The Cenotaph is a war memorial on Whitehall in London, England. Its origin is in a temporary structure erected for a peace parade following the end of the First World War, and after an outpouring of national sentiment it was replaced in 1920 by a permanent structure and designated the United Kingdom's official national war memorial.
Designed by Edwin Lutyens, the permanent structure was built from Portland stone between 1919 and 1920 by Holland, Hannen & Cubitts, replacing Lutyens's earlier wood-and-plaster cenotaph in the same location. An annual Service of Remembrance is held at the site on Remembrance Sunday, the closest Sunday to 11 November (Armistice Day) each year. Lutyens's cenotaph design has been reproduced elsewhere in the UK and in other places of historical British allegiance including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Bermuda and Hong Kong.
The First World War (1914–1918) produced casualties on a previously unseen scale. Over 1.1 million men from the British Empire were killed. In its aftermath, thousands of war memorials were built across Britain and the Empire, and on the former battlefields. Amongst the most prominent designers of war memorials was Sir Edwin Lutyens, described by Historic England as "the foremost architect of his day". Lutyens established his reputation designing country houses for wealthy clients around the turn of the 20th century and became a public figure as the designer of much of New Delhi, the new capital of British India. The war had a profound effect on Lutyens and following it he devoted much of his time to the commemoration of casualties. By the time he was commissioned for the cenotaph, he was already acting as an adviser to the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC).
Lutyens's first war memorial was the Rand Regiments Memorial in Johannesburg, South Africa, dedicated to casualties of the Second Boer War (1899–1902). His first commission for a memorial to the First World War came from Southampton. The word "cenotaph" derives from the Greek term "kenotaphion". Lutyens first encountered the term in connection with Munstead Wood, the house he designed for Gertrude Jekyll in the 1890s. There he designed a garden seat in the form of a rectangular block of elm set on stone, which Charles Liddell—a friend of Lutyens and Jekyll and a librarian at the British Museum—christened the "Cenotaph of Sigismunda". Cenotaphs were common in Ancient Greece, where they were built when it was impossible to recover a body after the battle, as the Greeks placed great cultural importance on the proper burial of their war dead. A decision had been made early in the First World War that the British dead would not be repatriated, and would be buried close to where they fell. Lutyens remembered the term when working on Southampton's memorial in early 1919, where he proposed a cenotaph after his first design was rejected on cost grounds. He broke with the Ancient Greek convention, though, in that his designs for London's and Southampton's cenotaphs contained no explicit reference to battle. The end result (unveiled a week before the permanent version of the Whitehall cenotaph) lacks the subtlety of Whitehall's monument, but introduces several design elements common in Lutyens's subsequent memorials, including Whitehall.
In 1917, Lutyens travelled to France as an advisor to the fledgling IWGC and was horrified by the scale of destruction. The experience influenced his later designs for war memorials and led him to the conclusion that a different form of architecture was required to properly memorialise the dead. He felt that neither realism nor expressionism could adequately capture the atmosphere at the end of the war.
Origins: the temporary Cenotaph
The war formally ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919 (though fighting ceased with the Armistice of 11 November 1918), and the British government planned to hold a victory parade (also referred to as a peace celebration) in London on 19 July, which would involve soldiers marching down Whitehall. The initial design for what would become the cenotaph was one of a number of temporary structures erected along the parade's route. The prime minister, David Lloyd George, learnt that the French authorities' plans for a similar parade in Paris included a saluting point for the marching troops and was keen to replicate the idea for the British parade. How Lutyens became involved is unclear, but he was close friends with Sir Alfred Mond and Sir Lionel Earle (respectively the government minister and senior civil servant at the Office of Works, which was responsible for public building projects) and it seems likely that one or both men discussed the idea with Lutyens. Lloyd George summoned Lutyens and asked him to design a "catafalque", which would serve a similar purpose at the British parade. Lloyd George emphasised that the structure was to be non-denominational. Lutyens met with Sir Frank Baines, chief architect at the Office of Works, the same day to sketch his idea for the Cenotaph and sketched it again for his friend Lady Sackville over dinner that night. Both sketches show the Cenotaph almost as-built.
Although Lutyens apparently produced the design very quickly, he had had the concept in mind for some time, as evidenced by his design for Southampton Cenotaph and his work for the IWGC. Lutyens and Mond had previously worked together on a design for a temporary war shrine in Hyde Park during the war. Though the shrine was never built, the design started Lutyens thinking about commemorative architecture, and architectural historian Allan Greenberg speculates that Mond may have discussed the concept of a memorial with Lutyens prior to the meeting with the prime minister. According to Tim Skelton, author of Lutyens and the Great War, "If it was not to be on Whitehall then the Cenotaph as we know it would have appeared somewhere else in due course". Several of Lutyens's sketches survive, which show that he experimented with several minor changes to the design, including a flaming urn at the top of the Cenotaph and sculptures of soldiers or lions at the base (similar to the lion heads on Southampton Cenotaph).
