The London War Memorials
English Heritage cares for six of London's finest First World War memorials. We prepared new List descriptions for these in 2014 which highlighted their history and national significance. They are either listed at Grade I or Grade II*. Here you can find out more about them.
During the First World War, millions of combatants simply disappeared in the explosive reality of modern static warfare. Those dead which could be found were laid to rest in 'some corner of a foreign field'. The grief over the absent dead was profound. For the July 1919 Peace Parade in London, a temporary structure was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens as a fictive national tomb, where parading soldiers could pay their last respects to the dead. This memorial so caught the public and political imagination that it was rebuilt in stone in 1920.
Today the Cenotaph is still the focus of the nation’s remembrance each November, and it now honours the dead of all subsequent conflicts. Lutyens’ timeless classical design avoided imagery or bombast with its neutral form, enabling the griever to project their own personal associations onto the memorial. Modest in size, it stands in the heart of Whitehall: a daily reminder of the sacrifices made for the nation.
Royal Artillery Memorial
This memorial is widely regarded as one of the truly outstanding memorials of the First World War anywhere. The memorial commemorates the 49,076 members of the Royal Artillery who lost their lives in the conflict. Artillery played a dominant part in the fighting on the Western Front.
Unveiled on 25 October 1925, the memorial represents a 9.2 inch howitzer in Portland stone, on a base designed by the architect Lionel Pearson. Around it stand heroic bronze figures of different ranks of gunners: a lieutenant, a shell-carrier and a driver. A greatcoat-draped corpse lies at the north end. The reliefs around the base depict different forms of artillery warfare, from trench mortars and anti-aircraft guns to heavy batteries. The sculptor, Charles Sargeant Jagger, had won the Military Cross as an infantry officer on the Western Front. No other memorial is as dramatic and brutal in its depiction of modern warfare.
Machine Gun Corps Memorial
The Machine Gun Corps (MGC) was a unit of the British Army, formed in October 1915 in response to the need for the more effective use of machine guns on the Western Front. They were known as ‘The Suicide Club’ as it fought in exposed positions and suffered disproportionately heavy casualties. Proud of their contribution to victory, the MGC (which had been disbanded) wanted its role in the fighting fully marked after the war.
The sculptor Francis Derwent Wood was commissioned to create a memorial. Unveiled in 1925, his design took the strange form of a Renaissance-inspired nude statue of David. Placed over minutely depicted Vickers machine guns, the statue placed male beauty and human vulnerability alongside the technology of killing. Derwent Wood, however, was as familiar as any with the grim impact of warfare on the human body. He spent much of the war making prosthetic masks to help to disguise the wounds of disfigured casualties.
Field Marshal Earl Haig
Commander-in-chief of the largest British army ever assembled, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig (1861-1928) led his forces to eventual victory on the Western Front. Still a controversial figure, due to the costly battles of attrition such as the Somme, Arras and 3rd Ypres, debate surrounded his memorial too.
The concept came from the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, soon after Haig’s sudden death following a riding accident in 1928. The sculptor Alfred Hardiman, was commissioned to design a realistic portrait of the former cavalry officer, capless, mounted on a stylised horse, in a classical tradition. Haig’s widow led the call for a likeness of Haig’s favourite mount Poperinghe instead. Forced to make new versions, Hardiman was nearly ruined by the project but it was finally unveiled in 1937.
Among the last of the great equestrian statues of military commanders, the memorial shows the challenges of inter-war sculpture, which attempted to reconcile modernity with tradition, as well as the sheer challenge of making sculpture.
Edith Cavell Memorial
In 1915 Norfolk-born nurse Edith Cavell was shot in Brussels by the Germans for helping Allied soldiers escape. In her trial, she confessed to these deeds, which were in clear breach of German military code of occupation, and of the first Geneva Convention. That said, her execution was portrayed as an example of German barbarism, and it became a rallying call for Allied recruitment campaigns across the globe.
A statue of Cavell, set against an austere granite monument, was carved by the renowned sculptor Sir George Frampton. It was unveiled by Queen Alexandra in 1920 outside the National Portrait Gallery in St Martin’s Place. War memorials to individuals are few: memorials to women even fewer. Perhaps the most renowned female casualty of the First World War, Cavell’s final words of reconciliation, "Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone" were added to the memorial in 1924 at the insistence of the National Council of Women.
Belgian Gratitude Memorial
The German invasion of Belgium in August 1914 triggered Britain’s entry into the First World War, as it violated the 1839 Treaty of London, which had guaranteed Belgian neutrality. Many Belgians fled to Britain to escape the Germans, and many thousands of refugees spent the war years here. In recognition of these two factors, the idea of a memorial as a thank-offering was conceived by Belgians during the war.
Located opposite Cleopatra's Needle on the Victoria Embankment, it features a fine bronze group depicting Belgium, 'instructing her garland-bearing children in the need to recall British protection and valour'. The artist was the prominent Belgian sculptor Victor Rousseau, who had himself been a refugee in London. Its setting, designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, included figures of Justice and Honour. The unveiling by Princess Clementine of Belgium took place on 12 October 1920, the fifth anniversary of Edith Cavell’s execution. A reciprocal Anglo-Belgian memorial, created by Charles Sargeant Jagger, was erected in Brussels in 1923.
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Its design and stone fabric suggests solid durability. Yet this permanence was not originally intended: the Cenotaph started life as a temporary wooden memorial.