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The Cenotaph, Whitehall, London

Cenotaph is a war memorial located in Whitehall, London. It began as a temporary structure erected for a peace parade following the end of World War I, but following an outpouring of national sentiment it was replaced by a permanent structure and designated the United Kingdom’s official war memorial. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, the permanent structure was built from Portland stone between 1919 and 1920 by Holland, Hannen & Cubitts, replacing Lutyens’ earlier, temporary wood-and-plaster cenotaph in the same location. An annual National Service of Remembrance is held at the site on Remembrance Sunday, the closest Sunday to 11 November (Armistice Day) each year. Lutyens’ cenotaph design has been reproduced elsewhere in the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Bermuda and Hong Kong.

The Cenotaph was originally a wood-and-plaster structure designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and erected in 1919. It was one of a number of temporary structures erected for the London Victory Parade (also called the Peace Day Parade) on 19 July 1919 that marked the formal end of the First World War that had taken place with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919. As one of a series of temporary wooden monuments constructed along the route of the parade, it was not proposed until just two weeks prior to the event. Following deliberations of the Peace Celebrations Committee, Lutyens was invited to Downing Street. There, the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George proposed that the monument should be a catafalque, like the one intended for the Arc de Triomphe in Paris for the corresponding Victory Parade in France, but Lutyens proposed instead that the design be based on a cenotaph.

The temporary wood-and-plaster structure had the same shape as the later permanent stone structure, and consisted of a pylon that rose in a series of set-backs to the empty tomb (cenotaph) on its summit. The wreaths at each end and on top were made from laurel rather than the later carved stone sculptures. The location chosen along the parade route along Whitehall was between the Foreign Office and Richmond House. The unveiling (described in The Times as ‘quiet’ and ‘unofficial’) took place the day before the Victory Parade. During the parade itself, those saluting the temporary Cenotaph included the Allied commanders John Pershing, Ferdinand Foch, Douglas Haig and David Beatty. For some time after the parade, the base of the memorial was covered with flowers and wreaths by members of the public. Pressure mounted to retain it, and the British War Cabinet decided on 30 July 1919 that a permanent memorial should replace the wooden version and be designated Britain’s official national war memorial. The announcement was made on 23 October 1919 that the Portland stone version would be a “replica exact in every detail in permanent material of present temporary structure.

The memorial was unveiled by King George V on 11 November 1920, the second anniversary of the Armistice with Germany which ended the First World War. It was decided not to dedicate the memorial, as not all the dead it commemorates are Christian. The unveiling ceremony for the Cenotaph was part of a larger procession bringing the British Unknown Soldier to be laid to rest in his tomb located nearby in Westminster Abbey. The funeral procession route passed the Cenotaph, where the waiting King laid a wreath on the Unknown Warrior’s gun-carriage before proceeding to unveil the memorial which was draped in large Union Flags.

Whitehall, along with other areas of London, was the scene of celebrations on 8 May 1945 when victory in Europe was declared in World War II. More formal processions past the Cenotaph took place during the London Victory Celebrations on 8 June 1946. The Cenotaph had been designed to commemorate the British Empire military dead of the First World War, but this was later extended to include those that died in World War II. The dates of the Second World War were added in Roman numerals on the sides of the memorial (1939—MCMXXXIX; and 1945—MCMXLV), and the memorial was unveiled for a second time on Sunday 10 November 1946 by King George VI. The memorial is now also used to remember the dead of later wars in which British servicemen and servicewomen have fought. The Cenotaph was designated a Grade I listed building on 5 February 1970.

Remembrance Services

The Cenotaph is the site of the annual National Service of Remembrance held at 11:00 am on Remembrance Sunday, the closest Sunday to 11 November (Armistice Day). From 1919 until 1945, the remembrance service was held on Armistice Day, but since 1945 it has been held on Remembrance Sunday. Uniformed service personnel (excluding fire and ambulance personnel) salute the Cenotaph as they pass.

Although the Armistice Day ceremony fell away during the Second World War, in recent years the tradition of holding a ceremony at the Cenotaph at 11am on 11 November has been reinstated by The Western Front Association, a UK based charity dedicated to perpetuating the memory of those who served in the First World War.

The first such modern ceremony was held on 11 November 1919, following a suggestion by King George V for a two-minute silence across the United Kingdom and a ceremony to take place in London. Thousands had gathered around the wood-and-plaster Cenotaph in Whitehall, where Prime Minister David Lloyd George walked from Downing Street to place a wreath. A wreath was also laid by a representative of the French President, and soldiers and sailors provided a guard of honour. There were also processions past the Cenotaph organised by veterans’ associations.

Annual remembrance services also take place at the Cenotaph on other days of the year. These include the regimental parade held by the Royal Tank Regiment on the Sunday following Remembrance Sunday. This is the closest to Cambrai Day (20 November), the anniversary of the Battle of Cambrai that was one of the earliest deployments of British tanks. An annual parade and service is also held by the Combined Irish Regiments Association to commemorate the war dead of the Irish regiments that were disbanded on 12 June 1922 after World War I. This parade is now held on the Sunday in June that follows the Queen’s Birthday Parade.

Other annual remembrances held at the Cenotaph at various points in the year include those marking the D-Day landings in Normandy in World War II, the Falklands War (and the Battle of the Falklands in 1914), the campaigns marked by Anzac Day, and services marking the first day of the Somme Offensive.

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