Lutyens submitted his final design to the Office of Works in early July, and on 7 July received confirmation that the design had been approved by the foreign secretary, Lord Curzon, who was chairman of the committee responsible for organising the victory celebrations. The unveiling, described in The Times as a "quiet" and "unofficial" ceremony, took place on 18 July 1919, the day before the Victory Parade. Lutyens was not invited. During the parade, 15,000 soldiers and 1,500 officers marched past and saluted the Cenotaph—among them were American General John J. Pershing and French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, as well as the British officers Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and Admiral of the Fleet Sir David Beatty. The Cenotaph quickly captured the public imagination. Repatriation of the dead had been forbidden since the early days of the war, so the cenotaph came to represent the absent dead and served as a substitute for a tomb. Beginning almost immediately after the Victory Parade and continuing for days afterwards, members of the public began laying flowers and wreaths around the Cenotaph's base. Within a week, an estimated 1.2 million people came to the cenotaph to pay their respects to the dead, and huge quantities of flowers were laid at the base of the monument. According to The Times, "no feature of the victory march in London made a deeper impression than the Cenotaph".
Reconstruction in stone
Suggestions that the temporary cenotaph be re-built as a permanent structure began almost immediately, coming from members of the public and national newspapers. Four days after the parade, William Ormsby-Gore, Member of Parliament for Stafford and an army officer who fought in the war and was part of the British delegation at Versailles, questioned Mond about the Cenotaph in the House of Commons, and asked whether a permanent replacement was planned. Ormsby-Gore was supported by multiple other members. Mond announced that the decision rested with the cabinet, but promised to pass on the house's support. The following week, The Times published an editorial calling for a permanent replacement (though it felt that there was a risk of vehicles crashing into the Cenotaph in its original location and suggested it be built on nearby Horse Guards Parade); multiple letters to London and national newspapers followed. The cabinet sought Lutyens's opinion, which was that the original site had "been qualified by the salutes of Foch and the allied armies" and "no other site would give this pertinence". The cabinet bowed to public pressure, approving the re-building in stone, and in the original location, at its meeting on 30 July.
Concerns remained about the Cenotaph's location. Another editorial in The Times suggested siting it in Parliament Square, away from traffic, a location that was supported by the local authorities. The issue was again raised in the House of Commons, and Ormsby-Gore led the calls for the Cenotaph to be rebuilt on its original spot, stating, to acclaim, that he was certain that this option was the most popular with the public. Opposition to the site eventually quietened and the construction contract was awarded to Holland, Hannen & Cubitts. Construction began in May 1920.
Mond gave Lutyens the opportunity to make any amendments to the design before work began on the permanent Cenotaph. The architect submitted his proposed modifications on 1 November, which were approved the same day. He replaced the real laurel wreaths with stone sculptures and added entasis—subtle curvature, reminiscent of the Parthenon in Greece, so that the vertical surfaces taper inwards and the horizontals form arcs of a circle. He wrote to Mond:
Lutyens had previously used entasis for his Stone of Remembrance, which appears in most large IWGC cemeteries. This was accepted without issue. The only other significant alteration Lutyens proposed was the replacement of the silk flags on the temporary Cenotaph with painted stone, fearing that the fabric would quickly become worn and look untidy. He was supported on this by Mond and engaged the sculptor Francis Derwent Wood for assistance, but the change was rejected by the cabinet. A diary entry by Lady Sackville from August 1920 records the architect complaining bitterly about the change, though documents in The National Archives suggest that he had been aware of it six months prior.
