Friday, 19 July 2019

Lest we forget

One hundred years ago today, July 19th 1919, 15000 British and Empire troops paraded past a temporary, wood and plaster monument in Whitehall as part of a parade marking the official end of World War One.


But Sir Edwin Lutyens, the architect, had been given only weeks to complete the project, the first sketches of which he'd drawn on the back of a napkin. And just days after the parade the entire structure was due to be dismantled.

Then something remarkable happened. Wreaths and floral tributes at the foot of The Cenotaph grew and grew. It became clear that Lutyens' catafalque had touched a nerve among a nation in mourning. So, although there had been no intention to make The Cenotaph a permanent monument, pressure began to build. There were questions in Parliament, leaders in The Times and letters to the 'papers. Clearly something had to be done.


Even before the war ended work was being done on how it would be remembered. Sir Edwin Lutyens had been to France with the newly-founded Imperial War Graves Commission as early  as 1917. There, on the old battlefields, he found 'wild flowers that are as friendly to an unexploded shell as they are to the leg of a garden seat in Surrey.' He wrote to his wife of 'the ribbon of isolated graves like a milky way across miles of country where men are tucked in where they fell. Ribbons of little crosses each touching each other across a cemetery, set in a wilderness of annuals and where one sort of flower is grown the effect if charming, easy and oh so pathetic. One things for a moment that no other monument is needed.' But it was. And Lutyens knew it. Once the war was over, the nation knew that Lutyens was the man to provide it.

The first cenotaph designed by him was not, in fact, the hastily erected monument in Whitehall. On 22 January 1919 Lutyens had been invited to Southampton to view potential sites for the city's war memorial. Though the design of this civic monument were to change, the end result is strikingly similar to the Whitehall cenotaph, so much so it might almost be regarded as a prototype. 


Having already got the basic design principle sorted, it was no surprise that Lutyens chose a similar structure for the hastily built temporary cenotaph in Whitehall. Although plans for a Peace or 'Victory' parade had been in hand for some time, they were on hold both until the formal peace treaty (The Treaty of Versailles) was signed and until the French (who were to be guests at the British ceremony) had decided what they were going to do to mark the final, formal end of war.

What was a surprise was how much the monument seemed to mean to so many people. It soon became obvious that the temporary monument intended only as a symbolic structure for the parade down Whitehall was too important to lose. Questions were asked in Parliament; on 26 July an editorial in The Times called for a permanent replacement; many letters of support appeared in the press. On 30 July the Cabinet met and agreed that a permanent monument should be erected. The only remaining question was... where?  

There was understandable disquiet about placing the Cenotaph in the middle of a busy London thoroughfare. The same Times leader demanding a permanent structure suggested Horse Guards Parade as a more fitting location. The London Traffic Advisory Committee suggested Parliament Square. But Lutyens was adamant. The site in Whitehall had been 'qualified by the salutes of Foch and the allied armies and by our men and their great leaders. No other site would give this pertinence.'

Whitehall it was. 

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