We walk or drive past a cenotaph almost daily because nearly every town has one, but could you describe it? Sure there’s a soldier on top, and you know where it’s located, but can you give more detail?
Recently while in another city I looked up at the cenotaph and thought to myself “Oh, that’s different from ours.” I was at a loss to explain how, but I knew the soldier was quite different. Then I started to wonder why?
Marking the end of the Great War, the British War Cabinet determined that a day of celebration would be held to commemorate the signing of the peace treaty (Treaty of Versailles) on June 28th, 1919.
The high point of the festivities would be an allied victory parade. The idea of the whole frolic was for the moment, to divert the public’s thoughts away from serious national problems and the casualties of war, and try to focus on a bright future.
The British conferred with the French to ascertain how they would handle their peace parade. From Paris came the response that they were erecting a ‘great catafalque’ and the troops would march past and salute to honor their dead. The catafalque was to be dismantled after the parade.
The British commissioned a prominent artist, Sir Edwin Lutyens, and gave him two weeks to construct a symbol of remembrance worthy of the reverent salute of an empire mourning its million dead. Originally the monument was intended to be a small focus of the Peace Day Parade. Because time was so short Lutyens only constructed the tribute from wood and plaster.
The public loved it, and it became a major focus of the day’s parade rather than just a minor inclusion. It gave the people of England a formal place to pay tribute to their departed. So great was their enthusiasm that they stopped and either bowed or saluted as they passed this structure. Immediately the base was spontaneously covered in flowers as tokens to the dead and missing from the war.
Prime Minister David Lloyd George and a representative of the French Government both laid wreaths.
There was public outcry when the monument was removed (for indeed plaster would not long endure Britain’s weather). The following year an almost identical cenotaph was made from stone.
Lutyens constructed a rectangular form 35 feet high with a slight stair step peak. The plain body has a simple carved 5 foot wreath on each end, and a smaller 3 foot wreath on top. The words “The Glorious Dead” are inscribed below the wreaths on each end. Above the wreaths, in Roman Numerals, are the dates of the First World War: MCMXIV – MCMXIX. There are no religious motifs whatsoever. At the base fly the flags of the British Army, the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, and the Union Jack. Its location is the Whitehall in London.
Cenotaph comes from the Greek words Kenos (empty) and taphos (tomb), or a monument erected in honor of those buried elsewhere, normally in remembrance of soldiers who fought for a country.
The erection of “monuments aux morts” inscribed with the names of the dead, and honoring unknown soldiers, actually emerged during the Revolutionary Wars of the 1790s. Each town’s monument was to be engraved with the names of those who had spilled their blood defending the freedom of the European Republic.
In May 1920 a special committee of the House of Commons recommended that permanent memorials be erected in France and Belgium to commemorate the exploits of Canadian troops in the First World War. Eight monuments were erected on selected battle sites. In Canada the government erected four national war memorials – two in Ottawa and one each in Halifax and Victoria. The Ottawa monument entitled “The Great Response of Canada” has uniformed figures of men and women representing all the services, passing through a granite arch of victory. This memorial was unveiled in 1939 and a service is held there each year to pay respects.
No community was untouched by the death toll of the First World War and monuments were erected in cities and towns from coast to coast. Smaller centers favored memorial fountains, towers, or monuments embellished with soldier figures of stone or bronze. There were no criteria, specifications or rules for the design of the tributes. Each town looked after its own.
Many likenesses of Lutyens original cenotaph have been erected as war memorials around the world. An exact replica was unveiled in London, Ontario on November 11th, 1934.
Palmerston residents started discussions concerning a tribute, and began collecting money in 1918. Their stone soldier memorial was presented to the public in December, 1919.
Harriston’s cenotaph was a little different style, with a bronze soldier topping a base which included side seating and a fountain at the front. It was unveiled in June 1921.
Clifford’s granite marker was erected in 1921 at a cost of $1,100 (restoration in 2010 was $7,400.) All three had further names inscribed following the Second World War.
There are nearly 6,300 war memorials in Canada registered under the Department of National Defense. Most were erected during the early ‘20s and occupy a prominent place in our landscape.
Roman numeral dates were added after the Second World War along with the names of the area soldiers killed/lost in the battles.
During 1916 the British government realized that some form of official token of gratitude should be given to the bereaved families. Little did they know then that the enormous casualties would mean striking over a million of the 12 centimeter bronze gunmetal discs. Because of color this commemorative coin, which was given to the next-of-kin of the fallen service men and women, was dubbed the Dead Man’s Penny.
From 1919 – l945 on November 11th, Armistice Day, a parade was held in every town and city and marches were made to the cenotaph where dignitaries gather for a somber service and lay wreaths at the base. After 1945 it was renamed Remembrance Day, and although most still observe the traditional November 11th, the British have changed their victory parade to the Sunday closest to November 11th.
Initially, the flags were changed for cleaning every 6 – 8 weeks with each flag being washed twice before disposal. In 1924 it was decided that all discarded flags would be sent to the Imperial War Museum which would redistribute them to properly accredited organizations.
By their very nature memorials commemorate the dead. One aim was common to all – to remember their names and actions so that future generations would not forget their sacrifice, and their deeds would not be in vain.
The greatest monument to those who fought is the freedom we now enjoy as Canadians.