The Cenotaph, made entirely from Portland stone, is a pylon on a rectangular plan, with gradually diminishing tiers, culminating in a sculpted tomb chest (the empty tomb) on which is placed a laurel wreath. Its mass decreases with its height, the sides becoming narrower towards the bottom of the coffin than at the top of the base. The base of the cenotaph is in four stages from the top of the steps starting with the plinth, which connects to the base block. The plinth projects 3 inches (7.6 centimetres) from the base block on all four sides. Above it is the transition moulding which is in three stages-torus (semi-circular), cyma reversa, and cavetto, taking the lower part of the structure just over 6 feet (1.8 metres) above the ground. Greenberg describes this section as "quietly establish[ing] the memorial's overall character: an outward appearance of simple repose which, on close observation, shows itself to be dependent on the more complex forms of its masses". At the top, the coffin is connected to the main structure by its own base of two steps, the transition smoothed by a torus moulding between the bottom step and the pylon. The coffin lid finishes with a cornice, appearing to be supported by ovolo (curved decorative moulding beneath the edge), which casts a shadow over the coffin; it is crowned by another laurel wreath on a raised platform, indented in the middle to echo the placement of the wreaths on the side. The bottom of the structure is moulded onto three diminishing steps on an island in the centre of Whitehall surrounded by government buildings. The cenotaph is austere, containing very little decoration. At each end, on the second tier below the tomb, is a laurel wreath, the work of sculptor Francis Derwent Wood, and on the sides is the inscription THE GLORIOUS DEAD. The only other inscription is the dates of the world wars in Roman numerals—the first on the ends, above the wreath, and the second on the sides.
None of the lines on the pylon are straight. The sides are not parallel but are subtly curved using precise geometry so as to be barely visible to the naked eye (entasis). If extended, the apparently vertical surfaces would meet 1,000 feet (300 m) above the ground and the apparently horizontal surfaces are sections of a sphere whose centre would be 900 feet (270 m) below ground. The use of curvature and diminishing tiers is intended to draw the eye upwards in a spiralling direction, first to the inscription, then to the top of the flags, to the wreath, and finally to the coffin at the top. Many of these elements were not present in Lutyens's early sketches. In his sketch for Lady Sackville, he omitted most of the setbacks, and had the wreaths on the sides hanging from pegs, while another drawing he included an urn on top of the coffin and sculptures of lion flanking the base (similar to the pine cones on Southampton Cenotaph). Other experimental designs omit the flags, and one included a recumbent effigy atop the coffin (in place of an urn).
It is 35 feet (11 m) tall and weighs 120 tonnes (120,000 kg).
The Cenotaph is flanked on each side by flags of the United Kingdom which Lutyens had wanted to be carved in stone. He was overruled and cloth flags were used, though Lutyens went on to use stone flags on several of his other war memorials, painted on Rochdale Cenotaph and Northampton War Memorial (among others), and unpainted at Étaples and Villers-Bretonneux IWGC cemeteries. In the years following 1919, the Cenotaph displayed a Union Flag, a White Ensign and a Red Ensign on one side and 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 displayed as of 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; it is possible that it was also intended to represent Dominion forces.
Initially the flags were changed for cleaning every six to eight weeks, but between 1922 and 1923 the practice gradually stopped until letters to the media led to its reintroduction. The initial lifespan of a flag was set at five periods of three months. By 1939, they were changed ten times a year, each flag washed twice before being disposed of. By 1924, it was decided that all discarded flags would be sent to the Imperial War Museum who could redistribute them to properly accredited organisations.
The architects waived their fee for designing the cenotaph, meaning that it cost £7,325 (equivalent to £296,400 in 2019) to build. Construction began on 19 January 1920, and the original flags were sent to the Imperial War Museum.
No date was announced for the completion of the Cenotaph at first, but the government were keen to have it completed in time for Remembrance Day (11 November). In September 1920, the announcement came that the Cenotaph would indeed be unveiled on 11 November, the second anniversary of the Armistice, and that the act would be performed by the king. At a late stage in the planning, the government decided to hold a funeral for an unidentified soldier exhumed from a grave in France, known as the Unknown Warrior, and inter him in Westminster Abbey, and the decision was taken to make the unveiling part of the funeral procession. George V unveiled the Cenotaph at 11 am on 11 November, this time with Lutyens in attendance, along with the prime minister and Randall Davidson, the Archbishop of Canterbury before proceeding to the abbey.
The unveiling ceremony was part of a larger procession bringing the Unknown Warrior to be laid to rest in his tomb nearby in Westminster Abbey. The funeral procession route passed the Cenotaph, where the waiting King laid a wreath on the Unknown Warrior's gun-carriage before proceeding to unveil the memorial which was draped in large Union Flags, and an abridged version of Sir Edward Elgar's setting of Lawrence Binyon's poem 'For the Fallen' was sung.
