As most Londoners will tell you, when you spend a lot of time in and around town rarely do you visit the sites that London is famous for. Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge, the London Eye etc are all part of the city’s furniture, fading into the background as we rush about from A to B, cursing those who dawdle on Oxford Street or stand on the wrong side of the escalators. Yet, whenever I pass by The Cenotaph, I’ve always found myself at the very least, giving it a thoughtful glance. Even at a young age, I would look up at the seemingly endless face of Portland stone, aware it was something to be revered, although unable to fully understand why or what it really meant.
Much has been written about the origins of The Cenotaph – the political and religious controversies surrounding its secular design, its temporary turned permanent construction, Edwin Lutyens’ careful use of entasis… it is a source of endless fascination and understanding why it is popular is of particular interest to me.
The First World War was unique to the conflicts which had gone before it in many ways, and its aftermath was no exception. Never before had the people of Europe had to deal with grief and loss on such a scale, and when I say loss – I mean the physical loss of loved ones in addition to their deaths. ‘The Missing’ is a phrase used often in FWW discussions and it is central to the debate on the ‘cult of the 11%’. Never before had nations had to deal with the impact of not just a large number of deaths through war, but a large number of bodies never to be found. Organised religions creaked under the strain of providing spiritual answers and comfort for those seeking it. People were unable to complete religious rituals of death demanded by their faiths or go through the traditional cathartic motions associated with grief. Were these men who ‘made the greatest sacrifice’ doomed to purgatory, or worse, hell? These were very real concerns for the families left behind. As it became apparent that the bodies of the 100,000’s men across the countries of Europe were ‘lost’, a chasm in the spiritual well being of nations was opened.
It was through the need to fill this void that the war memorial as we know it today was born. Without the closure afforded to loved ones by funeral and burials rituals, a search for transcendence began. There was a need for contact, in some cases, people explored this literally with a rise in spiritualism and its associated practises such as seances, but the need for contact was also fulfilled simply through acts of commemoration.
One only needs to visit Thiepval, the Menin Gate, Tyne Cot or even a loved ones grave to realise the emotional power that a name inscribed in stone has. It represents a permanent connection between those who have died and those who live and mourn. This phenomenon was pivotal in the commissioning of war memorials throughout Europe. Political and financial discussions began on local and national scales a like, these factors had a strong influence on memorial design – an obelisk or Celtic cross was cheaper to make than commissioning a statue of a soldier or allegorical scene for example. With struggling post-war economies and most memorials funded by local donations, it isn’t surprising that many memorials take the basic form of the above in the UK (and in France the rooster is common, another simple design). There was also a need for inclusivity in war memorials, after all, death united all – rich, poor, religious, secular – so in turn, there was a general feeling that memorials should reflect this. One of the reasons why The Cenotaph was and continues to be so popular I believe, is simply that it addresses this democracy of memorialisation so well. It is a blank canvas which in its pure form – impressive in size and seemingly simple in structure invokes a bold and universal sense of permanence that unites all. Yet in its imagined form for the mourner, this blank canvas can be painted to fulfil the commemorative needs of the individual. Wives and parents saw their husbands and sons returned, immortalised in one of the most significant areas of London.
As this war generation aged, the memorials became tools with which to teach younger generations – symbolic of the phrase ‘never again’. The ‘war to end all wars’ rhetoric became imprinted on the memorials, because memorials though cast in stone, are fluid. They as much a reflection of the values of the people who surround them at any one point in time as those who conceived and built them. So here is another idea – The Cenotaph’s blank canvas is timeless. Its basic form allows for its meaning to shift more than many other monuments, it has come to represent ideals and beliefs today that were in many ways very different to those of 1919 – collectively and individually.
For me, The Cenotaph can be imagined as a force. A force for commemoration, remembrance, sadness, family, hope, love, loss, fear, pride – to some perhaps even shame. This force is universal and yet extremely personal, and I see it as a piece of thread, woven into the fabric of our society’s history since the end of the FWW. You can trace it back to the first stitch in 1919, through the colours and changes in pattern of the past 100 years. Where the fabric ends today, the thread dangles loose, waiting to be shaped with the designs of the future. In itself, it will not change. In some patterns you will see its line clearer than in others, in the 1920s it is central to the design, it shines out with all else shaped around it, in later decades it appears completely lost, but it is there.
When I visit The Cenotaph, I watch the world go by and sometimes I wonder how many other people stop and ruminate on its meaning, but somehow I do not worry about it being forgotten, it can’t, it will always serve its purpose – not necessarily one of remembrance, but almost certainly always one of reflection.