THIS year marks the 100th anniversary of the creation of two of the elements that are central to Britain’s remembrance commemorations.

At 11am on November 11, 1920, in London, the coffin bearing the Unknown Warrior paused for two minutes’ silence at the new Cenotaph in Whitehall before continuing its journey to Westminster Abbey.

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior represents all the men – perhaps up to half-a-million of them – whose bodies were never recovered from the First World War battlefields, and the immense popularity of the Cenotaph made towns and villages the length of the country redouble their efforts to build a war memorial of their own.

The Northern Echo’s solemn front page of November 12, 1920, which is reproduced in the centre of this supplement, tells the story of that day.

The Echo noted that since the end of the First World War on November 11, 1918, the nation had become more divided as social and economic problems hit home. “We cannot feel today the ecstasy of joy that was ours two years ago,” it said.

Most towns had yet to work out how to commemorate the anniversary. In Darlington, goldsmiths Harrisons and Sons were encouraging factories to telephone their High Row shop between 9am and 10.45am so they could give out “the exact second of time” so that all the town’s factory buzzers could sound at precisely 11am, but there was no civic service. The mayor, Cllr Seaton Leng, simply placed a wreath on the Boer War monument in St Cuthbert’s churchyard.

In Stockton and Middlesbrough, two minutes silence were observed in the streets, there was a parade of Durham Light Infantry banners to the cathedral, where the Earl of Durham noted that “there is no monument in memory of the gallant Durhams who laid down their lives but we hope to have one in the near future”.

Some institutions were beginning to commemorate their dead: the Durham postmaster unveiled a tablet bearing the names of fallen postal workers, and in the evening the mayor, Cllr William Thwaites, unveiled a plaque in the Comrades Club in Claypath bearing the names of 365 local men who never returned.

But London that year set the tone for the way Britain would commemorate its war dead for the next century. The Government was being criticised for not repatriating the war dead, partly for reasons of cost and partly because so many bodies had simply been lost.

Architect Sir Edwin Lutyens designed the Cenotaph to act as a focus for people’s grief. He also popularised the ancient Greek word ‘cenotaph’, which was a tomb for a soldier whose body had not been recovered from the battlefield.

It was also decided to create a Tomb of an Unknown Warrior in the abbey. On November 8, 1920, the remains of four unidentified soldiers were brought from the main battlefields – the Somme, Ypres, Arras and Aisne – to the headquarters of the British burial effort, near Arras. They were placed in plain coffins and Brigadier-General Louis Wyatt, with his eyes closed, randomly chose one.

It was sent to Boulogne, where it was placed in a coffin of solid oak from a tree from the grounds of Hampton Court Palace. Amid great ceremony, it was sailed on a warship across the Channel, went by rail to Victoria Station and then processed on a horsedrawn gun carriage down Whitehall to stop at the new Cenotaph before arriving at the abbey where 1,000 women, whose menfolk had never returned, watched its burial.

Both monuments proved immediately popular, and ensured that in the years afterwards almost every community created its own public memorial.

In the first week, it was estimated that 1.25m people visited the Cenotaph, and left flowers 10ft deep.

On the morning of November 11, 1920, The Northern Echo carried a little story headlined “The Vacant Chair” in which John, an aging miner with white hair, and his wife, Mary, discuss the chair their son once occupied and how his cigarettes are beside it, ready for his return.

Tearfully, they accept that two years after the end of the war, he’s never coming back.

Suddenly, Mary perks up. “They’re burying an ‘unknown warrior’ today at Westminster,” she says. “Might it be our lad?”

“It might be,” acquiesced the other. “Bob saw the lad killed, but his body was never officially recovered. It might be.”

“We’ve a right to believe it is, haven’t we?”

“Yes, and we will. Don’t you feel proud?”