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The Cenotaph, the Unknown Warrior and how we remember

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In the aftermath of the war, Britain needed a way to remember their fallen.

The Cenotaph and The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier would become the focus for the nation to remember, particularly on the anniversary of the Armistice.


The Cenotaph is a national memorial in London which was built to remember the dead from WW1, but over the years has become a place for us to remember the fallen from other conflicts such as the Second World War and more modern wars such as the Falklands War.

The word “Cenotaph” means “Empty Tomb” – this represents the fact that many of the fallen were never found or couldn’t be identified and so could not be buried.

The Cenotaph gives people a place to mourn and remember them.

It was originally built out of wood and plaster, by architect Edward Luytens in 1919, and unveiled as Peace was announced. It became so popular that the decision was taken to make the memorial permanent.

It was rebuilt in Portland Stone and officially unveiled by King George V on 11th November 1920, and soldiers saluted the monument as they marched past.

In the days that followed members of the public also filed past the monument and laid flowers.

Whitehall was closed to traffic for several days after the ceremony and within a week, it was 10 feet (3 metres) deep in flowers and an estimated 1.25 million people had visited it.

To this day, on Remembrance Sunday you can see troops marching past the Cenotaph, and wreaths of poppies placed solemnly by members of the royal family, politicians and other dignitaries.


The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier holds an unidentified British soldier who was killed on a European battlefield during the First World War.

He was buried on 11th November 1920 at Westminster Abbey, in London. At the same time a French unknown soldier was also buried at the Arc de Triomphe.

Because the war was so brutal, many of the bodies of the fallen couldn’t be identified. In 1916 an army chaplain called David Railton saw a rough cross marking a grave. In pencil someone had written on the cross “An Unknown British Soldier”.

He thought it was a good way to commemorate those lost who could never be identified and he wrote to the Dean of Westminster with the idea that such a solider from the battlefields of France should be buried with ceremony at Westminster Abbey “amongst the kings”.

The unknown solider could represent all the unknown fallen. The idea was extremely popular with everyone from the King to the common man.

Click here to find out more about the First World War!

The Unknown Soldier’s Journey

The remains of four men were taken from the battle fields and brought to a chapel at Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise near Arras, in France on 7th November 1920.

Covered with Union Flags one of the coffins was chosen by Brigadier Wyatt. The coffin stayed in the chapel overnight and then, transferred under guard to a medieval castle n Boulogne.

The castle library was transformed into a chapel for the night and there was a watching guard.

The next day two undertakers entered the castle library and placed the coffin into a casket made of the oak timbers of trees from Hampton Court Palace.

The casket was banded with iron, and a medieval crusader’s sword chosen by King George V personally from the Royal Collection was fixed to the top and surmounted by an iron shield bearing the inscription ‘A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914–1918 for King and Country’.

As church bells and trumpets sounded, the casket was brought to the harbour, whilst a thousand children formed a procession behind.

A flotilla carried the casket to the Western Docks on 10th November and the body of the Unknown Warrior was carried by train to Victoria Station, where it arrived at platform 8 at 8.32 pm that evening and remained overnight. A plaque at Victoria Station marks the site.

Click here to find out more about the First World War!

Remembrance Ceremony

On the morning of 11 November 1920, the casket was placed onto a gun carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery and drawn by six horses through immense and silent crowds. The route followed was Hyde Park Corner, The Mall, and to Whitehall where the Cenotaph, a “symbolic empty tomb”, was unveiled by King-Emperor George V.

The cortège was then followed by The King, the Royal Family and ministers of state to Westminster Abbey, where the casket was borne into the West Nave of the Abbey flanked by a guard of honour of one hundred recipients of the Victoria Cross.

The guests of honour were a group of about one hundred women. They had been chosen because they had each lost their husband and all their sons in the war.

The coffin was then interred, in soil brought from each of the main battlefields, and covered with a silk pall. Servicemen from the armed forces stood guard as tens of thousands of mourners filed silently past.

The grave was then capped with a black Belgian marble stone (the only tombstone in the Abbey on which it is forbidden to walk) featuring this inscription, composed by Herbert Edward Ryle, Dean of Westminster, engraved with brass from melted down wartime ammunition.

Beneath this stone rests the body
Of a British warrior
Unknown by name or rank
Brought from France to lie among
The most illustrious of the land
And buried here on Armistice Day
11 Nov: 1920, in the presence of
His Majesty King George V
His Ministers of State
The Chiefs of his forces
And a vast concourse of the nation

Thus are commemorated the many
Multitudes who during the Great
War of 1914 – 1918 gave the most that
Man can give life itself
For God
For King and country
For loved ones home and empire
For the sacred cause of justice and
The freedom of the world

They buried him among the kings because he
Had done good toward God and toward
His house

Around the main inscription are four New Testament quotations:

The Lord knoweth them that are his (top; 2 Timothy 2:19)
Unknown and yet well known, dying and behold we live (side; 2 Corinthians 6:9)
Greater love hath no man than this (side; John 15:13)
In Christ shall all be made alive (base; 1 Corinthians 15:22)

Click here to find out more about the First World War!


We remember the fallen from all wars at the annual Remembrance Day Service, which is now held on the second Sunday in November to make it as close as possible to the 11th November, the anniversary of the Armistice of WW1.

Part of the ceremony involves a “March Past”, where veterans, military personnel, and other groups and dignitaries march past the Cenotaph and salute.

Have a look at our Grandpa’s Memory Box series which explores the history and workings of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

And to find out more about war memorials where you live, visit the War Memorial Trust

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The Great War

The Great War - Life through a Child's Eye.

More From The Great War