Water Lilies by Jim Harris



Corbyn and the Cenotaph


The first Cenotaph in Whitehall in 1919 covered in flowers placed by the public.


As Remembrance Day approaches, Labour Party supporters who regard  their new leader as something of a loose cannon, will be clutching their red poppies and hoping that Jeremy Corbyn does not commit another political faux pas. Will he attend the commemoration at the Cenotaph in Whitehall on  Sunday? After all, he seems to regard it as a symbol of Imperial pomp commemorating a war between declining Imperialist nations. It is said he once laid a wreath not to the war dead but to those he regarded as victims of police aggression. This time will he wear a white poppy if he does turn up?

I wonder, in fact, if Corbyn knows anything of the history of the Cenotaph. If he does then I cannot see why he should feel it his political and moral duty to break ranks and, in doing so, offend a great many of those people who regard the memorial in Whitehall as a place for national mourning rather than a triumphal structure. It is there not by government decree but in response to a spontaneous outpouring of grief in July 1919.

After the signing of the Treaty of Versailles which marked the end of the War and the surrender of Germany, a Peace Parade was planned in London. It was organised with great haste and a decision was made to place along the route of the procession memorial structures of some kind. The eminent architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, already working with the War Graves Commission, was asked to come up with a design. In Paris the French had decided on a catafalque, a figure above a coffin on a raised dais. Lutyens, Lloyd George and the ministers involved rejected that. A Catafalque was  Christian and the war dead included men and women of many other faiths. Lutyens came up with a design which was secular, austere and simple. The intention was for it to be in place in Whitehall for just two weeks. It was made of wood and plaster and would be taken down when the Parades were over.



However, within a short time the base of the monument was submerged under thousands of flowers placed by the public. Lutyens himself recalled: 'It was a mass-feeling too deep to express itself more fitly than by the piles of good fresh flowers which loving hands placed at the Cenotaph day by day. Thus it was decided, by the human sentiments of millions, that the Cenotaph should be as it is now'.


In 1920 the Remembrance Day commemoration was duly held by a Cenotaph built of Portland stone, as it is now. It is not a triumphal memorial nor does it represent one faith. It is understated and sober and, as one newspaper put it 1919 “ consecrated by the tears of many mothers.”  Without the demands of the public it would not be there now. Perhaps Jeremy Corbyn should bear that in mind as he contemplates his approach to Remembrance Sunday.

Brian Stewart

November 2, 2015
8:03 pm
This piece is a moving reminder of the emotional importance of the cenotaph and indeed Remembrance ceremonies in modern British life. It is hard to fathom how a leader of a major political party could be ignorant of the history and larger meaning of Lutyens remarkable creation.
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