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The Cenotaph: Lutyens' simple but enduring design

Lutyens' 102 year old Empty Tomb remains the centre of national Remembrance. The Monument to the Women of World War II stands nearby.

The Cenotaph, Whitehall, London, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens
The Cenotaph, Whitehall, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens

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The Cenotaph is the national war memorial, standing on Whitehall in London, close to the junction with Downing Street. The word 'cenotaph' derives from the Greek 'kenos taphos', meaning 'empty tomb'.

Its unveiling took place on the second anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I on 11 November 1918. That conflict, also known as The Great War and The War To End All Wars, lasted more than four years and caused loss of life on an unprecedented scale.

Every community across the UK suffered losses and it was not possible to repatriate the bodies of the dead back home. Instead, they were buried near the battlefields where they fell in France and Belgium.

However, few relatives and friends could travel to the continent to mourn at these new war graves. Moreover, around half a million of the war dead had no known grave. The need for a location where the bereaved could grieve and where the sacrifice of the dead could be honoured was powerful.

The first Cenotaph was a temporary structure of wood and plaster. It was unveiled the day before a victory parade that took place on 19 July 1919, just three weeks after the Treaty of Versailles. Although hostilities had ceased on 11 November 1918, it was only on 28 June 1919 that the Versailles Treaty formally ended the war.

The Prime Minister David Lloyd George wanted a focal point for the parade where the marching soldiers could salute. He asked the architect Sir Edwyn Lutyens to design a non-denominational structure. Lutyens quickly sketched his design, which was approved on 7 July 1919 and the monument was completed in a matter of days in time for the parade.

The temporary Cenotaph. An etching published in 1920,  By William Monk (d. 1937) -, Public Domain,
The temporary Cenotaph. An etching by William Monk (d. 1937)

(Above image: -, Public Domain, )

The temporary Cenotaph immediately became a focus for national mourning. It drew more than one million visitors in its first week, its base quickly becoming covered with flowers. A steady flow of people continued to visit it from all over the UK, with an estimated 6,000 people crowding around it on 11 November 1919, the first anniversary of the Armistice.

The decision was taken to make a permanent memorial.

Essentially to the same design as the first version, the Portland stone monument that still stands today is approximately 35ft (11m) tall and its base is around 15ft by 9ft (4.5m by 2.6m).

The permanent Cenotaph was unveiled by King George V at 11am on 11 November 1920. The ceremony formed part of the state funeral of the Unknown Warrior, who was buried in Westminster Abbey to represent all British and empire armed forces members who lost their lives.

David Lloyd George later said "The Cenotaph is the token of our mourning as a nation; the Grave of the Unknown Warrior is the token of our mourning as individuals".

Sir Edwin Lutyens was one of Britain's leading architects from the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. He designed country houses as well as public buildings, both in Britain and in New Delhi, India.

Lutyens, who waived his fee for the Cenotaph, made some small changes to the design he had used for the first version. The main adaptation was to add a very subtle convex curvature to the surfaces (known as entasis).

The vertical lines of the Cenotaph taper upwards and, if they were extended, would meet 1,000ft (300m) above the ground. The horizontal surfaces are actually sections of sphere centred 900ft (270m) below the ground. The effect of the entasis is to draw the eye upwards, eventually to the empty stone coffin at the top.

One of Lutyens's designs for the Cenotaph, in the collection of the Imperial War Museum. By Edwin Lutyens - Imperial War Museum, Public Domain,
One of Lutyens's designs for the Cenotaph, in the collection of the Imperial War Museum

Another, more visible, adaptation was to replace the real laurel wreaths placed on both ends and on top of the temporary structure with carved stone wreaths.

The only inscriptions on the monument are the words "The Glorious Dead" on both ends and the dates of the two world wars in Roman numerals.

The inscription on the Cenotaph's north face, Whitehall. London
The inscription on the Cenotaph's north face

The Times acclaimed the Cenotaph in 1920 for being "simple, massive, unadorned", although some critics have suggested that the absence of a figurative sculpture makes it too abstract as a focus for mourning. Others have criticised its lack of religious symbols.

What cannot be disputed is the Cenotaph's longevity and enduring position at the centre of national Remembrance for the nation's war dead. Its simplicity and lack of adornment or religious iconography has probably helped to maintain its collective appeal.

Lutyens' design for the Cenotaph influenced many other memorials around the UK and was copied in countries including Bermuda, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

After its unveiling in November 1920, the public reaction to the permanent Cenotaph was even greater than for the temporary structure.

In the first week, an estimated 1.25 million people visited it, flowers were laid 10 ft deep around it and Whitehall was closed to traffic. In the decades up to World War II, it was common for men to doff their hats when passing the Cenotaph, even if they were on a bus.

Looking south down Whitehall

On 10 November 1946, a rededication to include British and empire dead of World War II was unveiled by King Gorge VI. The Cenotaph has subsequently become the memorial to the dead of all conflicts involving the armed forces of the UK and the Commonwealth.

The Cenotaph remains the focus of an annual service, which takes place on the nearest Sunday to 11 November, to remember military and civilian servicemen and women in the two World Wars and later conflicts. Traditionally led by the monarch, the Prime Minister, other party leaders and representatives of the Commonwealth, the service is followed by a parade of veterans.


A short distance along Whitehall to the north of the Cenotaph, the Monument to the Women of World War II was unveiled on 9 July 2005 by Queen Elizabeth II as part of the 60th anniversary of the end of that conflict. Baroness (Betty) Boothroyd, former Speaker of the House of Commons, dedicated the monument "to all the women who served our country and to the cause of freedom, in uniform and on the home front".

The Monument to the Women of World War II , by John W Mills, on Whitehall, London
The Monument to the Women of World War II, by John W Mills

The bronze monument, 22ft (6.7m) high, was created by sculptor John W Mills. It depicts 17 different uniforms and working outfits to symbolise the jobs that women took during the Second World War. In addition to the armed forces, the jobs represented include nursing, police, welding, munitions workers and air wardens. The typeface used mimics that used in wartime ration books.

The Monument to the Women of World War II depicts a variety of jobs taken by women. Whitehall, London
The Monument to the Women of World War II depicts outfits for the many jobs taken by women

Walks available for booking

For a schedule of forthcoming London On The Ground guided walks, please click here.

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Nov 11, 2022

Very interesting Jonathan

London On The Ground
London On The Ground
Nov 11, 2022
Replying to

Thank you!

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