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A guest post by LH Member Simon Fowler. Republished from this month’s members’ newsletter. Normally we leave a long interval before doing this. Simon looks at the vast crowds of mourners who thronged Whitehall in November 1920 to pay their respects to the fallen of the First World War.
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During November 1920, hundreds of thousands of sombrely clad men and women patiently shuffled down Whitehall past the Cenotaph and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier mourning the death of loved ones who had fallen on the battlefields.

How could there not have been such scenes? Perhaps three million families had been directly affected in some way by the war. And if not, almost everybody would have known families where men fell on the Western Front or elsewhere.

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Crowds and queues, as reported in the Illustrated London News.

In modern terminology writers of the time suggested that the very act of passing the Cenotaph and the Tomb might in some miraculous way offer closure to the grieving. And for some this was undoubtedly the case. The historian Andrea Hetherington suggests that: ‘The popularity of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior showed the need amongst many of the bereaved for some kind of ceremony analogous to a funeral for their own missing relative.’

Thursday 11 November 1920, a fine but misty day, saw the unveiling of two memorials in the Imperial heart of London, dedicated to those who had been killed during the recent conflict. The Cenotaph, in Whitehall, was dedicated to ‘Our Glorious Dead’ or what a contemporary newsreel called ‘the Shrine to our Soldier’s Souls’, while the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in the West Nave of Westminster Abbey, as the name suggests, was dedicated to those servicemen who had no known grave.

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Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. Wikimedia Commons.

Both were the result of an overwhelming desire by the public for a permanent and national focus for their grief. This took two competing forms: an austere non-denominational memorial designed by the most eminent architect of the age, and a tomb inside the Anglican church’s most famous place of worship.

Three weeks after the signing of the Peace Treaty with Germany, Britain celebrated the successful conclusion of the Great War with a public holiday: Peace Day on 19 July 1919. The centrepiece of the celebrations was a procession of troops from the victorious nations along the Mall marching past the King at the Victoria Memorial outside Buckingham Palace. But for many the highlight of the procession was the Cenotaph memorial in Whitehall, where the marchers turned their eyes towards it and saluted as they marched past as a mark of respect to the deceased.

The Cenotaph was a last-minute addition erected over the objections of the Prime Minister, who feared it reeked too much of Catholic symbolism for the tastes of the staunchly Protestant British people. The monument was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, seemingly almost on the back of an envelope, although in fact he had already been working on it for some time.

The temporary structure – made from plaster and wood – immediately became popular with the public, in the way that few other buildings or memorials ever have. It clearly met an unexpressed need for a national place for remembrance. Within an hour of the unveiling the Illustrated London News reported that: ‘A little group of bereaved relatives of ones in the war gathered…and laid at its base their tribute to “The Glorious Dead”. Their wreaths remained all the while the great pageant passed by, silent witnesses to the private grief that all underlies all public rejoicings over Victory.’

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Not much to look at, but a piece of wood from the original temporary Cenotaph. Property of the Rifles’ drill hall. Image: Mike Paterson.

Over the next few days tens of thousands of bunches of flowers and wreaths were placed on the monument by those still grieving for their lost sons and husbands. A large majority of the mourners, but certainly not all, were women dressed in black. The Press said that they were largely mothers. Again, this was a simplification. Fathers, sisters and widows grieved as much, but this did not suit the sentimental message that the Press wanted to advance. They came to Whitehall because their sons and husbands, nephews and cousins, had no resting place close to home. And very few would be able to journey to the new war graves cemeteries being constructed in France and elsewhere.

Within two days of the unveiling a letter appeared in The Times calling for the monument ‘to be retained either in its present form or rendered in granite or stone…’ Despite concerns from Westminster Council about the danger to traffic from its location in the middle of Whitehall, the Cabinet agreed to erect a permanent ‘replica of the present design’ on the same site, otherwise: ‘…the monument itself would lose its appropriateness having been designed for a special position and for a special occasion.’

