The Glorious Dead
Country Life UK|November 11, 2020
This year is the centenary of the unveiling of the Whitehall Cenotaph on Armistice Day in 1920. John Goodall explains how this famous monument came into existence and became a fixture in the nation’s consciousness
John Goodall

ON July 19, 1919, a vast procession of 15,000 servicemen and women seven miles long wound its way through the streets of London, past a naval pageant on the Thames and saluted the King Emperor, George V, at the end of The Mall. It marched to the acclaim of an enormous and elated crowd. The so-called Peace Parade celebrated not only the end of hostilities in the First World War eight months previously, but also the Treaty of Versailles, signed three weeks before. It brought together soldiers from the nations, colonies and Dominions that had fought for the Allied cause during the conflict, from France, Belgium and America to China, Japan, Siam and New Zealand. There was only one important omission—the Indian contingent was delayed on its journey and paraded alone a couple of weeks later on August 2.

At one point, the triumphant mood dramatically subsided. As the massed ranks of troops marched down Whitehall, they passed a tall thin monument hastily fashioned from plaster, timber and canvas to look like stone. It rose by stages from a low podium to a surmounting tomb draped with a Union Flag pall and a laurel wreath. It is from this elevated tomb, honouring those buried elsewhere, that the monument takes its familiar name, from the Greek for empty tomb: the ‘Cenotaph’. Where the tall, dignifying base ends and the tomb begins is impossible to tell. To either side were fixed three standards and at each end was a further laurel wreath with the inscription of the date and the words The Glorious Dead. For the parade, there stood at the corners four sentries with their arms reversed.

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