Remembrance Sunday: The Cenotaph and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior

The Remembrance Sunday parade at the Cenotaph in London is a moving occasion that has been taken very much to many people’s hearts and souls. The first commemoration took place 97 years ago today at 11am on 11 November 1920. That first year, it was held on a Thursday, as that was the day of the week the anniversary of Armistice fell on. But over time, it was moved to the nearest Sunday.

From my book on the First World War, “Postcards from the Front”, here is the history about the Cenotaph and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.

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   In 1918, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the fighting finally stopped; the First World War was at its end. The Allies and Germany signed the Armistice in a French railway carriage within the forest of Compiègne in Picardy. However, for many British men and women still on active duty, their war was far from over.

   The first of the various peace treaties which marked the end of the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles, was not signed between the Allies and Germany until the end of Paris Peace Conference in June 1919. Further treaties followed with the Allies’ other former enemies: the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye was signed on 10 September 1919 (Austria), the Treaty of Neuilly-Sur-Seine on 27 November 1919 (Bulgaria), the Treaty of Trianon on 4 June 1920 (Hungary), and the Treaty of Sèvres on 10 August 1920 (Turkey). Until these peace treaties between the Allies and their former enemies were agreed and signed, British troops remained overseas and were not demobbed nor discharged.
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   During the course of 1919, soldiers were demobilised and sent back to Britain. After the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919, large street parties and community celebrations were held throughout the towns and villages of Britain to celebrate. The British Prime Minster persuaded the architect Edwin Lutyen to build a temporary Cenotaph (or ‘empty tomb’) in Whitehall for the nation’s July Peace Celebrations. Originally constructed of plaster and wood, the Cenotaph was unveiled on 19 July 1919 and was meant to remain only a few months. However, it proved so popular with the politicians and mourning British public that the Cenotaph was made permanent and rebuilt using Portland Stone. The permanent Cenotaph was unveiled at 11 a.m. on the 11 November 1920; two years after the Armistice was signed in a French railway carriage within the forest of Compiègne in Picardy. On the same day, the unknown warrior was brought back from the Western Front and transported with great solemnity by gun carriage through the hushed crowd-lined streets of London, past the King and his Generals at the Cenotaph, to be laid to rest within the hallowed walls of the ancient Westminster Abbey.
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“ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍The Great Silence London. Cenotaph unveiling and unknown warrior’s internment: The two minutes’ silence most impressively observed throughout the Metropolis on Thursday morning. On the first stroke of eleven o’clock all traffic and business ceased, and pedestrians stood bareheaded, and paid their silent tribute to the dead. The unveiling the Cenotaph and the interment of the unknown British warrior in Westminster Abbey were attended with impressiveness never before witnessed. Thousands lined the route of the procession. A Field Marshal’s salute of nineteen guns was the signal that the cortege, surrounded by all the panoply of war, had started from Victoria Station, headed firing party and the massed bands of the Guards. The King and the Prince of Wales, with the officers State, awaited the arrival of the body at the Cenotaph, which His Majesty unveiled, and the procession afterwards completed the journey to the Abbey. At the Abbey the body of the Unknown was laid rest in the presence of the King, the Queen, members the Royal Family, the Prime Minister and members the Government, delegations from the Houses of Parliament, representatives the Forces, and relatives of those who fell in the war. All telephonic and telegraphic communication in the country was suspended during the great silence. Services were held in many towns. At all the naval ports and military stations, in conformity with the King’s message. Colours were lowered half-mast, all work ceased, and two minutes’ silence was observed the Government servants and troops. The Union Jack was flown from half-mast at a good many business premises. “

From Western Gazette, Friday 12 November 1920

The unveiling of the permanent Cenotaph and the funeral procession of the Unknown Warrior, 11 November 1920.
The unveiling of the permanent Cenotaph and the funeral procession of the
Unknown Warrior, 11 November 1920.
The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey, November 1920.
The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey,
November 1920.

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‍‍‍‍‍‍If you wish to learn more about the Cenotaph and the burial of the Unknown Warrior, please join in the comments on my Facebook page, where we are currently discussing Remembrance Sunday and the history behind it.  Kate Cole’s Facebook Page

My book “Postcards from the Front: 1914-1919” is available from Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome, Amazon and various bookshops across the country.  Click on the link below to be taken to Amazon

Postcards from the Front 1914-1919

My talks on the Great War and local history are listed here: History Talks by Kate
My books are listed here: History books
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© Kate Cole / Essex Voices Past 2017

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