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The Cenotaph, Whitehall

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The Cenotaph, Whitehall

The Cenotaph
United Kingdom
The Cenotaph, Whitehall, London
The Cenotaph
For the British Empire (later Commonwealth) dead of both World Wars, and the British military in later wars
Unveiled 11 November 1920 (1920-11-11)

The Cenotaph is a war memorial situated on Whitehall in London. It began as a temporary structure erected for a peace parade following the end of the First World War but following an outpouring of national sentiment it was replaced in 1920 by a permanent structure and designated the United Kingdom's primary national war memorial.

Designed by Edwin Lutyens, the permanent structure was built from Portland stone between 1919 and 1920 by Holland, Hannen & Cubitts, replacing Lutyens' earlier wood-and-plaster cenotaph in the same location. An annual National Service of Remembrance is held at the site on Remembrance Sunday, the closest Sunday to 11 November (Armistice Day) each year. Lutyens' cenotaph design has been reproduced elsewhere in the UK and other countries including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Bermuda and Hong Kong.


Paris Victory Parade of 14 July 1919 and the temporary catafalque (right) by the Arc de Triomphe (left)

The Cenotaph was originally a wood-and-plaster structure designed by Sir catafalque, like the one intended for the Arc de Triomphe in Paris for the corresponding Victory Parade in France, but Lutyens proposed instead that the design be based on a cenotaph.[4]

The temporary wood-and-plaster structure had the same shape as the later permanent stone structure, and consisted of a pylon that rose in a series of set-backs to the empty tomb (cenotaph) on its summit. The wreaths at each end and on top were made from laurel rather than the later carved stone sculptures. The location chosen along the parade route along Whitehall was between the Foreign Office and Richmond House. The unveiling (described in The Times as 'quiet' and 'unofficial') took place the day before the Victory Parade. During the parade itself, those saluting the temporary Cenotaph included the Allied commanders John Pershing, Ferdinand Foch, Douglas Haig and David Beatty. For some time after the parade, the base of the memorial was covered with flowers and wreaths by members of the public. Pressure mounted to retain it, and the British War Cabinet decided on 30 July 1919 that a permanent memorial should replace the wooden version and be designated Britain's official national war memorial.[3] The announcement was made on 23 October 1919 that the Portland stone version would be a "replica exact in every detail in permanent material of present temporary structure".[5]


Lutyens had first heard the term "cenotaph" in connection with Munstead Wood, the house which he designed for Gertrude Jekyll in the 1890s. He designed a garden seat there, consisting of a large block of elm set on stone,[6] which acquired the name "Cenotaph of Sigismunda" at the suggestion of their friend Charles Liddell, a librarian at the British Museum.[4]

The Cenotaph was constructed from Portland stone between 1919 and 1920 by Holland, Hannen & Cubitts.[2][7]

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 (1914 – MCMXIV; and 1919 – MCMXIX). The wreaths at each end are 5 feet (1.5 m) in diameter, while the one on top is 3.6 feet (1.1 m) in diameter.[5]

The sides of the Cenotaph are not parallel, but if extended would meet at a point some 980 feet (300 m) above the ground. Similarly, the "horizontal" surfaces are in fact sections of a sphere whose centre would be 900 feet (270 m) below ground.[8] It is 35 feet (11 m) high and weighs 120 tonnes (120,000 kg)s.[5] This element of the design, called entasis, was not present in the temporary structure and was added by Lutyens as a refinement when designing the permanent structure.[4]

The architects waived their fee for designing the cenotaph, meaning that it cost £7,325 to build, a sum equivalent to £255,332 when adjusted by inflation in 2010.[5][9] Construction began on 19 January 1920, with the original flags sent to the Imperial War Museum.[5]


The unveiling ceremony on 11 November 1920

The memorial was unveiled by Armistice with Germany which ended the First World War.[2][10] It was decided not to dedicate the memorial, as not all the dead it commemorates are Christian.[5] The unveiling ceremony for the Cenotaph was part of a larger procession bringing the Unknown Warrior to be laid to rest in his tomb located nearby in Westminster Abbey. The funeral procession route passed the Cenotaph, where the waiting King laid a wreath on the Unknown Warrior's gun-carriage before proceeding to unveil the memorial which was draped in large Union Flags.[11]


The White Ensign, Union Flag, and Blue Ensign on the Cenotaph

It is flanked on each side by various flags of the United Kingdom which Lutyens had wanted to be carved in stone. Although Lutyens was overruled and cloth flags were used, his later Rochdale cenotaph (unveiled 26 November 1922) has stone flags. In the years following 1919, the Cenotaph displayed a Union Flag, a White Ensign and a Red Ensign on one side and a Union Flag, a White Ensign and a Blue Ensign on the other side. On 1 April 1943, an RAF Ensign was substituted for the White Ensign on the west side of the monument. The flags displayed as of 2007 represent the Royal Navy, the British Army, the Royal Air Force and the Merchant Navy. The Blue Ensign represents the Royal Naval Reserve, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and other government services; it is possible that it was also intended to represent Dominion forces.[5]

Initially the flags were changed for cleaning every six to eight weeks, but between 1922 and 1923 this practice gradually stopped until letters to media outlets led to the cleaning being reintroduced. The initial lifespan of a flag was set at five periods of three months. By 1939, they were being changed ten times a year, with each flag being washed twice before being disposed of. By 1924, it was decided that all discarded flags would be sent to the [5]

Later history

Whitehall, along with other areas of London, was the scene of celebrations on listed building on 5 February 1970.[12]

