Tag Archives: Cenotaph

The Cenotaph on Whitehall has been the focus of national remembrance acitivities, including the 2 minute silence on Remembrance Sunday, since it was first erected in 1919.  But interestingly it was originally just a temporary memorial, constructed from painted wood.  However, the design proved so popular with the public that it was replaced the following year by a near identical copy, built from portland stone.

These photographs, from the collection of the Imperial War Museum, show the Cenotaph in use through the Twentieth Century.

The unveiling of the Cenotpah, London, 1920In this photograph taken on 11 November 1920, the oak coffin containing the body of the unknown warrior passes the Cenotaph on route to Westminster Abbey. 

The stone Cenotaph was then unveiled by King George V. 


Laying wreaths at the CenotaphThis next photograph, taken between the First and Second World Wars, shows people placing wreaths at the Cenotaph.

After the Cenotaph was unveiled in 1920, the queues of people waiting to pay their respects stretched for seven miles.  Large numbers of wreaths continued to be laid at the Cenotaph throughout the 1920s and 30s.

Old and faded wreaths were removed by the Office of Works, but this had to be completed by 9am as the public became upset and complained if they saw wreaths being taken away.  It became the custom for men to raise their hats as they passed by.

The architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens, had intended the flags to be carved from portland stone and dyed, as he later included on some other memorials he designed.  However, he was over-ruled by the government and real flags are used to this day.

VE DAY CELEBRATIONS IN LONDON, ENGLAND, UK, 8 MAY 1945In this last photo from 8 May 1945, huge crowds gather in Whitehall around the Cenotaph to listen to Churchill’s Victory speech and to celebrate Victory in Europe Day.

The dates MCMXXXIX and MCMXLV were added to the Cenotaph in 1946.

Most of the larger memorials and sculptures you see will have begun life as a maquette, or scale model.  This enables the architect or artist to refine their ideas and others, such as funders or memorial committees, to approve the design before construction begins on the full-scale memorial. 

Maquettes can also be used to increase awareness and inspire people when seeking to raise funds to pay for the construction of a new memorial.

Maquette of the Cenotaph, IWM Sometimes these maquettes survive and they can be very interesting objects in their own right.  On display at Imperial War Museum, London, is Lutyens’ original scale model for the Cenotaph.  The model is constructed from wood, painted plasticine and tin foil.

At Portsmouth City Museum you can see a half-sized maquette of one of the gunners from the City of Portsmouth memorial by the sculptor Charles Sargeant Jagger.


Continued from part one 

Most temporary memorials are now lost to us, whether due to the insubstantial nature of their material (such as snow or topiary) or because they were replaced with a more permanent memorial and the original was discarded.

Details about these lost memorials may be very vague, often no more than an old photograph or newspaper article from the 1920’s, and no indication of its fate.

There were, however, exceptions. 

The top section of the original wooden Whitehall Cenotaph was kept for many years as a museum exhibit at the Imperial War Musuem.  It was only finally destroyed as a result of bombing during the Second World War.

At Rawmarsh, the temporary wooden cross erected anonymously in protest at the delay in establishing a permanent memorial, was buried beneath the new stone memorial.

An interesting example of temporary markers that have been removed from their original location and invested with a new purpose is the case of battlefield crosses.  These were the temporary wooden grave markers of casualities of the First World War, most of whom were buried in France and Belgium.  Over the years following the war the Imperial (later Commonwealth) War Graves Commission replaced the wooden markers with permanent headstones.

Some of the relatives of the dead were able to retrieve the wooden markers and return them to the UK to use as a memorial to their loved one.

In one extraordinary example, the vicar from St Marys Church in Byfleet, Surrey, led a pilgrimmage to France and Flanders.  They collected 22 grave markers which are still on display today in the church.

There are currently 462 of these Battlefield Cross memorials recorded on our database. (Search with ‘Cross – Battlefield’ as Type)

We usually think of memorials as permanent reminders but, in fact, some memorials were only ever intended to be temporary.

Probably the most notable of these is The Cenotaph in Whitehall.  This was originally conceived as a temporary memorial.  Constructed from wood and painted white, it was erected in 1919. However, it proved so popular with the public that it was replaced with a permanent replica in Portland Stone the following year. 

It was a similar situation in several other towns and cities after the First World War, where temporary wooden memorials were later replaced with stone, such as Wolverton, Buckinghamshire, Maidenhead in Berkshire and Hereford.

A more unusual temporary memorial could be found at Pateley Bridge (click to see photo) where a memorial was built from snow, as a protest at how long it was taking to erect a permanent memorial.

In Bradford they constructed a detailed replica of the Whitehall Cenotaph.  This in itself was not unusual, what was however, was the choice of material – topiary! (Click to see photo of Bradford Temporary Cenotaph).

An unusual temporary memorial dating from the Second World War was a portrait gallery in the Colchester Gas Company showroom for Salute the Soldier Week in 1944.

A memorial from more recent times was a handwritten card, sealed in a clear plastic pocket, commemorating Lance Corporal Matty Hull, who was killed in a ‘friendly fire’ incident in Iraq in 2003.  The card was pinned to the door to the Parachute Regiment Memorial Garden at Lincoln Castle.

To be continued…. find out what happened to the temporary memorials