Most people are familiar with the Cenotaph in London’s Whitehall which is the focus of Britain’s National Service of Remembrance every November and commemorates British and Commonwealth servicemen and women who died in the two World Wars and later conflicts. The ceremony is televised and is attended by Prince Charles (representing the Queen), religious leaders, politicians, representatives of state and the armed and auxiliary forces, all of whom gather to pay their respects to those who gave their lives defending others. It is a well-known and well-loved ceremony, yet many people are unaware of the history of the Cenotaph and how it came to be where it is.
The word ‘Cenotaph’ comes from the Greek for ‘empty tomb’ and is used to describe a tomb or monument erected to honour a person or group of persons who are buried elsewhere, or who have no known grave.
The First World War saw casualties on an unprecedented scale (the British Empire alone lost more than 1 million military personnel). Although the fighting ceased on Armistice Day on 11th November 1918 the war did not formally end until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28th June 1919, and the British government decided to hold a victory parade of soldiers marching down Whitehall to celebrate this on 19th July 1919. The Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, decided that a temporary memorial for the troops to salute should be included as part of the parade and he approached Sir Edwin Lutyens to design it. (Lutyens was one of the most well-known architects of the time having designed much of New Delhi; he was also already involved in work with the Imperial War Graves Commission to create memorials in the cemeteries of the battlefields). Lutyens memorial for the Victory Parade was made of wood and plaster and completed in just two weeks.
The Saturday of the Victory Parade was a Bank Holiday and Public Holiday so that everyone could celebrate victory and remember the dead and wounded. The unveiling of the temporary Cenotaph took place on the previous evening and was a quiet, unofficial ceremony to which Lutyens was not invited. Thousands travelled to London overnight to see the Parade and experience the bands and performances in London’s central parks. In the morning King George V issued a message: ‘To these, the sick and wounded who cannot take part in the festival of victory, I send out greetings and bid them good cheer, assuring them that the wounds and scars so honourable in themselves, inspire in the hearts of their fellow countrymen the warmest feelings of gratitude and respect.’ During the Parade 15,000 soldiers and 1,500 officers marched past and saluted the Cenotaph, including General Pershing representing America, Marshal Foch representing France, with Field Marshal Haig and Admiral of the Fleet Beatty representing the British armed forces. The royal family also attended.
From the early days of the war, when casualty figures began to mount, it was decided that the fallen would be buried close to where they fell and the repatriation of the dead was forbidden. After the Victory Parade the temporary Cenotaph unexpectedly became a focus for those who had lost loved ones, a substitute grave for them to visit. For days after the Parade people came to lay wreaths and flowers at the foot of the memorial, an estimated 1.2 million visited during the first week alone.
Four days after the Parade war veteran William Ormsby-Gore, MP for Stafford, suggested in Parliament that a permanent Cenotaph should replace the temporary one; the idea was supported by many other MP’s and so was put to the Cabinet. The following week the idea was taken up by The Times newspaper as hundreds of letters came flooding in in support of a permanent memorial. The Cabinet agreed on 30th July that Lutyens should create a permanent memorial in Whitehall.
Lutyens made a few minor changes to his design – replacing real wreaths with stone sculptures, and using the subtle curves known as entasis (he had already incorporated this into his design for the Stone of Remembrance to be used in the war cemeteries). Lutyens wanted to replace the flags with sculptures because he thought that the real ones would soon look untidy, but this idea was rejected and real flags are still used today. Construction of the permanent Cenotaph began in May 1920. The design is a rectangular column made of Portland stone with an empty tomb surmounted by a wreath at its summit. The design is rather plain with the intention of focussing the eye and the thought on the tomb and a number of carved wreaths; the only words engraved are The Glorious Dead and the dates of the war. Lutyens Cenotaph is 35 feet (11 m) high and weighs 120 tonnes (120,00 kg.)
The new monument was unveiled on November 11th 1920 (this time Lutyens was present). The coffin of the Unknown Warrior was taken to his tomb in Westminster Abbey that morning on a route which took it past the Cenotaph. King George V laid a wreath on the coffin before unveiling the Cenotaph, then he acted as chief mourner and followed the gun-carriage of the Unknown Warrior to the Abbey. So many people visited the Cenotaph in the following days that Whitehall was closed to traffic; within a week the flowers lay 10 feet deep and more than 1.25 million people are thought to have paid their respects.
The Remembrance Service of today has changed little since it was first introduced in 1921, with hymns, prayers, and a two minute silence observed before the laying of official wreaths on the steps of The Cenotaph. The ceremony ends with a march past of war veterans who salute the monument in a poignant gesture of respect for their fallen comrades.
Lutyens’ cenotaph design has been reproduced in other parts of the UK as well as in other countries allied to Britain, including Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Although he had originally wanted the flags to be carved in stone this was overruled and real flags are still used. Immediately after the unveiling of the Cenotaph the flags on display were a Union Flag, a White Ensign and a Red Ensign on one side, with a Union Flag, a White Ensign, and a Blue Ensign on the other side. On 1 April 1943, an RAF Ensign was substituted for the White Ensign on the west side. The flags which are now displayed (since 2007) represent the Royal Navy, the British Army, the Royal Air Force and the Merchant Navy. The Blue Ensign represents the Royal Naval Reserve, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, and other government services. In the early days the flags were changed every six to eight weeks so that they could be cleaned, and the flags would be used for 15 months before being replaced. By 1939 the flags needed to be cleaned every six weeks and were washed just twice before being replaced. When the flags are finally removed they are sent to the Imperial War Museum which gives them to accredited organisations.