The Cenotaph: Imperial Artefact16 minute read

The Cenotaph is a war memorial that stands between Trafalgar Square and Westminster. Originally temporary in structure, since 1920 it has been a permanent fixture of the London topography. Located near other imperial structures such as Nelson’s Column and Admiralty Arch, and set locally to the Houses of Parliament, the Cenotaph is itself an imperial artefact in particular because it is a memory of Britain’s success in World War I and subsequent battles. It continues to be a location of remembrance as Britain’s official national war memorial (Greenberg, 1989), most significantly on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month each year, but more generally as an attraction for tourists and locals alike. To explore its cultural implications we must first identify what this means, given that culture is a term widely used but rarely closely defined. Despite much effort to offer a specific translation, there is a lack of agreement as to its meaning (Apte, 1994) and thus the notion of cultural implications is far reaching and can be interpreted according to personal experience. This essay will take cultural implications to be a complex interpretation of attitudes, deriving from experience, that influence and shape both society and individuals. Initially it will explore the installation of the Cenotaph following public support, before looking at the cultural implications of being an accessible memorial that attempts, but sometimes fails, to include the wide range of people who visit it.

Before proceeding, and to truly understand the cultural significance of the Cenotaph in today’s society, it is important to understand how the permanence of this memorial came about. Initially, it was one of many temporary structures positioned on the route of the Peace Day Parade in 1919 however, in the days that followed, people queued to place wreaths and pay their respects, so much so that the government decided to rebuild it permanently (Evans, 2007). What makes this memorial so unique is that “it was the people not the government who made it such an unparalleled object of respect” (Homberger, 1976). This is something that is generally not witnessed with other imperial structures given typically there is intentionality behind the deployment of culture (Mitchell, 2000) and not unusually as a component of economic value. For example, a number of the statutes of Victorian generals in Trafalgar Square have been subject to objection and resentment, with former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, famously calling for their removal (Cherry, 2006). This, he argued, was due to them not being relatable, or signifying anything and as such have “fallen out of living memory”. Conversely, the Cenotaph was constructed due to public demand, with a ready audience (Mitchell, 2000) who were not only receptive to its erection but in fact celebrating the message it carried and the memories it served.

Exploring this further, not only does the Cenotaph highlight that London’s public spaces were able to be shaped by those who used them (Driver and Gilbert, 1998) but it also allows for the integration of those in power and their people, confirming that “place can be a political project” (Massey, 2004). By positioning the memorial so prominently in the heart of London, the government were paying their respects to those who sacrificed their life for the country, and encouraging others to do so too. Each year, the Cenotaph is a place of remembrance on the Sunday closest to 11th November each year. This day (and the days preceding) are a time for the nation to remember and honour those who have sacrificed themselves to secure and protect our freedom (British National Legion) with thousands attending the service. Members of the Royal Family, Government and those from the armed services attend to pay their respects, which is matched by the public. Whilst not the fundamental aim of the Cenotaph, it does nonetheless allow the general public to witness and relate to leaders whilst translating the importance of communal recognition of what once was the British Empire, and continues to live on as the Commonwealth.

Figure 2: Remembrance Sunday at Whitehall
Figure 2: Remembrance Sunday at Whitehall

Referring back to Driver and Gilbert (1998) once more, we are reminded of their claims that whilst the people led the support of the Cenotaph, fundamentally it was still the politicians, and then-Prime-Minister David Lloyd George, who were able to control the city and shape Whitehall’s imperialism. However, in practice, this essay argues that the Cenotaph demonstrates the possibility that any individuals are able to shape the “urban experience” and instead sides with authors such as Stephens (2015) who claim that no single sovereign individual can be identified as the cause of a particular atmosphere: it is a requirement for the public to engage and encourage with the cultural situation to fully embrace it. This is demonstrated by the overwhelming mass of public opinion in favour of it at the time (The Herald, 1919) and the subsequent ongoing support that invokes an unconscious reaction (Crompton, 1989). Moreover, upon visiting the memorial, it was clear that it is a place that continues to be visited by tourists and locals alike who are grateful for its accessibility (located on a public highway) and the ease with which they can take time to reflect on the sacrifice over millions of people (War Chronicle) have made, not only in World War I, but also subsequent conflicts.

