in attendance.

The mystery endures to this day. There have been calls for the body to be reinterred in Durham Cathedral to create a tomb similar to that of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, but still he sleeps on the quiet churchyard behind All Saints Church, where every Remembrance Sunday a wreath is laid on the headstone.

With thanks to John C Foster, who tells the story in his book Looking at Langley Park which is unfortunately now out of print. The church service today (Sunday, November 12, 2017) starts at 9.45am. It has been claimed that this is the only unknown soldier buried in this country outside Westminster Abbey, but we now believe there are a few others.