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This Grade I listed structure designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944) is the national and Commonwealth war memorial in Whitehall, where the Queen and other members of the Royal family, the Prime Minister and his colleagues, the Commonwealth High Commissioners and the the heads of the armed services, and many other dignitaries, lay their wreaths each year after the two-minutes silence at 11 a.m. on Remembrance Sunday — the Sunday nearest the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Appearing at first as a temporary structure in wood and plaster, "a saluting base for the Victory March of 19th July 1919" (Baker 22), it was built as a permanent monument in Portland stone, and completed in 1920. It was unveiled on Armistice Day (the day on which Remembrance Sunday was subsequently held) that November. George VI unveiled the added date inscription for the dead of the Second World War in 1946. It is seen here looking north towards Trafalgar Square, and north-east towards the eastern side of Whitehall.

Left: Seen with the western side of Whitehall — the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — in the background. Right: Close-up of inscription.

The Cenotaph's appearance of clean-lined simplicity was a stroke of genius. It belies its craft: "the apparent horizontal lines in fact convex to a common centre 900ft below ground, the verticals converging at a point 1000ft above ground" ("List Entry Summary"). As the close-up shows, it is dedicated simply to "The Glorious Dead," as proposed by Rudyard Kipling, another stroke of genius, with "glorious" suggesting something gained, softening the loss expressed in "dead," yet in no way glorifying war itself (see Jay Winter's analysis, 164). The Cenotaph has no figure or religious symbolism that might serve to exclude any group of people, its only adornments being the sculpted relief of wreaths at each end, and the flags of the various services, and of the Merchant Navy, at the sides (Weinreb et al. 141).

In Lutyens' own lifetime, architectural historian Sir Lawrence Weaver wrote:

He has by one little work — the Cenotaph — made joy in fine architecture a possession of the people. Wholly admirable as it is in its own right as a piece of austere design, it is much more. It was accepted forthwith by every one gentle and simple, by those who use strange phrases about Art and by those who have never thought of Art in terms of human life, as a perfect expression of the Nation's grief and thankfulness and of its pride in the Glorious Dead. By that one work Sir Edwin Lutyens' art has become an affair of national importance.

I am tempted to believe that there are many who will not care to follow a laborious estimate of his place in British architecture, but may like to see something of the buildings that have set him where he stands. For the Cenotaph is something more than a happy incident: it is a normal development. [1]

Perhaps Weaver did not realise then how much more work Lutyens was yet to accomplish.


"List Entry Summary." English Heritage. Web. 8 March 2014.

Weaver, Lawrence. Lutyens Houses and Gardens. London: Offices of Country Life, and George Newnes / New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1921. Internet Archive. Web. 8 March 2014.

Weinreb, Ben, Christopher Hibbert, Julia Keay and John Keay. The London Encyclopaedia. 3rd ed. London: Macmillan, 2008.

Winter, Jay. "Cultural Divergences in Patterns of Remembering the Great War in Britain and France." In Britain and France in Two World Wars: Truth, Myth and Memory. Ed. Robert Tombs and Emile Chabal. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. 161-78.

Last modified 8 March 2014