Every year I lay a wreath a week early, because Blyth, my nearest town, was a submarine port. Submariners were banned from the first Armistice Day parade in Whitehall by a bossy admiral on the grounds that they were pirates who targeted civilians. In response they adopted skull-and-crossbones badges and arranged their own celebrations on the Embankment in London, and in Blyth and Dundee, a week before the official ones. The tradition survives more than a century later.
No other nation’s monument to the first world war caught the public imagination so quickly and deeply
The veterans who a decade ago would have memories of chasing the Bismarck or bringing a pet reindeer calf back on board a sub from Murmansk have now faded from the scene. This year I talked to one sailor whose last mission was to take a nuclear–missile boat out of Barrow on its maiden voyage in the 1990s.
For all the lingering irritation at that long-dead admiral, he would never defend, let alone contemplate, violence in the cause. He was angry at the prospect that this weekend’s ceremony at the Cenotaph might be marred by violent protests from pro-Hamas demonstrators – but he would never defend violence in that cause either. The insensitive decision to allow a stage to be erected right beside the Cenotaph for speeches at a previous pro-Hamas demonstration shortly after the atrocities in Israel hurt too. But not to the point of violence.
Yet the fact that people don’t behave violently does not mean they should be ignored. The Cenotaph is a sacred monument of a tribe, something that the Mayor of London and the Metropolitan Police need to remember and respect. Our reverence for the Cenotaph and for Armistice Day is, after a century, well on the way to becoming a spiritual, even religious symbol of peace for the people of this island, as secularly sacred as any explicitly religious tradition. That a national shrine should be under threat at all from protests planned this weekend about a dispute relating to land 2,000 miles away is bad enough. That some of the protestors seem willing to defend or celebrate violence on a horrific scale is utterly repugnant to people like my naval interlocutor. That the Cenotaph in Rochdale was vandalised, and its poppy wreaths damaged, is appalling.
Yet to call the Cenotaph a shrine is paradoxical because it is determinedly lacking in any religious symbols. The protestors should know that it deliberately puts the sacrifice of Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist and Christian on an equal footing. Its architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens, insisted on this, supported by the then prime minister, David Lloyd George, in the face of pressure from the Anglican church and some Christian organisations. Indeed, the creation of the tomb of the unknown warrior in Westminster Abbey, with Rudyard Kipling’s words ‘Known unto God’, was partly a reaction to what some felt was the ‘pagan’ nature of the Cenotaph’s design. Kipling also suggested the Cenotaph’s magnificently simple, secular words ‘The Glorious Dead’, with no mention of God.
The very word Cenotaph is pre-Christian, coming from the ancient Greek for the empty tomb of a missing warrior. The word was all but extinct in English till Lutyens revived it, remembering a remark made by Charles Liddell, the librarian at the British Museum, about a garden bench he had designed for Gertrude Jekyll: ‘It resembles the Cenotaph of Sigismunda.’
The austere simplicity of the Cenotaph’s design, an empty stone coffin atop a diminishing stone ‘pylon’, with no urn, statue, animal or obelisk, let alone a cross, caught the British public’s imagination immediately in July 1919, when a temporary structure was unveiled. Within days the government had commissioned Lutyens to make a permanent, Portland stone version, unveiled in November the following year. This time he included ‘entasis’ – a subtly pleasing curvature of the vertical lines as used in the Parthenon – and drew all the vertical lines so that they meet 1,000ft in the air while the horizontals are all arc circumferences of a circle centred 900ft below ground.
Within a week of Armistice Day in 1920, the new stone monument was surrounded in a heap of flowers, 10ft deep, left by crowds of ordinary people who queued for up to four hours. Thus does a sacred tradition emerge, from the people, not their rulers.
No other nation’s monument in the countries that fought the first world war caught the public imagination so quickly and deeply. Now, to have such a symbol of cross-religious commonality, such a monument to the importance of peace, threatened, even slightly, in the cause of religious violence, of hate and horror, is a travesty. Even to see the monument fenced off to prevent vandalism is to feel somewhat violated as a Briton. It leads many to question whether those Britons who show such disrespect truly share the commitment to peaceful co-existence among the living that the Cenotaph allows among the dead.
Lutyens was my great-grandfather, so perhaps I take this more personally than others, but I am far from alone in feeling that this simple stone block is as close as we can get to a national shrine. A friend who regularly attends the ceremony on Remembrance Sunday writes to me that the Cenotaph honours those who died for ‘the freedom to protest, to march peacefully, to say what we think, to call out wrongdoing’. He adds that any attempt to disrupt the ceremony on Remembrance Day would surely ‘undermine and diminish any cause the disrupters espoused’.
Therein lies a crumb of comfort. In 1933 a wreath was laid at the Cenotaph by a representative of Nazi Germany complete with swastika. It was thrown in the Thames by a veteran, Captain James Sears, who was arrested, charged and fined. For many people his actions missed the point as much as the Nazi wreath did.
The Cenotaph was vandalised in 2000 by anti-capitalists, in 2010 by student protestors and in 2020 by Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion protestors. In each case, it emerged victorious, silently and in dignity reprimanding them for their heartless divisiveness. As it will this weekend.