The Cenotaph Centenary

On 11th November 1920 the world’s first tomb to an unknown soldier was inaugurated at Westminster Abbey and at the same time a memorial called The Cenotaph, which means empty tomb, was unveiled near the Abbey. Part of the celebrations commemorating the end of WWI and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in July 1919 was a military parade. A temporary wooden monument was erected along the route where wreaths were laid and soldiers saluted as they passed. It was designed by Edwin Lutyens and it looked very like the stone cenotaph we see today.

To the government’s surprise, in the week after the parade over a million people came to lay flowers at the monument. Families who had lost loved ones during the war could not visit their graves because they were buried far away or no body had been identified. The wooden cenotaph was somewhere tangible to express their grief. 

Newspapers began to ask if a permanent memorial was planned and Lutyens was asked to create one in stone. The real wreaths that hung at either end were replaced by stone ones carved by Francis Derwent Wood (he sculpted the statue featured on My Blog on June 11th and you can read about him there). I don’t like the inscription “to the Glorious Dead”, I think it would have been more glorious if they had not died but I suppose that sentiment is of its time.

Other than that there is very little decoration and no religious symbolism on it because those who died were of many different religions. Flags were hung along its sides to represent Great Britain and the military services of the day. Since 1943 there has been a Royal Air Force flag and since 2007 the flags are for the Royal Navy, the British Army, Royal Air Force and Merchant Navy, the Royal Navy Reserve, Royal Fleet Auxiliary and the Dominion Forces.

The idea of a tomb to an unknown warrior had been mooted previously but it was the reaction of the public to the temporary cenotaph that brought it to fruition.

In Britain we observe a two-minute silence at 11am on 11th November. One year I had the privilege of visiting the clock tower known as Big Ben on Armistice Day and as I looked down onto the streets around Parliament I saw people standing still for those minutes. It was very moving. Most Britons have tremendous respect for our military personnel even if we don’t always agree with the wars they have been sent to fight in.

Our main commemorations take place on the nearest Sunday to 11th November. That is when a huge military march past takes place and the Royal Family lay wreaths at The Cenotaph. Most years I welcome a group of Canadians to London who come for the commemorations among other things. 2020 was going to be a particularly important year because of the centenary but due to Covid 19 my Canadians have not been able to come to London. This year there will not be a big march past and we will have to watch the wreath laying ceremonies on TV.

At 11am on 11th November Westminster Abbey will host a special event for the centenary of the interment of the Unknown Warrior which will be televised live. The Abbey is not open for other services due to the national lockdown but passers-by can see the Field of Remembrance outside the Abbey. My photo was taken a few days before it opened and shows the plots for different regiments and associations before they were filled with wooden tokens. The tradition of having a Field of Remembrance began in 1928. People can buy a wooden token, crosses for Christians for example, with a paper poppy on it and the name of a relative in the military who was killed in action. It is then planted in here in this symbolic cemetery. Afterwards the tokens are burnt and the ashes scattered at a WWI battlefield.

About the author: Gail Jones