Remembrance services

Wreaths being laid at the Cenotaph during the Remembrance Sunday service in 2010

The Cenotaph is the site of the annual National Service of Remembrance held at 11:00 am on Remembrance Sunday, the closest Sunday to 11 November (Armistice Day). From 1919 until 1945, the remembrance service was held on Armistice Day, but since 1945 it has been held on Remembrance Sunday. Uniformed service personnel (excluding fire and ambulance personnel) salute the Cenotaph as they pass.[13]

Although the Armistice Day ceremony fell away during the Second World War, in recent years the tradition of holding a ceremony at the Cenotaph at 11am on 11 November has been reinstated by The Western Front Association, a UK-based charity dedicated to perpetuating the memory of those who served in the First World War.[14]

The first such modern ceremony was held on 11 November 1919, following a suggestion by [15]

Annual remembrance services also take place at the Cenotaph on other days of the year. These include the regimental parade held by the Royal Tank Regiment on the Sunday following Remembrance Sunday. This is the closest to Cambrai Day (20 November), the anniversary of the Battle of Cambrai that was one of the earliest deployments of British tanks.[16][17] An annual parade and service is also held by the Combined Irish Regiments Association to commemorate the war dead of the Irish regiments that were disbanded on 12 June 1922 after the First World War.[18] This parade is now held on the Sunday in June that follows the Queen's Birthday Parade.[19]

Other annual remembrances held at the Cenotaph at various points in the year include those marking the D-Day landings in Normandy in the Second World War, the Falklands War (and the Battle of the Falklands in 1914), the campaigns marked by Anzac Day, and services marking the first day of the Somme Offensive.

Other cenotaphs

Lutyens' first cenotaph design was for Southampton (unveiled 6 November 1920). Lutyens' Whitehall Cenotaph design was used in the construction of other war memorials in the UK and in the British Empire. Two smaller versions that included several additions and differences were built as regimental memorials, in Maidstone, Kent, and in Reading, Berkshire, and unveiled on 30 July 1921 and 13 September 1921 respectively. The Middlesbrough cenotaph, derived from Lutyens' design,[20] was unveiled on 11 November 1922.[21] The Hong Kong cenotaph, an almost exact replica, was unveiled in 1923 between the Statue Square and the City Hall in Hong Kong.[22] The Manchester Cenotaph in Manchester, England (also the work of Lutyens), was unveiled on 12 July 1924 and has similarities and differences. The Toronto Cenotaph was unveiled on 11 November 1925 and is modelled on Whitehall's design. A two-thirds scale copy was unveiled in Hamilton, Bermuda, on 6 May 1925. A close copy of the Whitehall Cenotaph was unveiled in November 1929 in Auckland, New Zealand. An exact replica stands in London, Ontario, Canada, and was unveiled on 11 November 1934.[2]

Replica or similar cenotaphs
Other cenotaph designs by Lutyens in the UK

See also


  1. ^ Lancaster, G.B. (31 October 1919). "The Glorious Dead". Ashburton Guardian XL (9146). p. 7. Retrieved 3 July 2011. 
  2. ^ a b c d "BBC – Remembrance – Cenotaph". BBC. Retrieved 3 July 2011. 
  3. ^ a b Allan Greenberg. "Lutyens's Cenotaph". Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians.  
  4. ^ a b c Gliddon, Gerard; Skelton, Timothy John (2008). "Southampton and London: A Tale of Two Cenotaphs". Lutyens and the Great War. London: Frances Lincoln. pp. 36–47.  
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h "Flags on the Cenotaph" (PDF). The Flag Institute. Retrieved 3 July 2011. 
  6. ^ Massingham, Betty (1966). Miss Jekyll: Portrait of a Great Gardener. London:  
  7. ^ Holland and Hannen and Cubitts Ltd. (1920). Cubitts: its inception and development. London: Holland & Hannen and Cubitts Ltd. p. 10. 
  8. ^ "Whitehall Cenotaph". MSN Encarta. Microsoft Corporation. Archived from the original on 31 October 2009. 
  9. ^ "Inflation Calculator". Bank of England. Retrieved 3 July 2011. 
  10. ^ "The Unknown Warrior". BBC History. Retrieved 3 July 2011. 
  11. ^ The Burial of the Unknown Warrior, Martin Hornby, The Western Front Association, 7 July 2008, retrieved 25 July 2011
  12. ^  
  13. ^ "The Cenotaph in Whitehall". RAF Habbaniya Association. Retrieved 3 July 2011. 
  14. ^ The Western Front Association
  15. ^ "All London Silent at Armistice Hour". The New York Times. 12 November 1919. 
  16. ^ Regimental Church and Collect, The Royal Tank Regiment Association, accessed 5 October 2011
  17. ^ Regimental Day, The Royal Tank Regiment Association, accessed 5 October 2011
  18. ^ The history of the Association, Combined Irish Regiments Old Comrades Association, accessed 5 October 2011
  19. ^ The history of the Association – today, Combined Irish Regiments Old Comrades Association, accessed 5 October 2011
  20. ^ Pevsner, Nikolaus (1966). Yorkshire: The North Riding. p. 252. 
  21. ^ "North Yorkshire War Memorials – Middlesbrough". The Yorkshire Regiment – First World War Remembrance. Retrieved 3 November 2013. 
  22. ^ "Brief Information on Proposed Grade 1 Items" (PDF). Leisure and Cultural Services Department, Hong Kong. Retrieved 3 July 2011. 

Further reading

  • 'The Story of the Cenotaph' by Eric Homberger, in The Times Literary Supplement, 12 November 1976
  • Account of the Peace Day Parade of 1919 (
  • The Cenotaph (Veterans-UK)

External links

  • Film footage of the Remembrance Service at the Cenotaph, 1948 (British Pathe)
  • Historical pictures of the Cenotaph (Imperial War Museum)
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