To the surprise of the authorities, on Armistice Day in 1919, Whitehall huge crowds, gathered at the Cenotaph, which was now looking rather tatty. The Times reported that at the first stroke of Big Ben announcing the hour of eleven: ‘Here and there an old soldier could be detected slipping unconsciously into the posture of attention.’ There was a sudden sharp sound of a woman’s sob, and The Times reporter saw ‘streaming eyes of all too many man’ which attested to the ‘genuineness of the moment.’

Exactly a year later, on Armistice Day 1920, the ‘Unknown Warrior of the Great War’ was laid to rest at the end of the West Nave in Westminster Abbey. At the same time the Cenotaph, rebuilt in Portland Stone, was rededicated by the King.

But for many the most memorable feature was the ever-lengthening queue of women dressed sombrely in black or grey who snaked all the way down Whitehall from Trafalgar Square to Westminster Abbey. The Press again assumed that they were largely mothers mourning their sons, but there is little evidence to suggest that this was actually the case. Many must have been widows of the fallen. But as the Daily Mail noted that among them ‘were a few fathers, with grey moustaches and grey hair and an air of proud grief.’ Also found queuing were groups of veterans who had brought wreaths in memory of fallen comrades. The Times reported that thousands of employees at the Slough Motor Depot contributed a penny each towards a wreath to be placed on ‘the grave of the unknown warrior.’

Perhaps a hundred thousand passed the Cenotaph on Armistice Day itself with hundreds of thousands more during the days following. Many mourners brought wreathes or bunches of flowers to lay at the Cenotaph. Surviving photographs show that the memorial was almost overwhelmed by flowers, and the authorities became concerned about clearing the huge pile of rotting blooms. The Manchester Guardian described how: ‘The women in the crowd with flowers raised them above their heads so that they could be helped to get into the road and so one saw all along Whitehall the black mass suddenly blooming in white blossom like hedgerows in April.’

Perhaps half a million men and women over the following weekend walked down Whitehall with another half million by the end of November. The queue started forming before 7am and the police sent home those who still waiting to pay their respects in the early evening. They came from all over Britain and seemingly from all social classes. It was calculated that at its peak, 170 people per minute were passing the Cenotaph to pay their respects, while ‘many thousands…who contented themselves with walking more quickly along the pavement saluting the Cenotaph from that distance.’ The queue started at Charing Cross station and was marshalled by the police, although no trouble at all was reported by the newspapers.

There seems to have been little awareness in their minds of the mourners about the different representations of the fallen at the Cenotaph – for all who had died during the war – and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey – commemorating those who had no known last resting place. Perhaps this was reinforced by the fact that there was no separate queue for the Abbey. Not everybody who paid their respects at the Cenotaph visited the Tomb, but a very large number seem to have done so.

By the end of November 1920, it was estimated that one and a half million people had visited the Abbey to pay their respects at the Grave. The emotional outpourings far exceeded those for Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997. Rita Strauss, of the Daily Graphic, interviewed some of the women as they queued along Whitehall waiting to go into the Abbey. One was: ‘A girl of 21, who didn’t look more than 16, and whose husband had been killed just before the Armistice [said] “I’m going to put my wreath on the Unknown Soldier’s grave and if I’ve got to wait here all day I’ll do it in the end.”’

The British took the Cenotaph – simple, unreligious and austere – to its heart in the way that they rarely have done for other buildings or memorials. In thanking Lutyens for his work, the Prime Minister wrote a few days after the rededication that: ‘The Cenotaph by its very simplicity fittingly expresses the memory in which the people hold all those who so bravely fought and died for their country. How well it represents the feeling of the nation has been manifested by the stream of pilgrims who have passed the Cenotaph during the past week.’

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The Cenotaph in 2016. Image: Mike Paterson.

The Cenotaph suited the national mood in a way that the more religious Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in the end did not. And as memories of the missing men faded, so did the importance of the Tomb. Now tourists in Westminster Abbey just glance at it, or perhaps stop to read the inscription, as they shuffle past.

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Simon Fowler is a long-standing member of London Historians. His book on the Missing of the Great War will be published by Amberley Books during 2021.

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