1918-2008: Ninety Years of Remembrance

The Cenotaph

The Cenotaph in Whitehall, London has played host to the Remembrance Service for the past nine decades. But how did the monument become such an indelible part of the UK's commemoration of those who lost their lives in past conflicts?

Originally intended as a small part of the Peace Day events of July 1919, The Cenotaph was designed and built by Edwin Lutyens at the request of the then Prime Minister Lloyd George

The Cenotaph - which literally means Empty Tomb in Greek - was initially a wood and plaster construction intended for the first anniversary of the Armistice in 1919. At its unveiling the base of the monument was spontaneously covered in wreaths to the dead and missing from The Great War. Such was the extent of public enthusiasm for the construction it was decided that The Cenotaph should become a permanent and lasting memorial.

The Cenotaph, made from Portland stone, was unveiled in 1920. The inscription reads simply "The Glorious Dead".

Unveiling of the permanent Cenotaph in Whitehall, 1920

Unveiling of the permanent Cenotaph in Whitehall by His Majesty
King George V, 11 November 1920 © Copyright Imperial War Museum

On the Sunday nearest to 11 November at 11am each year, a Remembrance Service is held at the Cenotaph to commemorate British and Commonwealth servicemen and women who died in the two World Wars and later conflicts. The monarch, religious leaders, politicians, representatives of state and the armed and auxiliary forces, gather to pay respect to those who gave their lives defending others.

The service has changed little since it was first introduced in 1921, hymns are sung, prayers are said and a two minute silence is observed. Official wreaths are laid on the steps of The Cenotaph. The ceremony ends with a march past of war veterans; a poignant gesture of respect for their fallen comrades.

Services of Remembrance are held at war memorials and cenotaphs throughout Britain and the Commonwealth nations. While the style and size of these memorials vary considerably from place to place, an exact replica of Lutyens' Cenotaph stands proudly in London, Canada.

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