How the Cenotaph became a focus for remembrance

A hundred years after it was permanently erected, the monument remains the focal point for country's annual remembrance commemorations.

The Cenotaph – a national memorial in the UK to the fallen – was only originally intended to stand for a week.

However, 100 years to the day since the permanent stone Cenotaph was unveiled in London, the monument remains the focal point for the country's annual remembrance commorations. 

This year saw a marked departure from tradition, as members of the public were asked to stay away from the Remembrance Sunday service at the war memorial in Whitehall because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The Queen led the nation in marking Remembrance Sunday, joined by family members, the Prime Minister and Armed Forces personnel in commemorating the nation's war dead.

How did the Cenotaph come to be constructed?

Cenotaph means 'empty tomb' in Greek and it represents the unprecedented loss of life in the First World War.

Designed by architect Edwin Lutyens, Whitehall's Cenotaph was originally a temporary structure erected for Peace Day celebrations in July 1919.

Dr Steven Brindle, a senior historian at English Heritage, told Forces News: "A great many of the soldiers who were killed had no grave at all, their bodies were never found and all of the rest were buried overseas, so grieving families in Britain had nowhere to go and visit to remember the dead.

"The Cenotaph arose from the crying need for a place of national commemoration."

Members of the public filing past the wreath laden base of the Cenotaph on Armistice Day after its unveiling 11111920 CREDIT PA
Members of the public surround the Cenotaph shortly after its unveiling on 11 November 1920 (Picture: PA).

Made from wood and plaster, Lutyens' structure was originally due to be taken down after a week, but it proved very popular with the public.

Following the outpouring of national sentiment, a permanent structure was commissioned and built from Portland stone.

"Over a million and a half people came to visit it, huge numbers of them left wreaths and within two weeks a great field of wreaths and flowers accompanied it," Dr Brindle added.

"The Government realised quite quickly that this represented something really significant."

The original stood until January 1920, with the stone Cenotaph being unveiled by King George V on Armistice Day, 11 November, that year.

It had an abstract, simple design and bears the inscription 'The Glorious Dead'. 

On Armistice Day 1920, the burial of the Unknown Warrior took place, with the king placing roses on the coffin next to the newly-unveiled Cenotaph.

The Unknown Warrior was a British soldier killed during battle in World War One and whose remains were selected for burial at Westminster Abbey, where the tomb remains to this day.

"Lutyens's Cenoptah, of course... [is] in a public place, in the street, in the heart of Westminster," Dr Brindle said.

Cenotaph Whitehall Glorious Dead Inscription
The Cenotaph is dedicated to 'The Glorious Dead' (Picture: MOD)

"It seemed to fulfil that commemorative function in a much more public way than the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is inside a church."

No names are inscribed on the stone Cenotaph.

The wooden top from the temporary 1919 structure went on to be displayed by the Imperial War Museum at Crystal Palace.

Dr Brindle says Lutyens' Cenotaph showed "how a memorial could be timeless and could represent those values of honour, loyalty, duty, could represent sorrow and pride".

"All those emotions could be projected onto a monument which is in itself very simple," he continued.

"The name Cenotaph means 'empty tomb' – an empty tomb to stand for all of the dead."

After the Second World War a new inscription was added to commemorate the conflict.

Today, the Cenotaph is seen as the national focus for Remembrance for all those killed in service of their country.