The obvious thing to do at the Cenotaph is to stand and think about the war dead that it commemorates, though admittedly, on a normal London day, the traffic rushing past on either side of the monument doesn’t really make for a reflective environment.
Perhaps it would be worth trying to make your visit outside the busiest working times because, for Mark Connelly, reflection is required. “Warfare has been the crucial defining element for Britain and its empire in the 20th century. There have been only two years since 1945 that a serving member of the armed forces has not been killed.
“The Cenotaph is a key anchoring point of everything that the British people have stood for in the 20th century. While it was originally designed to be a temporary structure in wood and plaster for the 1919 peace celebration, there was such a sense of the need for something to grieve around after the bloodletting of the First World War that the monument was made permanent. It was unveiled in 1920 after massive public demand”.
To look at the Cenotaph, then, is to be taken back to the years immediately after the First World War, and a time when the nation was still reeling from the huge loss of life and the sight of scarred soldiers, lacking limbs or with disfigured faces, on the streets of London and throughout Britain.
The reality of war would have been a first-hand experience for those who saw the Cenotaph being constructed, and many among them would have found their faith in state and religion sorely shaken by combat on the battlefield. The Cenotaph designer, Edward Lutyens, appears to have taken that into consideration.
“Lutyens made something so simple so that it means anyone can project their own ideas and feelings on to it. Deliberately, it has no overt religious symbolism. It just has the words ‘The Glorious Dead’ on it, and merely hints at a concept of eternal life. However, to make sure no offence was committed, the inscription on the tomb was checked with religious leaders throughout Britain’s empire.
“The word ‘cenotaph’ comes from the Greek for ’empty tomb’, and that’s what it is – there’s no one buried under it. The comforting idea for the people of the 1920s and 1930s was that the dead had already risen and gone on to somewhere better.”
The lack of religious overtones, though perhaps in tune with the attitudes of many veterans, was controversial at the time. The Church response was to provide a Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, just a short walk away from the Cenotaph. You can go and look at that tomb in the nave of the abbey, and as you walk from one monument to the other, it’s hard to miss the fact that you are in Westminster, the heartland of government; the Houses of Parliament are opposite the abbey, while the road on which the Cenotaph stands has various Cabinet offices along its length.
This was deliberate, says Connelly: “What these two monuments do is basically turn the key legislative part of the empire into one massive war memorial. On the unveiling day in November 1920, King George V pulled the cord on the Union Jack that shrouded the Cenotaph, then fell into line as chief mourner behind the gun carriage that was taking the unknown warrior to the tomb in Westminster Abbey.”
Well over a million people filed past the Cenotaph in the week following its unveiling, continuing into the abbey to pause at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. The Cenotaph has remained a focus for national remembrance of military sacrifice, and every successive conflict has added its own patina to the national day of remembrance that is now firmly set on the anniversary of the First World War’s Armistice.
Clearly, the Second World War gave a new generation further cause for remembrance on 11 November. Even though there are no more survivors from the First World War to file past the Cenotaph now, the place continues to resonate as somewhere that, says Connelly, “forces us to think about what we’re doing now as a nation, and the kind of values we’re projecting through our armed forces”.
While you’re reflecting on that, and perhaps letting your mind wander back to the end of the First World War, perhaps think too about Connelly’s final observation: “The Cenotaph allows people to play a complex architectural game with themselves because although it looks like a standard ascending oblong that’s tapering, none of the points on it are perfectly straight – they are all parts of radials. Lutyens was a theosophist [one who professes knowledge of God by inspiration] and one of his big concepts was that things should be part of a circle representing the eternal cycle of birth, death and regeneration.”
Frankly, it’s pretty hard to see the circular trickery on the Cenotaph because the curvature was very slight to begin with and the edges of the monument have become worn over time, but if you can see spherical stirrings, then you’ve got Lutyens’ message, which is that the Cenotaph is ‘meant to be part of a circle that embraces us all’.
Nominated by Mark Connelly, professor of modern British military history at the University of Kent
This is an extract from the BBC History Magazine book 100 Places that made Britain, by David Musgrove, published on 2 June 2011.