The Cenotaph in Whitehall – London’s most special monument

The Cenotaph in Whitehall

A centrepiece of remembrance

The Cenotaph in Whitehall is truly special. It, more than any other monument, has been embraced by the people of the United Kingdom as their monument.  This article covers how the Cenotaph in Whitehall came about – and why it is so special.

The 11 November 1918 was Armistice Day; when hostilities ceased in World War 1.  But the war only formally came to an end in June 1919 when the Treaty of Versailles was signed and the victorious Allied Powers decided to hold Victory Parades.

London’s victory parade was on the 19th July 1919. The Cenotaph in Whitehall was originally made of wood and plaster and was only ever intended to be a temporary structure as part of that Victory Parade. It was never intended for the central role that it plays in the United Kingdom today. Yet it immediately struck a chord.

Within an hour of its unveiling it was piled high with wreaths. And in the weeks that followed, more than 1 million people filed past. It was common for men, for months thereafter, to doff their hats as they passed the monument.

It was therefore decided – almost by popular demand – that a permanent version should be constructed in stone and that is what you see today. And even now, it is a living monument. It is the centrepiece of British Remembrance Day ceremonies – held on the Sunday closest to 11 November – in which the British remember those who died in both World Wars and later conflicts.

But what is so special about the Cenotaph? Two reasons stand out.

First and foremost, it is about remembrance, not victory. The architect was Edwin Lutyens – possibly the best British architect of the 20th century. His simple, almost austere design captured the mood of the time almost perfectly as it dwelt not so much on the victory but on the awful price of that victory.

It is a plain plinth with an empty casket on it and it represents those that died but are not here. It represents the millions that went abroad, died abroad and never came home.

Cenotaph literally means ‘empty tomb’ from the Greek ‘kenos’ meaning empty and ‘taphos’ meaning tomb. It’s only inscription, bare as it is, is the ‘The Glorious Dead’.  It then has two sets of dates on it.  The original set; 1914 and 1918 (in roman numerals on the narrow sides) honour the dead of World War 1, and the second set; 1939 and 1945 (also in roman numerals added after World War 2 to the wider sides) honour the dead of that even more devastating war.  The monument also commemorates all those that have died subsequently.  That is it – a simple, austere, almost melancholy monument of remembrance.

The second feature is its inclusiveness. Surprisingly, there is no Christian imagery here – controversial at the time. It does not pick out or praise Generals, politicians or leaders. It does not distinguish creed, or colour, or race, or gender, or rank. The only qualification to be honoured at this monument is that you gave your life for your country. And in that sense it is incredibly modern and incredibly timeless.

These two aspects – the focus on remembrance and its universality – plus its simple design has endowed the Cenotaph with a degree of immortality. With each new conflict, it absorbs the ultimate sacrifice of each new generation and makes sure that we do not forget the heavy price that they paid for our freedom and our way of life.  It honours that sacrifice in a very personal way because those people died for us, each of us, individually and collectively, and that is why, it touches all of our hearts and why this monument has become so special.

The flags displayed on the Cenotaph in Whitehall today represent the armed services; the Royal Navy, British Army, Royal Air Force, and the Merchant Navy, complemented by two Union Flags.

The Remembrance Service

On the Sunday nearest to 11 November at 11 a.m. each year, a Remembrance Service is held at the Cenotaph to commemorate British and Commonwealth servicemen and women who died in the two World Wars and later conflicts.  The monarch, religious leaders, politicians, representatives of state and the armed and auxiliary forces, gather to pay respect to those who gave their lives defending others. The service has changed little since it was first introduced in 1921, hymns are sung, prayers are said and a two minute silence is observed. Official wreaths are laid on the steps of The Cenotaph.  The ceremony ends with a march past of war veterans; a poignant gesture of respect for their fallen comrades.  This year, 2018 will mark the centenary of the end of World War 1.

Architecture of the Cenotaph in Whitehall

The monument is not perfectly oblong but curved (an effect known as entasis). It’s a very subtle effect and quite hard to see. The original plan was to follow the French example with troops marching past and saluting a catafalque (a raised platform on which the coffin of a dead person rests – as is often done for a dead Pope). Lutyens immediately suggested a cenotaph instead.

Symbolism of the Cenotaph in Whitehall

Lutyens’ design was criticised by some for its complete lack of Christian symbolism, but – as with his work for the Imperial War Graves Commission he wanted forms which had meaning ‘irrespective of creed or caste’ as he knew well that it was not just Christians who had been fed into the slaughter. That did not deter some Christians from dismissing the Cenotaph in Whitehall as ‘nothing more or less than a pagan monument, insulting to Christianity… a disgrace in a so called Christian land. Lutyens later recounted how there was some horror in Church circles at a pagan monument in the midst of Whitehall. Indeed, that is why there is a ‘rival shrine’ in Westminster Abbey; the ‘Unknown Warrior’. But even an unknown soldier might not have been a Christian.

On the unveiling day in November 1920, King George V pulled the cord on the Union Jack that shrouded the Cenotaph and fell into line as chief mourner, following the gun carriage taking the unknown warrior to the tomb in Westminster Abbey. It was an enormous crowd. Over the next week well over a million people filed past the Cenotaph in Whitehall and towards the Abbey to pay their respects to the ‘Glorious Dead’ and the ‘Unknown Warrior’.

Contributor: Ameet Shah

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