Was the Whitehall Cenotaph Made of Wood?
City of Westminster, London
NHLE entry: Listing details for the Whitehall Cenotaph
The Cenotaph, centrally positioned in Whitehall and around the corner from Downing Street, is an internationally renowned war memorial. A sombre reminder of the fatalities that Britain suffered during the First World War and in conflicts after, its design and stone fabric suggests solid durability. Yet this permanence was not originally intended: the Cenotaph started life as a temporary wooden memorial.
A temporary act of remembrance
Although the First World War was brought to a close by a ceasefire - the Armistice - on 11 November 1918, the final peace treaty was signed more than seven months later, on 28 June 1919. As that moment approached, the Government's thoughts turned to how to commemorate both an international victory and the impact of so many lives lost on foreign soil.
More than 1.1 million soldiers who had been born in Britain and elsewhere in the Empire died in the 'Great War'. Half of these have no known grave and few were buried on home soil. With incredible rapidity, the idea was conceived to erect a temporary memorial structure in Whitehall. There, on 19 July 1919, a great procession would march during the Peace Day celebrations and pause to honour the dead.
A monument for all
The man behind the idea to erect a simple, elegant, non-denominational monument - for people of all religions and creeds who had died in the war - was Sir Edwin Lutyens, who had provided many of the designs for the cemeteries being created by the Imperial War Graves Commission. He conceived a Cenotaph - from the Greek words for 'empty tomb' - that would rise as a 10 metre-high pylon topped by a sarcophagus and a wreath - using real laurel leaves. The only words to be carved on it were: 'THE GLORIOUS DEAD.'
The Office of Works was able to erect the Cenotaph in a matter of weeks, using only wood, plaster and paint. No sooner had the parade passed the memorial, which was intended to be only an impermanent structure, than mourners started to lay wreaths around its base. Soon there were thousands of people wishing to pay their respects. Within days of the Peace Day celebrations it was decided that a permanent stone version of the Cenotaph would be constructed, to be formally recognised as the country's national war memorial.
The Cenotaph, around which Britain so prominently focuses its Remembrance Day service today, was unveiled on 11 November 1920, just as the 'Unknown Warrior' was borne past en route to burial in Westminster Abbey. The memorial was constructed from Portland stone by Holland, Hannen & Cubitts, a building firm responsible for many major 20th century London buildings, including the Royal Festival Hall. The Cenotaph was listed in 1970.
What had happened to the wooden prototype? It had been carefully and respectfully dismantled earlier in the year. The sarcophagus was transferred to the Imperial War Museum, while wounded ex-servicemen from St Dunstan's Homes turned the wood that made up the rest of the structure into bases for bronze souvenir models of the Cenotaph. These were sold to raise funds for St Dunstan's after-care fund for blinded soldiers and sailors.