How shall we remember them?


In 1919, London hosted a Victory Parade that marked a unique moment of national rejoicing, mourning and catharsis. The Parade, also known as the London Peace Parade, saw returning troops march through packed streets in the capital. The city’s iconic monuments were momentarily joined by a series of temporary structures erected to mark the march.

One of these, a plain but elegant wood and plaster cenotaph erected on Whitehall, would strike such a chord with the people that a permanent version would be built in its place. The stone-carved Cenotaph was unveiled the following year, and remains the focal point of national remembrance.

On 19 July 1919, London played host to 15,000 troops from across the British Empire. Their procession was  led by Field Marshal Douglas Haig and other senior military leaders. The capital was festooned with flags and bunting, the drab wartime caterpillar bursting into the vivid and victorious colour of an imperial butterfly.

The Cenotaph on Whitehall in London is designated as the United Kingdom’s primary war memorial. It commemorates the end of World War One.

The Union flag was proudly displayed alongside flags of the home nations, the dominions, the services and the banners of her allies. Whilst the Stars and Stripes and French Tricolour were popular, the defiant black, yellow and red of Belgium was a particularly poignant reminder of the start of the conflict.

From the grand department stores of Knightsbridge to the government offices of Whitehall, the streets were a technicolour riot. The visual feast was completed by the hundreds of thousands of people crowding the pavements to watch the procession.

But not everyone came to London to celebrate. The Great War had seen almost one million British servicemen die. Their sacrifice was echoed in thousands more deaths of soldiers from across the British Empire. The Parade would mark Britain’s victory in the war, but it would do so under the heavy pall of grief and suffering that affected practically every family in the land.

The Prime Minister, Lloyd George, made clear that he expected the dead to feature in the parade. In Paris, they would be remembered by a giant catafalque erected next to the Arc de Triumphe. The soldiers would march through the arch in victory but the solemnity of the occasion would reinforced by the sight of that funereal structure.

Painting depicting Greek military units in the WWI Victory Parade in Arc de Triomphe, Paris. 14 July 1919.

Could something similar be done in London? With just two weeks until the parade, the Peace Celebrations Committee decided to approach architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. He was summoned to Downing Street and countered Lloyd George’s suggestion of a catafalque with the idea of a cenotaph.

The word cenotaph is derived from the Greek kenotaphion, and means ‘empty tomb’. Lutyens first came across the concept in a commission to design Munstead Wood, a house for Gertrude [Jeekull]. A garden seat, whimsically named the ‘Cenotaph of Sigismunda’ by a mutual friend, Charles Liddell, planted the seed in Lutyens’ mind.

Photograph of the unveiling of the Whitehall Cenotaph, 1920

Lutyens created a startlingly simple monument. It was undecorated apart from a carved wreath on each end and a smaller carved wreath on top. The words “The Glorious Dead” are inscribed twice, once below the wreaths on each end. Above the wreaths at each end are inscribed the dates of the First World War in Roman numerals. The resulting memorial struck a chord with the British public and there soon followed demands to turn the temporary structure into a permanent focus for national mourning.

Memorials closely resembling the Whitehall Cenotaph were commissioned across the United Kingdom and the British Empire and Dominions (now Commonwealth). Lutyens was responsible for memorials in Manchester and Middlesbrough, Toronto, Hong Kong and Auckland.

Rochdale Town Hall and Rochdale War Memorial in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, England By Tim Green [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

An exact replica of the Whitehall Cenotaph was built, appropriately enough, in Canada’s namesake city of London, Ontario. Lutyens had intended for the Whitehall Cenotaph to be adorned with carved stone flags. In London, Lutyens was overruled with cloth flags in use. It is, however, possible to see Lutyens’ vision in the Rochdale Cenotaph, which features brightly painted stone flags.

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