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  • Writer's pictureSheldon Goodman

‘Incomparably Grave, Severe and Beautiful…’

by Sheldon

I’ll never forget the sight of Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour’s son swinging on a Union flag on the Cenotaph in 2011, as part of the student demonstrations. The outrage that it caused, and the excuse that he wasn’t aware what the Cenotaph was, despite being an undergraduate history student at the University of Cambridge, revealed the nation’s fierce protective nature over its ancestors sacrifices in the War.

© Steve Parkinson 2010

© Steve Parkinson 2010

Families who had lost sons, brothers, husbands and fathers between 1914 – 1918 received little consolation that they had been buried where they fell, miles away from home. It wasn’t enough for the grieving general public to have war graves so far away. Memorials which typified the national loss represented a contemplative place where people could gather and mourn the fallen.

War memorials up and down the country were constructed as reminders of ‘the War to end all Wars’.

via the Imperial War Museum

via the Imperial War Museum

The most famous of these is Edwin Lutyens Cenotaph, or ‘Empty Tomb’. Constructed of Portland stone like many other London landmarks, notably St Paul’s Cathedral and the façade of Buckingham Palace. Erected in 1920 as part of the ceremony that welcomed the Unknown Warrior into his grave in Westminster Abbey, it replaced an earlier structure (made of wood and plaster) which was unveiled  on 19 July 1919, for the Peace Parade which celebrated the formal end to the War after the signature of the Treaty of Versailles. Its popularity led to the creation of the stone version, which was unveiled as the Warrior went past.

The Times described it as ‘incomparably grave, severe and beautiful’. If you look closely, the sides of the Cenotaph aren’t parallel. If you were to extend them they would meet at a point 980 feet above ground. The horizontal surfaces are in fact arcs of a circle whose centre would be 900 feet above ground. This clever bit of design was missing in the wooden predecessor, but Lutyens, who’d designed things ranging from Country houses to parts of Delhi, included this genius feature, as well as waiving his fee for his involvement.

The Bristol Cenotaph ©Sheldon K. Goodman 2014

The Bristol Cenotaph ©Sheldon K. Goodman 2014

The Cenotaph inspired many other memorials, some designed by Lutyens himself. An exact replica stands in Ontario, Canada, as well as smaller reproductions in Maidstone and Reading. I was in Bristol recently and saw the Bristol Cenotaph there, which although made from a different stone clearly has visual influences from the memorial Lutyens built to the dead of our armed forces.

Although the official ceremony marking the centenary was based in Westminster Abbey on the night of the 4th August, a small band of people met at the Cenotaph and held their own vigils to remember the fallen in their own way. In many ways I thought that was just as powerful as the official service.


If you ever find yourself walking down Whitehall, take a moment to venture into Horse Guards Parade where you can see another memorial Lutyens designed, this time honouring the lives lost in the Royal Navy – conveniently attached to the Admiralty buildings. It was installed in memory of 45,000 members of the Royal Naval Division (formed by then First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, from surplus naval troops) who died during World War I. It was removed to the Royal Naval College in the 1950’s but restored to its original position in 2003.

This post only covers a small portion of the public remembrances that were built to mark a conflict that changed the course of history. Why not share your photos of your favourite war memorials with us via Twitter and Facebook?

My thanks to Emmanuel Lebaut in assisting the research of this post. 

#worldwarone #Cenotaph #Whitehall #EdwinLutyens #dead #centenary #WarMemoria #Admiralty #Fallen #WinstonChurchill

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