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The Cenotaph

At the end of the Great War, the British War Cabinet determined that a day of celebration would be held to mark the signing of the peace treaty on 28th June 1919. A Peace Celebrations Committee was appointed chaired by Lord Curzon, Lord President of the Council. It first met on 9th May and began to organise a programme of festivities, the high point of which would be a victory parade. 'In part, this fete was intended to divert public attention from serious national problems that included economic recession, labour unrest, and even more threatening, manifestations of discontent in the army'. [1] Sir Lionel Earle, Permanent Secretary of the Office of Works, wrote to the Earl of Derby, British Ambassador to France, to ascertain the precise nature of the celebrations the French would hold on 14th July. [2] The committee met again on 18th June. The minutes of this meeting show that Prime Minister Lloyd George 'The man who won the war' had been told by President Clemenceau that the French, who were holding their Victory Parade in Paris had arranged for the troops in the parade to march past a 'great catafalque' erected beside the Arc de Triomphe, which they would salute, in honour of their war dead. The catafalque would be dismantled after the parade. [3] Lloyd George attended the parade, 'he came back from France deeply impressed by the historical ceremony in Paris in which he had participated. The catafalque in honoured association with the Arc de Triomphe appealed to his sense of what harmonised with the solemn occasion. His inner self envisaged our need for a point of homage to stand as a symbol of remembrance worthy of the reverent salute of an Empire mourning for its million dead'. [4] Upon his return to London he discussed this with Sir Alfred Mond, the First Commissioner of the Board of Works and convinced him that the work should be executed by 'some prominent artist'. Mond had already sounded out Sir Edwin Lutyens, the eminent architect at the beginning of June. (One of Lutyens' designs for the Cenotaph, in the collection of the Imperial War Museum, is dated 4th June 1919). At the beginning of July, Lutyens was invited to Downing Street and asked to design a non-denominational structure for the parade, to be designed and built in two weeks After meeting the Prime Minister, he met with Sir Frank Baines, Chief Architect of the Office of Works and there and then sketched a copy of the design for him.

The original drawings are in the collection of the Imperial War Museum, as is an original wooden model. The word cenotaph derives from the Greek words kenos meaning empty, and taphos meaning tomb. The origin of this type of memorial can be found in the importance the ancient Greeks attached to the proper burial of their dead, even if no corpse were available. If recovery was not possible, either because of defeat or because death took place at sea, the Greeks built a cenotaph or a sema to replace the body. A sema may be a piece of stone or a stone figure. This stone substituted for a dead person is 'both the external sign of the invisible dead... and the substitute person, especially kept alive in memory when written upon'. [5] 'The Cabinet was so specific about the form which the monument should take, not essentially for aesthetic reasons, but because it was keeping tight control of all the arrangements for the Peace Day parade. Arrangements for a salute to the dead were regarded as sensitive. Cabinet members were not prepared to leave such an important symbol entirely to the discretion of an artist, however eminent. Not all of the Cabinet thought the project a good idea, and Curzon was afraid that the monument might be desecrated'. [6] The Cenotaph was one of a number of temporary structures erected for the parad


[1] Eric Homberger 'The Story of the Cenotaph' Times Literary Supplement 12th November 1976.
[2] Sir Lionel Earle to the Earl of Derby 13th May 1919.
[3] War Cabinet Peace Celebrations Committee, Draft Minutes of meeting 9th May 1919, 1-2 PRO file Cab 27/52.
[4] Sir Edwin Lutyens Journal of Remembrance.
[5] Emily Vermeule Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry Berkeley, 1979.
[6] Alex King Memorials of the Great War in Britain.

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