Armistice Day: An Encounter at the Cenotaph

On a chilly October day, the Cenotaph stands on an island in the middle of a bustling London thoroughfare; black cabs and double-decker buses whisk by in either direction, black Mercedes loiter in the median while their high profile passengers jaw-jaw inside the government office buildings of Whitehall. Bureaucrats and tourists alike amble past, hardly casting a glance at the unassuming monument. Its simple aesthetic and white Portland stone all but blends into the stately Victorian buildings surrounding it. Once every year, though, at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, this teeming street comes to an absolute standstill for two minutes. The solemn, empty tomb is transformed into the centerpiece for a ritual of collective mourning that has spanned the former British Empire for nearly a century.

One of Lutyens' sketches of the proposed cenotaph in situ with coloured flags, imagined as it would be during a remembrance ceremony with a crowd gathered before it. (Imperial War Museum)

The Cenotaph was never intended as a permanent monument, nor was its resonance immediately understood. Its origins were far less grand: a temporary structure to serve as a saluting point for British soldiers marching past during the first celebrations of peace and victory in 1919. There were also political considerations surrounding the Cenotaph’s origin. Post-war Britain was brimming with unrest, and a fear of bolshevism gaining a foothold motivated politicians to back extensive displays of patriotism on the anniversary of victory. Its inspiration was borrowed from a temporary catafalque erected for a French commemoration of victory just a few days before. (Unlike its English successor, the catafalque was quickly taken down after Prime Minister Clemenceau objected to its Germanic style.) Rather than a catafalque, Sir Edward Lutyens chose to style the monument as an empty tomb. His design was based on themes borrowed from permanent memorials he commissioned in Southampton and Leicester, building the structure from wood and plaster.

Perhaps it was the simple, unpretentious aesthetic that captivated Britons. As an empty tomb and blank canvas (save for the the inscription of the year it was erected and the words “The Glorious Dead” on two sides), the Cenotaph allowed the public to project their own memory and grief onto the monument. The dignified design contrasted with the horrors of the Western Front, giving the fallen sons of England—gassed, shot, and atomized by the machines of war—a fitting classical tribute at the very heart of London.

The First World War represented a staggering loss of life for Great Britain—it was calculated that marching four abreast down Whitehall, it would take the dead three and a half days to pass before the Cenotaph—and memorialization helped the nation come to terms with the toll.  In a sense, the dead were brought home to a bereaved nation. Whatever the exact cause, the English public clamored for a permanent structure.

The Glorious Dead Inscription on the Cenotaph in London (Defence Images)

In the years following the end of the Great War, the silence was a reflection of the absence left by England’s sons who never came home. Most of “The Glorious Dead,” a phrase inscribed on two sides of the Cenotaph, remained not far from where they were cut down, resting in bucolic French and Belgian towns and counties whose names are now synonymous with 20th Century destruction: Ypres, Passchendaele, Somme. The names now read like death sentences. For others, the empty tomb served as a literal replacement for bodies never recovered. The instruments of modern war had pulverized many British soldiers into nothing more tangible than a name on a roll of honor.

In many ways, the Cenotaph came to collectively represent the loss of an entire nation (and empire). The Unknown Warrior, who was interred in Westminster Abbey in 1920, was paraded past the Cenotaph, in a sense assuming the corporeal embodiment of the thousands of missing soldiers. Chosen at random from among six exhumed soldiers from the battlefields of France and Belgium, the Unknown Warrior was escorted past the Cenotaph by a cavalcade of recipients of the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest wartime honor. It was during this spectacle that the permanent Cenotaph was unveiled, as with the push of a button by King George V two large Union Jack flags fell to reveal the monument. The Unknown Warrior proceeded to Westminster Abbey, and was interred before an audience of one hundred women who lost both husbands and sons, buried beneath one hundred sandbags of soil from the battlefields.

Just as the ritualized journey of the Unknown Warrior captivated the public’s attention, so too did the newly unveiled Cenotaph. Serving as the epicenter for remembrance, it was all but buried under 100,000 wreaths within five days of Remembrance Day.

The gun carriage bearing the Unknown Warrior at the Cenotaph on Whitehall for the unveiling ceremony by King George V on 11 November 1920, the second anniversary of the Armistice. The Unknown Warrior was later interred in Westminster Abbey. (Imperial War Musesum)

From the void within the empty tomb, silence resonates, and the Remembrance Day ceremonies have been held at the Cenotaph for over ninety years, changing little from the original ones in 1920. Over time, it has come to reflect the memory of all British military personnel who perished in successive conflicts, from the European battlefields of World War II to the remote villages of Helmand Province. Though the comrades of the “Glorious Dead” of the Great War are now gone, the Cenotaph still stands, in quiet and dignified repose.

Adam Maisel is a military intelligence officer in the Army Reserve and veteran of Operations Enduring Freedom and Freedom’s Sentinel. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in National Security Studies at King’s College London, Department of War Studies.The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image:The story of the poppy (British Legion)