Friday, November 16, 2012

The Cenotaph Unveiled

On November 11, 1920, the Whitehall Cenotaph war monument was unveiled in London. The memorial, by definition an empty tomb, honored the staggering numbers of British war dead, nearly all of whom were buried abroad. Crowds gathered to see Edwin Luytens's impressive structure as part of the day's solemn events. As I have written earlier, attendees would later proceed to Westminster Abbey for the Unknown Warrior's funeral service
Horace Nicholls. The Cenotaph about to be unveiled, 11 Nov. 1920. © IWM, Item Q 31489. 
There are many excellent resources on the history of the Whitehall Cenotaph. Rather than retreading familiar ground, I thought I'd share a few artifacts and facts with you today. First of all, I found the following amazing newsreel about the Armistice Day 1920 ceremonies. There is footage of the Unknown Soldier's return to London as well as of King George V unveiling the Cenotaph (at 5:18):

And here is Edwin Luyten's model of the Cenotaph as envisioned after he was commissioned in June 1919 to commemorate the signing of the Peace Treaty with Germany:

Edwin Luytens. Model for Whitehall Cenotaph, 1919.  © IWM, Item ART 4207.
As the IWM's detailed description for the model states, Luyten's commission to honor the Peace Treaty evolved into the Cenotaph's spartan form over the course of discussions with David Lloyd George and other government officials. Lloyd George had asked Luytens to construct a ceremonial catafalque; Luytens modified this plan to create a cenotaph instead.

Before the official unveiling in 1920, a temporary monument, designed by Luytens and constructed of wood and plaster, had stood in its place. Below is a photo of the top of the original Cenotaph. Sadly, as historian Gaynor Kavanaugh writes, the original structure, which was held in the Imperial War Museum's collections from the 1920s, was destroyed by a bomb during World War Two.

Horace Nicholls. The top of the original Cenotaph, on display at the Crystal Palace, 1920-24. © IWM, Item Q 31521.

The Whitehall Cenotaph continues to be one of London's most recognized monuments and a focal point of commemorative services each year. It was also, for a time, as I have written, a focal point for Spiritualists' haunting photography and claims about the return of the ghostly war dead.

When I visited London a couple of years ago, I remember seeing faded poppy wreaths and decorations laid at the foot of this striking and somewhat eerie structure. Many cities across the world have constructed their own cenotaphs to honor the dead of various wars. You can often find such memorials on town greens or at street crossings in communities large and small. 
Horace Nicholls. Whitehall Cenotaph, 11 November 1920. © IWM, Item Q 31497.
For more on the Whitehall Cenotaph, consult the IWM's incredibly vast resources on the monument and its history. See also Neil Hanson's book, Unknown Soldiers and Allyson Booth's wonderful critical work, Postcard from the Trenches. BBC News has a video history of the Cenotaph. See also Derek Boorman's book, At the Going Down of the Sun.

© Fiona Robinson

No comments:

Post a Comment