The next aspect of the Cenotaph worth exploring are the flags that retain a permanent placement as part of the structure. Until 2007, the flags were the Union Jack and then the Red, White and Blue Ensigns. What is significant about this is their use as the foundation of a number of other countries’ flags, particularly historically, such as Australia, Canada and India (The Oriental Herald, 1828). This use, and flying them so publicly at the Cenotaph, is a constant reminder and attempt to impose the ideals of power and provoke memories of Britain’s influence. Schneer’s book titled Imperial Metropolis (1999) reminds us that this imperial history is the direct cause of the capital’s cosmopolitan character, and it is the very essence of having controlled territories around the world that contributes to the diverse society of different backgrounds that makes up London. By referencing the ensigns, from which many countries base their own national identity, we are reminded of the unavoidable links to other nations that contributed to the “roots” of Britain and continues to remain today, confirming that “identity is never fixed or unitary” (Schneer, 1999). It is this fluid relationship of different languages, beliefs and situations that makes London a unique location for cultural fusion, as we are reminded by the different flags of the Cenotaph.

It may be argued that following 2007, when the flags were changed, this may have symbolised the end of Britain’s assertion over its empire, and even Commonwealth, however I propose this is not the case. The flags have since been replaced by those of the different sections of the British armed forces and this essay argues that in fact the change continues to serve as a reminder of the strength of the forces and the historical significance they have played in asserting Britain’s power in the world. By publicising the Navy, Army, Royal Air Force and Merchant Navy, the modern flags extend beyond the previous global effect of this power and may even serve as a reminder of the resources available to not only Great Britain but its Allies as well, and positioning them so visibly in the public sphere makes this very clear for people to see. Furthermore, touching on what has already been discussed, the Cenotaph is not only a place of tribute on one day in November. It is truly accessible at all times and used as the centre of memorial for other dates throughout the year, and most notably for other nations or groups. For example, with the Cenotaph positioned in the public sphere, and by allowing states such as Belgium to process as part of their own celebrations (Bonney, 2013), it has the ability to both influence citizens, but also allow them to shape their own beliefs. The inscription that reads The Glorious Dead is not overlooked by some authors including Crompton who argues that rather than using “Our Glorious Dead” (1999) this is an understated, but overwhelmingly inclusive measure to reference the different nations that should be captured by the memorial. Moreover, the British armed forces are one of the driving forces of the NATO military alliance which is an ongoing reminder of Britain’s past empire and present alliances. This unified organisation acts collaboratively today and thus the Cenotaph reminds us of these political and cultural ties.

Extending this nature of alliance, and referring back to the government installing the monument in response to the public support it received, the Cenotaph does not reference individuals’ identity or specific details in any way. It is worth highlighting again that the structure stands as a general memorial which seeks to link those in power with their citizens (Anderson, 1986), and allows each individual to relate uniquely. Responses are likely to be unique according to each individuals’ previous experiences and everyone may have different beliefs, conjured from the memorial, however ultimately, the Cenotaph reminds us of “traces of past in the present [that] survive” (Derrida, cited by Cherry, 2006). A stand out feature of the piece is that it may invoke an unconscious reaction, and something to which we are “predisposed to respond” (Crompton, 1999) which is once again, I believe, a unique feature of this plinth. Unlike other artefacts, the Cenotaph invokes immediate reflection and also a European discourse (Driver and Gilbert, 1998) due to its commemoration of the wars during the 20th century which had such a dramatic impact around the world.

Questions often arise surrounding the “power-geometry” (Massey, 1994) of different monuments in London and the potential exclusion or inequality they cause. Sometimes monuments may fail to represent different groups, however this essay proposes the Cenotaph is not in this category. Whilst naturally it is located in London, and pays strong recognition to British and Allied troops who lost their lives, it is simply one of many Cenotaphs or equivalent memorials around the world. It is thus that I propose it offers an inclusive reminder of sacrifice. We should not forget the “significations” (Harvey, 1992) that the monument may provoke to citizens of multiple nations. Whilst the British government had specific intentions for the memorial to commemorate its local soldiers, it should be acknowledged that it nonetheless may resonate on a different level with individuals and unwittingly it serves as a reminder to those that witness it. This argument implies that ultimately the reality of history and cultural implications associated are merely a social construct, that appeal on a case by case basis, without substantial or tangible reason. Whilst Harvey acknowledges that the significations vary, the intentions of the government were to commemorate those who sacrificed their lives. Looking at Mitchell’s arguments, we should appreciate that there are no “real” representations (2000) and instead maintain that it is a subjective dialogue.

A further consideration I would like to make in this essay is the role of religion and its subsequent cultural implications that may undermine the inclusive argument above. Whilst the Cenotaph is a state memorial and allows for individual interpretation in many aspects, it is nonetheless often associated with Christianity, especially for the Remembrance services that take place (Bonney, 2013). It is here that the cultural fluidity is sometimes seen to struggle, despite Lutyen’s specific aim that the memorial altar should “appeal to every feeling and denomination” (Skelton and Gliddon, 2008) and the attempts to de-emphasise the religious side of the occasion (The Times, 1919) it nonetheless exists and as a result has become a point of contention. Critics argue that because of London’s secular demographic, and with an ever decreasing Christian proportion (Bonney, 2013) it should not be the case that the Church of England is associated with it but rather the blank canvas should be upheld. As this essay has explored previously, the Cenotaph generally fulfils its aims to commemorate “men of all races and creeds” (Hanson, 2005) however opposition exists to its religious association. This discussion highlights that whilst London seeks to be an accepting and inclusive city, even with its imperial war memorials, it is still met with defiance in some regards, potentially highlighting particular cultural priorities that cannot be appeased through political efforts.

