In London today, members of the Royal Family and a wide range of political, military and religious leaders lay wreaths at the Whitehall Cenotaph together with a large parade of veterans. Every year on the sunday closest to 11 November, the Cenotaph is the centre of a nation’s respect and mourning for its fallen men and women in the two World Wars and other military conflicts.
The Cenotaph on Whitehall in London is the official war memorial of the United Kingdom. It stands in the middle of the street between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department of Health and it has the words THE GLORIOUS DEAD inscribed at both ends.
It was built after WWI for the fallen of the British Empire in this war, but the monument commemorates everyone who has died in the service of the United Kingdom in all wars and military conflicts since then. The different types of service are represented by six flags on the Cenotaph:
On both sides there is a British Union Flag. They represent the fallen of the British Army and civilians who lost their lives in the service of the nation. The official, but non-ceremonial army flag, red with the badge of the British Army, is not used on the Cenotaph.
On the east side the Union Flag is flanked by a British White Ensign and a British Blue Ensign. The White Ensign represents the Royal Navy. The Blue Ensign represents the Royal Naval Reserve, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and other government services like, for example, the police and the emergency services.
On the west side the Union Flag is flanked by the ensign of the Royal Air Force and the British Red Ensign. The Red Ensign represents the fallen of the merchant navy and the fishing fleet.
The Cenotaph was designed by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. A temporary structure was erected on Whitehall for the celebrations following the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in the summer of 1919. The permanent structure which stands today was built from Portland stone and unveiled on 11 November 1920.
Following WWI, cenotaphs were erected in other cities in Britain and around the British Empire, e.g. in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. The word cenotaph derives from Greek and means “empty (kenos) tomb (taphos)”.
WWI ended on the Western Front on 11 November 1918 when an armistice was signed between Germany and the Allies in the railroad carriage of Ferdinand Foch, Marshal of France in the forest of Compiègne outside Paris. According to the agreement the armistice went into effect at “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”.
This date has been marked ever since as Armistice Day, but it is also known as Remembrance Day, Poppy Day or Veterans Day. Remembrance Sunday is held on the second sunday of November in the United Kingdom and in other Commonwealth countries. Here, from the beginning of November until Remembrance Sunday many buy and wear small artificial poppies to honour the sacrifice of the fallen and to support veterans in need of help.
On Remembrance Sunday 2017, Queen Elizabeth II will not lay the first wreath at the Cenotaph on behalf of the nation. This duty will be carried out by her son Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales. The Queen and her husband Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, now 91 and 96 years of age respectively, will watch from the Foreign Office balcony.