Salute the Cenotaph

Due to the global pandemic this year we may see much muted Remembrance Day commemorations, and it is quite sad that these will affect the march past at the London Cenotaph.  That structure has a significance that goes way beyond being an obstruction in the middle Whitehall, and in the pysche of the United Kingdom has an almost hallowed presence.

“Cenotaph means ’empty tomb’ and  it symbolises the unprecedented losses suffered during the First World War and is dedicated to ‘The Glorious Dead’. There are no names inscribed on the Cenotaph, which allowed individuals to assign their own meaning to the memorial. It also provided a tangible place of mourning for those whose husbands, sons, brothers, friends and relations died during the war without a known grave. This symbolism also resonates through the introduction of the two minutes silence on Armistice Day and the interment of the Unknown Warrior.

In 1919, British architect Edwin Landseer Lutyens (1898-1944) was approached by Sir Alfred Mond, First Commissioner of Works, to design a catafalque – a raised platform to hold a casket or tomb – to stand on Whitehall. After an official approach by Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Lutyens produced the design for a cenotaph that would be erected to coincide with the Peace Day celebrations in July 1919. 

The original wood and plaster structure was only intended to stand for one week, but it proved so popular that a permanent replacement was commissioned. ” (Text from https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/what-is-the-cenotaph)

UNVEILING OF THE CENOTAPH AND FUNERAL OF THE UNKNOWN WARRIOR, ARMISTICE DAY 1920 MINISTRY OF INFORMATION FIRST WORLD WAR OFFICIAL COLLECTION © IWM (Q 14964)  Original image created by Arthur Crane.

The public’s wish for the first wood and plaster Cenotaph to be replaced with a permanent version was unforeseen, but it was widespread and very strong.  The permanent monument was built in Portland stone by the contractors Holland, Hannen & Cubitt for the Office of Works. It was unveiled by King George V at 11am on 11 November 1920, the second anniversary of the Armistice. In the same ceremony, the remains of an anonymous British soldier, exhumed from a war cemetery in France, were interred in Westminster Abbey to form the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Within a week, the Cenotaph had been visited by over one and a quarter million people, and was 10 feet deep in flowers.  

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior

2020 is the 100th anniversary of the unveiling of the Cenotaph, and sadly there will be no march pasts or masses of crowds to witness the outpouring of sorrow that is invoked at this time of each year. Even Big Ben is silent, wrapped in scaffolding and unlikely to signal the two minutes of silence. Yet, communities are calling for people to show that they still remember the dead and missing from those tragic wars. We will be standing outside at 11 am. for the two minute silence and you can be rest assured that small groups will gather around war memorials and poppies and wreaths will appear, and we will bow our heads in remembrance. The silent Cenotaph will still hold it’s vigil, it will still be the centre of remembrance as long as we keep watch that the madness of political correctness does not eradicate those 100 years of history. 

The London Cenotaph is not unique, the design spawned a number of copies and facsimiles all around the world, and I am fortunate enough to have seen some of them. 

Hong Kong Cenotaph

Southampton Cenotaph

Johannesburg Cenotaph

Walsall Cenotaph

Durban Cenotaph (Image by Eleanor Garvie)

Port Elizabeth Cenotaph (Image by Ronnie Lovemore)

Bristol Cenotaph

Kimberley Cenotaph (image Terry Cawood)

Glasgow Cenotaph (image by Kim Traynor) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/legalcode

Glasgow City Chambers and War Memorial

And there are many others all around the world that are similar in design or which incorporate aspects of the design. However the Cenotaph in London is special, its significance as an element of remembrance is huge, and it symbolises the collective mourning of a nation.

DRW 2020. Created 06/11/2020. Information sourced from. Information sourced from https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/what-is-the-cenotaph and https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/the-cenotaph/history/

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