Previously I have looked at the ways in which society prompted the Cenotaph’s permanent installation and how it is interacted with on a regular basis in modern society, however finally I’d like to touch on the significance its position on Whitehall. Gilbert and Driver admit (1998) that the ceremonial core of the empire is located at Westminster and it is no accident that the Cenotaph mains such prominence local to Parliament. Whilst the public supported influenced the permanence, nonetheless “decisions from above” chose to locate it. Mace (1976) offers a contrasting view in saying that the area of Trafalgar Square and Whitehall are in fact sites of struggle by the very nature of the memories they allude to. Despite being the ceremonial centre it is nonetheless a place of “contested meanings” and by overtly upholding elements of the past in the present (Derrida, cited in Cherry, 2006) the government chose to highlight the colonial past and transmit what they consider a celebration which potentially fails to consider visitors to London who may not understand this message.

Figure 3: Showing the Union Flag, Royal Airforce and Merchant Navy flags on Remembrance Sunday
Figure 3: Showing the Union Flag, Royal Airforce and Merchant Navy flags on Remembrance Sunday

Finally, we should consider what the Cenotaph fails to include, beyond potential social groups. Despite the inscription The Glorious Dead and the flags alongside, the structure fails to reference any further details or inscriptions. Of course it serves as a commemoration and this allows people to interpret the tomb differently, however the lack of inscription on the tomb, as desired by both Lutyen’s and prominent influencers of the time (Bonney, 2013), can be argued to both include and exclude, as many cultural artefacts do. It is designed to be inclusive by not labelling it as a specific memorial to any one group to avoid causing offence to the many non-Christian nations of the empire who engaged in the conflict. This also means the Cenotaph now serves as a memorial for all dimensions of conflict including a multitude of battles, which may have affinity with different people. However in doing this it can be argued that it fails to incite a deeper and more prescriptive meaning or identify the true sacrifice that was paid. Some war memorials pay tribute by name or regiment to those who have lost their lives however the Cenotaph avoids this. Political aspirations may have been for it to be without labels, for which it benefits from only subconscious reminders of the empire, yet it also may be too vague to allow people to engage in a meaningful way, and not have the desired political impact, given its simple design. Ultimately, on reflection, I believe that the lack of further inscriptions is a positive cultural implication for society and one that was carefully considered at the time. Being one of the most public war memorials in the world (Harvey, 1992) the Cenotaph allows for unrestricted access, and holds a deeper meaning than just the First World War that it originally commemorated. In being more general and subject to individual interpretation, it avoids causing offence around what is already a sensitive topic.

To conclude, this essay has shown the difficult dialogue that takes place between those in power and their people. It is the “extraordinary public response” of the time (Greenberg, 1989) that makes the Cenotaph so unique and provoked the government to install a permanent memorial but despite this support also highlights the struggles faced by imposing an imperial artefact in such a public display. Beyond the implications of the public’s influence in erecting the memorial, the ways in which different groups engage with it was discussed, including how some may object or feel excluded. Further discussion should explore more deeply the World Wars and how those who have struggled as a result may respond very differently to this imperial structure and furthermore continue to refine the definition of cultural implications and how the Cenotaph influences these. Moreover, the cultural implications of Remembrance Sunday itself could be considered more closely to analyse the effects of this day.


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Fig 1 (header): Britain from Above – Alan McFaden. 2014. Houses of Parliament and Westminster. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 2 December 2016].

Fig 2: Wikimedia Commons. 2010. Wreaths Are Laid at the Cenotaph, London During Remembrance Sunday Service MOD. [ONLINE] Available at: https:// File:Wreaths_Are_Laid_at_the_Cenotaph,_London_During_Remembrance_Sunday_Servic e_MOD_45152052.jpg. [Accessed 1 December 2016].

Fig 3: Wikimedia Commons. 2010. The Cenotaph, Whitehall, London Following the Remembrance Day Parade in 2010 MOD 45153269. [ONLINE] Available at: https:// File:The_Cenotaph,_Whitehall,_London_Following_the_Remembrance_Day_Parade_in_2 010_MOD_45153269.jpg. [Accessed 30 November 2016].

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