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The national focus on the annual Service of Remembrance earlier this month was, as usual, on the Cenotaph, in Whitehall, London. Every year members of the Royal Family, senior politicians, representatives of the armed forces and other dignitaries gather there to remember the dead of two world wars and many other conflicts.

But did you know that the original Cenotaph, marking the end of the First World War, was only intended as a temporary structure, built in just two weeks from wood and plaster?

No sooner was the Treaty of Versailles formally signed on June 28th, 1919, than Britain began planning a victory parade through London. The date for this ‘Peace Day Parade’ was selected as July 19th – less than a month away – meaning a lot of preparations had to be hastily made.

This included erecting a series of temporary wooden monuments along the route of the parade, with the one for Whitehall only proposed by the Peace Celebrations Committee two weeks before the parade. Noted architect Sir Edwin Lutyens was invited to Downing Street to discuss the idea, with Prime Minister David Lloyd George first proposing a triumphal arch, mirroring the ‘Arc de Triomphe’ proposed for the corresponding victory parade in Paris.

Lutyens disliked that idea, and suggested it couldn’t be done in the two weeks available. Instead he proposed a simpler monument based on a ‘cenotaph’ – the world literally meaning ‘empty tomb’. It would be an oblong-shaped structure, rising in a series of set-backs to the empty tomb at its summit, and with large laurel wreaths mounted on each end. Because it was only temporary it was proposed to site it in the centre of Whitehall, a wide but busy thoroughfare through the City of Westminster.

Lutyens’ proposal was given the go-ahead and work began immediately on erecting the monument. Its construction owed more to the skills of theatre set designers than to actual builders, the shell created from a wooden frame, boarded over then faced with plaster. As the day of the big parade drew ever closer, there were doubts the plaster would dry in time, but on July 18th – the day before the parade – scaffolding and tarpaulings were removed and the temporary Cenotaph (pictured) was revealed for the first time.

Its simple and imposing form seemed to strike a chord with Londoners seeking a focus for their grief and respect, and almost immediately, wreaths and flowers began to be placed around its base. More and more floral tributes began to arrive, some from organisations and businesses, but many from individuals who had lost loved ones in the hostilities.

The original plan had been to dismantle the Cenotaph within days of the parade, but so many tributes were laid there that it was decided to leave it in place. Meanwhile a campaign grew to make it a permanent memorial to the fallen.

The Government agreed in principle, but felt it should be relocated from the middle of busy Whitehall. Again Lutyens objected, believing the monument and its location had been “qualified” by taking the salute of senior military leaders from all the Allied armies during the victory parade. Many backed his view and on July 30th, the Cabinet agreed the Cenotaph should be built as a permanent memorial in the same location.

The design of the permanent monument differed very little, except the laurel wreaths hung on the temporary structure and another placed on top were replaced with wreaths carved in stone. Cast in Portland Stone, the finished and permanent memorial was officially unveiled by King George V in a Service of Remembrance on November 11th, 1920, exactly two years after Armistice Day (pictured).

Standing 35 feet tall and weighing 120 tonnes, the Cenotaph cost £7,325 to build, equating to around £260,000 in today’s money. It bears a simple inscription to “The Glorious Dead” on each end, below the carved wreaths, with the dates of the First World War inscribed above the wreaths in Roman numerals.

The unveiling also sparked something of a ‘Cenotaph craze’ with similar memorials erected in cities around the UK and many far flung outposts of the British Empire. Several were designed along similar lines by Lutyens himself, such as the one in Rochdale, while others were derived from (or outright copies of) his original Whitehall design.

Now, in November each year, the Cenotaph is the setting for the National Service of Remembrance, and all from a wood and plaster structure created in a fortnight and intended to last no longer than a month.

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