A Symbol of Remembrance
By Wendy Hughes
Every year on the Sunday nearest to the 11th November, the Royal British Legion calls on the nation to unite in commemorating Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph and Parade in Whitehall, London. This year that will take place on 13 November, but what is the story behind the building of the cenotaph?
The idea was conceived after the First World War on the 29th June 1919, when Lloyd George, the then Prime Minister returned from the Peace Conference in Paris with a plan that Britain should commemorate the Allied War dead by building a symbolic tomb.
He visualised ‘a temporary catafalque to be erected between the Home Office and the War Office, which would then become a saluting point during the forthcoming Peace Parade. He decided that the great designer Sir Edwin Lutyens recently knight for his work on war cemeteries and his grand imperial design of India’s capital, New Delhi, was the man to interpret his dream.
The parade had been planned for 19 July and Lloyd George immediately telephone Lutyens with his ideas. Lutyens accepted the commission eagerly, quickly producing several dozen sketches, many of which still survive today. Lloyd favoured the idea of a soldier recumbent on a tomb-like monument, but Lutyens preferred the idea derived from the ancient Greeks. This was a Cenotaph – an empty tomb raised on a pedestal, the body being buried elsewhere.
The design was shown to the Cabinet the following morning. It was simply inscribed ‘The Glorious Dead,’ and the date 1914-1919. Legally the war did not end until 1919.
It was to be a delicate structure of laths and plaster with a painted wooden base. Lutyens finally finished the work on 18 July and decorated it with flags and laurel wreaths. The following day four guardsmen with their arms reversed stood proudly at the corners of the base. People came daily to place flowers at the Cenotaph, and it soon became evident that almost every family in Britain had suffered bereavement. The general public were moved with emotion at the sight of such a magnificent memorial.
J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan wrote to his neighbour Lutyens, ‘The cenotaph grows in beauty as one stands alone tonight to look at it, which became my habit. I stand cogitating why and how it is so noble a thing.’
On 21 July a letter appeared in the Times sighed RIP. It urged the rebuilding of the cenotaph as a permanent memorial to the dead. By the end of July the Cabinet had been persuaded to go ahead with the erection of a permanent cenotaph.
When the new cenotaph was being planned the original stayed in place for the first Armistice Day ceremony, which took place on 11th November 1919. As Big Ben
struck eleven, the first ‘two minute’ silence had been the suggestion of a South
African statesman, Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, which George V gratefully adopted.
The new cenotaph was constructed in Portland stone, and built by Holland, Hanne
and Cubit. Lateens took no fee for his work because, as he said to Sir Lionel Earle,
permanent Secretary at the Office of Works, ‘I am too jolly grateful not to be
whitening in France myself.’ The final bill came to £7,325, a vast sun in those days.
Although intended to be a replica of the temporary model, the stone version is two
feet higher standing at 35 feet (11m) and weighs 120 tonnes (120,000kg). The
masonry joints are only one sixteenth of an inch, and its sides are not parallel, but if
extended would meet at a point some 980 feet (300 m) above the ground. Similarly,
the “horizontal” surfaces are sections of a sphere whose centre would be 900 feet
(270 m) below ground. This element of the design, called encases in architecture,
means a slight bulge in the shaft of a column, designed to counter the visual
impression of concavity that a perfectly straight column would give, and this was not
present in the temporary structure and was added by Lateens as a refinement when
designing the permanent structure and a scale model can be seen at the Imperial
Finally everything was ready and the unveiling ceremony of the permanent cenotaph
was planned for 11 November 1920. The Office of works wanted the unveiling to be
something grand and special, but the contractor in charge of the job could not think
of anything appropriate suddenly he noticed a woman in the street whose stocking
had fallen down. When he realised her garter had snapped this gave him the idea
that he wanted. He decided that huge Union Jacks should be draped around the
cenotaph and held in place with an elastic rope, threaded through the top of the
flags. Then, as the funeral procession of the Unknown Soldier paused at Whitehall
on its way to Westminster Abbey, the king could press a lever which in turn would
pull a pin joining the two ends of the rope. The flags could flutter to the ground and
reveal the most famous was memorial of all times.
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
At the end of the Second World War it was decided that the additional date ‘1939-
1945’ would be cut into the Cenotaph. This was unveiled by George VI on 10
November 1946. Armistice Day, which had been rigidly observed on 11 November
even when it was a working day, was now replaced by Remembrance Sunday,
which always falls on the second Sunday in November.
Today, the cenotaph stands proudly as a silent symbol of sacrifice of both World