Learning Curve, The Great War
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Extracts from a document written in 1930 explaining the planning and building of the Cenotaph in London
(Catalogue ref: WORK 20/226)

The Office of Works called me into consultation and requested me to submit a design. I did so at once, and my original drawing, now in the Imperial War Museum, shows what the Cenotaph was like when it first shaped itself on paper before me. I called it a Cenotaph, conveying the simple meaning of an Empty Tomb uplifted on High Pedestal.


The plan was approved, and the Cenotaph, at first a structure of wood and plaster, was erected on its present site in Whitehall, where it figures in the unforgettable Peace Procession of July, 1919. Crowds began to assemble at break of dawn, many theatres were closed on account of traffic congestion, and no less than 1,500 officers and 15,000 other ranks had to camp under canvas to enable them to take part in that memorable ceremony.

The Peace Procession was scarcely over before the question of making the Cenotaph a permanent structure began to attract attention. The "Times" printed a letter, signed "R.I.P.", which stated: "The Cenotaph in Whitehall is so simple and dignified that it would be a pity to consider it merely as an ephemeral structure". …

…Time passed, and the plain fact emerged and grew stronger every hour that the Cenotaph was what the people wanted, and that they wanted to have the wood and plaster original replaced by an identical memorial in lasting stone. It was a mass-feeling too deep to express itself more fitly than by the piles of ever-fresh flowers which loving hands placed on the Cenotaph day by day. Thus it was decided, by the human sentiment of millions, that the Cenotaph should be as it now is, and speaking as the designer, I could wish for no greater honour, no more complete and lasting satisfaction.


"The glorious dead", the words I put on my original sketch, also survived unchanged. Prebendary Carlile, of the Church Army, suggested: "The souls of the righteous are in the Hand of God", from the Book of Wisdom, and there were other proposals for changing the inscription. All these throbbed with the heart-ache of sincere desire to render every homage words could express, and were inspired by the true ideal of great intent. But there was always the difficulty that the note of simple reverence for those of all creeds and denominations who fought and died in the Great War, which I tried to express in the Cenotaph, might have been strained to breaking point had an inscription been used which was more appropriate on an elaborate monument. …

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