The Cenotaph positioned on Whitehall in London has become the central focus for the remembrance and commemoration events in Britain since the First World War – however it was never intended to be permanent.
Cenotaph means 'empty tomb'. 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.
Cenotaph Design Sketch by Edwin Landseer Lutyens, 1919
One of Lutyens' sketches of the proposed cenotaph 'in situ' with coloured flags, imagined as it would be during a remembrance ceremony with a crowd gathered before it. The sketch also shows four stone soldiers at the base of the monument that he later removed from the design.
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. After the original was removed in January 1920, the new Portland stone memorial was completed and installed, ready to be unveiled by King George V on Armistice Day – 11 November 1920.
After the original Cenotaph was removed, the wooden top was displayed by the Imperial War Museum, then located in Crystal Palace. It became a focus for remembrance activities at the museum during the 1920s.
The Cenotaph at Whitehall, 1920
The gun carriage bearing the Unknown Warrior at the Cenotaph on Whitehall for the unveiling ceremony by King George V on 11 November 1920, the second anniversary of the Armistice. The Unknown Warrior was later interred in Westminster Abbey.
Lutyens was also one of the principal architects for the Imperial War Graves Commission – now Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). He was responsible for the design of the Stone of Remembrance that is present in some CWGC cemeteries as well as larger memorials including the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing on the Somme and the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. In addition he was commissioned for local memorials around the UK and his design for the Cenotaph has been replicated worldwide.
Since 1919, the Cenotaph has become the central focus for national commemoration, most notably during the National Service of Remembrance on Remembrance Sunday. Its meaning has developed and the Cenotaph now memorialises those who have given their lives in all conflicts since the First World War.