I wondered what the topic of today’s post could be for a while. It’s been a busy week in London history, as we’ve just had Bonfire Night, which links naturally to the Houses of Parliament. But I’ve decided it makes more sense to link this post to something regarding Remembrance Sunday, since that’s the day, and Armistice Day is not far away.
A cenotaph, as you may know, is an empty tomb, erected to commemorate a person, group of people, or even empire, whose remains are elsewhere. Although there are many around the world, just one that I know of would be recognised by just about every British subject – The Cenotaph. So important it doesn’t need a name, just a great big “The”.
With the Great War just over and the Treaty of Versailles signed on 28 June 1919, a series of temporary wood-and-plaster structures were built to commemorate the war dead. When the Victory Parade passed, people saluted them, and in the following days, the base of the original Cenotaph was covered in flowers and wreaths. Pressure mounted on the government to keep it and, a month later, they suggested that a more permanent version would be designed, to become “Britain’s official national war monument”. The new version, made of Portland Stone, is an exact replica of its wooden predecessor.
Designed and built between 1919-1920 by Sir Edwin Lutyens, it is undecorated for the most part, and if you approached it from the side, you wouldn’t think it was anything special. But the front and back both feature a carved wreath and the the engraving “The Glorious Dead”. Above the wreaths are the dates of the First World War in Roman numerals. At eleven metres high and weighing some 120 tonnes, it is an impressive and staggering piece of architecture. It also has a slightly odd shape; the two sides are not parallel, and would eventually meet if you keep them going up, although it wouldn’t be for about three hundred metres.
On 11th November 1920, it was unveiled by King George V, who laid the first wreath on its stone steps. David Lloyd George, Prime Minister at the time, walked from nearby Downing Street and laid a wreath of his own. In a move that to me now seems remarkably forward, the Cenotaph was not dedicated, because they noted that not everyone who died was a Christian, and it would be disrespectful to those who weren’t to do so.
The flags on the side also were originally met with some debate, as Lutyens wanted them to be carved of stone, but he was overruled, so they’re real cloth flags. As of 2007, the flags include Union Flags, and ones to represent the army, navy, merchant navy, and air force. When the Cenotaph was new, the flags were taken down and washed every six or so weeks, and when this stopped happening, enough people complained to have the process reinstated. This is one of the many signs that people take the Cenotaph seriously. By 1939, the flags were being changed ten times a year, and washed twice before being disposed of. All the old flags are given to the Imperial War Museum.
While it could have then stood silent and unchanged since this date, it’s actually continued to adapt. When the Second World War ended, the site became a place of massive celebration, and King George VI unveiled the Cenotaph for a second time in 1946, with the dates of that war engraved on it too. It had originally just been for the First World War, but as more wars have gone on – the “war to end all wars” didn’t – the Cenotaph has come to represent all the fallen. In 1970, it was declared a Grade I listed building, which means it can never be demolished.
Most people recognise the Cenotaph now from its appearances on television every November. The closest Sunday to 11th November is Remembrance Sunday, and service personnel, politicians and the Royal family gather to remember the fallen. When Big Ben strikes eleven o’clock, the nation falls silent for two minutes, to represent the moment when, in 1918, the guns fell silent across Europe.
Those with particular power lay wreaths at the foot of the Cenotaph, and it must be a person with a stone heart who doesn’t feel a chill when our Queen, the one woman who doesn’t need to bow for anyone else, steps up and does her duty. She always lays the first wreath, followed by her children and grandchildren. The Prime Minister follows next, and then other leaders of major political parties, and representatives from the navy, army and air force. Once, survivors of the First World War would have been present too, but with the last solider, Harry Patch, dying two years ago, the trenches have disappeared from living memory.
The Cenotaph is used at other times of the year too. It becomes a focal point for the country when we mark anniversaries of the D-Day landings, the first day of the Somme Offensive, the Falklands War, and campaigns marked by Anzac Day, which are the battles involving those of Australia and New Zealand. Of all the monuments in London, this is perhaps the one most ready and primed to move you and send a chill through your spine.
Other cities around the world have their own cenotaphs, some of which are replicas of this one, but once again, London led the way. I think it’s important that we remember the horrors of war, because maybe one day we’ll wake up to what this monument represents, and stop entering battles that result in pointless loss of life.
Lest we forget.