I wonder how many people know the history of these two significant and impressive memorials to those who fell in war.
Designed by Edwin Lutyens, the Cenotaph (meaning ‘empty tomb’) was first erected in 1919 as a temporary wood and plaster structure for a victory parade at the end of the First World War. It was to be temporary as it was thought that this parade would be a one-off. But the Cenotaph quickly captured the public imagination. Repatriation of the dead had been forbidden since the early days of the war, so the Cenotaph came to represent the absent dead and served as a substitute for a grave. Beginning almost immediately after the parade and continuing for days afterwards, members of the public began laying flowers and wreaths around the Cenotaph’s base: people needed to mourn their sons, fathers and brothers. So clear was this need for a visible monument, that in 1920 it was replaced by a permanent Portland stone structure, to the same Lutyens design, and designated the United Kingdom’s official national war memorial.
The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.
Many men who fell in the First World War were able to be identified and their bodies buried decently – which later became the responsibility of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. But what of those who had no known grave? Many men were shot to pieces, blown up, had lost their dog tags when found, were buried in the mud or were just on the wrong side of the line: the reasons for non-identification were endless. They were posted as ‘Missing’ or ‘Missing, presumed dead’. Their families were informed but there was no closure for them, not knowing if their loved ones were dead or alive, or where they were buried.
An army chaplain became aware of this and in 1920 suggested that the body of an ‘unknown comrade’ was sent home to the UK to represent the thousands of missing men. The idea was not popular with King George V who felt this was too long after the end of the war and might be seen as belated and insulting. However, the Dean of Westminster took the idea up, and with the Prime Minister on side, the king was persuaded. The burial was to take place after the unveiling of the Cenotaph on 11 November 1920.
The arrangements for the repatriation of the body were sensitive and complicated. It was vital that this body was truly anonymous. One body from each of the main theatres of war (Ypres, Arras, the Aisne and the Somme) were exhumed, each identified merely as a British soldier, rank and regiment unknown.
The four bodies were taken to a chapel at St Pol, each covered with the Union Flag. The officer in charge pointed to one at random and the other three were reburied in the military cemetery. The chosen body was taken by French military escort to Boulogne where it was placed in a coffin of English oak with the inscription ‘A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918’.
A medieval sword given by the king from his private collection was fixed to the lid. The coffin crossed the Channel on the French destroyer Verdun, accompanied by six British destroyers and was received at Dover Castle with a nineteen-gun salute. Troops lined its route to the train that took it to London. Crowds were on every station and along the lineside, the men bareheaded, the women in black: this was their son, their father, their mate.
— The Royal Family (@RoyalFamily) November 7, 2020
At Victoria it was met with a guard of honour from the Grenadiers, who also formed the overnight guard. The next day it was taken from Victoria to Whitehall on a gun carriage drawn by six black horses, led by massed bands with drums muffled and draped. On each side were top-ranking officers from the three services. The crowds stood in silence, many weeping. This was their time to mourn.
When the gun carriage reached the Cenotaph it stopped in front of the king who laid a wreath on top. On the first stroke of eleven o’clock the Cenotaph was unveiled and the first two-minute silence began – across the country and the Empire. The Last Post rang out, many wreaths were laid and finally the procession moved off to Westminster Abbey for the short but moving service. The congregation was made up of men decorated for gallantry and women whose husbands and sons were killed. The coffin was laid in the grave and the king scattered soil from France over it. After the blessing, a drumroll, soft at first, rose to a crescendo and then faded. The ceremony closed with the Long Reveille.