The public response to the newly unveiled memorial exceeded even that to the temporary Cenotaph in the aftermath of the armistice. Whitehall was closed to traffic for several days after the ceremony and members of the public began to file past the Cenotaph and lay flowers at its base. Within a week, it was 10 feet (3 metres) deep in flowers and an estimated 1.25 million people had visited it so far.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, it was customary for men to doff their hats when passing the Cenotaph. In the later 1920s, several proposals emerged for modifications to the Cenotaph, including the addition of life-size bronze statues at its corners, and installing a light inside the wreath at the top to emit a vertical beam, but all were rejected by the Office of Works on Lutyens's advice. The statues in particular would have added a literal element to the memorial which Greenberg believed would have been at odds with its "open symbolism and abstract character".
Parts of the temporary cenotaph were initially preserved for the collections of the Imperial War Museum, for whom it was acquired by Charles ffoulkes. It was displayed at Crystal Palace and then moved to the later homes of the museum, being the site for the museum's Armistice memorial services held there from 1922. The temporary cenotaph was destroyed by a bomb during the Second World War. The Imperial War Museum collections include an example of wooden money collection boxes in the shape of the Cenotaph made from wood from the temporary cenotaph by St Dunstan's in around 1919 to 1923.
Whitehall, along with other areas of London, was the scene of celebrations on 8 May 1945 when victory in Europe was declared in the Second World War. More formal processions past the Cenotaph took place during the London Victory Celebrations on 8 June 1946. The Cenotaph had been designed to commemorate the British Empire military dead of the First World War, but this was later extended to include those that died in the Second World War. The dates of the Second World War were added in Roman numerals on the sides of the memorial (1939—MCMXXXIX; and 1945—MCMXLV), and the memorial was unveiled for a second time on Sunday 10 November 1946 by King George VI. The memorial is now also used to remember the dead of later wars in which British servicemen and servicewomen have fought. The Cenotaph was designated a Grade I listed building on 5 February 1970.
In 1921, Lutyens was awarded the Royal Institute of British Architects' highest award, the Royal Gold Medal for his body of work. Presenting the medal, the institute's president, John Simpson, described the Cenotaph as "the most remarkable of all [Lutyens's] creations".
The Cenotaph has been vandalised several times during political protests. In a 2010 student protest, a man climbed the base and swung from one of the flags. In 2020, the base was vandalised with spray paint during Black Lives Matter protests, and the following day a protester attempted to set fire to one of the Union Flags on the Cenotaph. As a result, the Cenotaph was covered up temporarily to prevent any further vandalism. On 11 November 2020, Extinction Rebellion held an unauthorised protest at the Cenotaph that was condemned by politicians and the Royal British Legion.
Representations in art and literature
Examples of the Cenotaph featuring in artworks include Immortal Shrine (1928) by Will Longstaff (held at the Australian War Memorial) and The Cenotaph (Morning of the Peace Procession) (1919) by Sir William Nicholson. The latter work by Nicholson sold at auction at Christie's in London in 2018 for £62,500. The Cenotaph also featured on the reverse of the 1928 Armistice Day memorial medal by Charles Doman. Examples of the Cenotaph featuring in artworks of national events include the ceremonial paintings commissioned in 1920 by the government and the King from Frank Owen Salisbury to mark the unveiling of the Cenotaph. Titled: The Passing of the Unknown Warrior, 11 November 1920, a study of the work hangs in Buckingham Palace with the main work in the Main Building of the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall.
The temporary cenotaph on the morning of the Peace Procession in 1919 by Sir William Nicholson
The Cenotaph featured on the reverse of the 1928 Armistice Day memorial medal by Charles Doman
The Cenotaph featured in the 1928 painting Immortal Shrine by Will Longstaff
The cultural response to the Cenotaph also includes poetry such as 'The Cenotaph' (1919) by Charlotte Mew, 'The Cenotaph in Whitehall' (1920) by Max Plowman, 'The Cenotaph' (1922) by Ursula Roberts, 'At the Cenotaph' (1933) by Siegfried Sassoon, and 'At the Cenotaph' (1935) by Hugh MacDiarmid.
The Cenotaph is the site of the annual National Service of Remembrance held at 11:00 am on Remembrance Sunday, the closest Sunday to 11 November (Armistice Day). From 1919 until 1945, the remembrance service was held on Armistice Day, but since 1945 it has been held on Remembrance Sunday. Uniformed service personnel (excluding fire and ambulance personnel) salute the Cenotaph as they pass.
Although the Armistice Day ceremony fell away during the Second World War, in recent years the tradition of holding a ceremony at the Cenotaph at 11 am on 11 November has been reinstated by The Western Front Association, a UK-based charity dedicated to perpetuating the memory of those who served in the First World War.
