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Cenotaph is unveiled in London

On this day in 1919, the Cenotaph, a monument to those killed or wounded during the First World War, is unveiled in Whitehall, London, during the first Peace Day celebration.

Designed and built by Edwin Lutyens, at the request of Prime Minister David Lloyd George, the Cenotaph (literally “empty tomb” in Greek) was initially a wood and plaster construction created in less than two weeks. Inspired by the example of the French, who were planning their own similar celebration for July 14, 1919, Lloyd George envisioned the monument as one small part of a whole day of events commemorating the Allied victory in World War I, which had ended in an armistice the previous November. In early July, the prime minister formally commissioned Lutyens, who was forced to design and construct a monument to mark the endpoint of London’s victory parade in less than two weeks.

Within an hour of the Cenotaph’s unveiling on the morning of July 19, 1919, onlookers had piled wreaths of flowers high around its base. The parade that day included Allied military leaders such as Douglas Haig, the British commander in chief; Ferdinand Foch, the Allied supreme commander during the last year of the war; and John J. Pershing, head of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) that served in World War I; along with some 15,000 Allied soldiers. In the florid words of the Morning Post newspaper: “Near the memorial there were moments of silence when the dead seemed very near, when one almost heard the passage of countless wings–were not the fallen gathering in their hosts to receive their comrades’ salute and take their share in the triumph they had died to win?”

Immediately, discussions began in the press and within Parliament over the possibility of making the Cenotaph a permanent memorial to the fallen. Some believed the monument–located in the middle of highly-trafficked streets near Whitehall–should be moved, though Luytens himself greatly objected to this proposition, believing that now that the monument had been “qualified by the salute of Foch and the [A]llied armies and by our men and their great leaders?no other site would give this pertinence.” On July 30, the British Cabinet decided that that Cenotaph should be erected again, this time permanently, at the same location.

The current monument, cast in Portland Stone, was unveiled in 1920, with a simple inscription commemorating “The Glorious Dead.” Each year, on the Sunday closest to November 11–Armistice, or Remembrance Day–a service is held at the Cenotaph in honor of British and Commonwealth servicemen and women who died during the two World Wars as well as later conflicts. Attended by the British royal family and political and religious leaders, as well as representatives from the armed forces, the service has not changed greatly since its introduction: it features the singing of hymns, an offering of prayers and the observation of two-minutes of silence, ending with a march of war veterans in a show of respect for their fallen countrymen.

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