The first such modern ceremony was held on 11 November 1919, following a suggestion by King George V for a two-minute silence across the United Kingdom and a ceremony to take place in London. Thousands had gathered around the wood-and-plaster Cenotaph in Whitehall, where Prime Minister David Lloyd George walked from Downing Street to place a wreath. A wreath was also laid by a representative of the French President, and soldiers and sailors provided a guard of honour. There were also processions past the Cenotaph organised by veterans' associations.
Annual remembrance services also take place at the Cenotaph on other days of the year. These include the regimental parade held by the Royal Tank Regiment on the Sunday following Remembrance Sunday. This is the closest to Cambrai Day (20 November), the anniversary of the Battle of Cambrai that was one of the earliest massed deployments of British tanks. On Anzac Day, 25 April, a Wreath Laying Ceremony and Parade is held at the Cenotaph at 11 am, followed by a Service of Commemoration and Thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey. An annual parade and service is also held by the Combined Irish Regiments Association to commemorate the war dead of the Irish regiments that were disbanded on 12 June 1922 after the First World War. This parade is now held on the Sunday in June that follows the Queen's Birthday Parade. The Belgian Parade at the Cenotaph has taken place yearly since 1934 on the Sunday preceding the Belgian National Day (21 July). Belgium is the only foreign nation that is allowed to parade its troops in uniform and carrying arms in central London. The War Widows Association of Great Britain hold their Annual Service of Remembrance at the Cenotaph on the day before Remembrance Sunday.
Influence on other war memorials
Lutyens's first cenotaph design was for Southampton Cenotaph, which was unveiled on 6 November 1920, while the permanent monument on Whitehall was still under construction. Lutyens's design became highly influential, and memorials named "cenotaph", many based to some extent on Lutyens's and some by Lutyens himself, were erected in towns and cities across Britain and in many many other places, predominantly in the British Empire.
Two smaller versions that included several additions and differences were built as regimental memorials in England—the Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment Cenotaph in Maidstone, Kent, and the Royal Berkshire Regiment War Memorial in Reading, Berkshire. These were unveiled on 30 July 1921 and 13 September 1921 respectively. The Midland Railway War Memorial, Derby, was unveiled on 15 December 1921. The Middlesbrough cenotaph, derived from Lutyens's design, was unveiled on 11 November 1922. The Rochdale Cenotaph was unveiled on 26 November 1922. The Hong Kong cenotaph, an almost exact replica, was unveiled in 1923 between the Statue Square and the City Hall in Hong Kong.
The Manchester Cenotaph in Manchester, England (also the work of Lutyens), was unveiled on 12 July 1924 and has similarities and differences. The Welch Regimental War Memorial, in the form of a Lutyens 'Whitehall' cenotaph, was unveiled at Maindy Barracks, Cardiff, on 11 November 1924. The Toronto Cenotaph was unveiled on 11 November 1925 and is modelled on Whitehall's design. A two-thirds scale copy was unveiled in Hamilton, Bermuda, on 6 May 1925. A close copy of the Whitehall Cenotaph was unveiled in November 1929 in Auckland, New Zealand. An exact replica stands in London, Ontario, Canada, and was unveiled on 11 November 1934.
Replica or similar cenotaphs
Other cenotaph designs by Lutyens in the UK
Midland Railway War Memorial, Derby
- Grade I listed buildings in the City of Westminster
- Grade I listed war memorials in England
- World War I memorials
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- Greenberg, Allan (March 1989). "Lutyens' Cenotaph". Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. Oakland, California: University of California Press. 48 (1): 5–23. doi:10.2307/990403. ISSN 2150-5926. JSTOR 990403.
- Kavanagh, Gaynor (2014). Museums and the First World War: A Social History. Cambridge: A&C Black. ISBN 9781472586056.
- Massingham, Betty (1966). Miss Jekyll: Portrait of a Great Gardener. London: Country Life. pp. 140–142.
- Moore, Jerrold N. (1984). Edward Elgar: a Creative Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-315447-1.
- ter Schure, Leon (2019). "The Case of the London Cenotaph". Bergson and History: Transforming the Modern Regime of Historicity. New York: SUNY Press. pp. 1–22. ISBN 9781438476254.
- Skelton, Tim; Gliddon, Gerald (2008). Lutyens and the Great War. London: Frances Lincoln Publishers. ISBN 9780711228788.
- Film footage of the Remembrance Service at the Cenotaph, 1948 (British Pathe)
- Historical pictures of the Cenotaph (Imperial War Museum)
- David Odgers on the Conservation of the Cenotaph, 3rd Dimension, 4 May 2014
- Glyn Prysor: Cenotaph, in: 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War.