ROBERT HARDMAN: The Cenotaph, our nation's lasting shrine to the Fallen, celebrates centenary 

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Even the pigeons seem to sense that there is something sacrosanct about this spot. I am 50ft above Whitehall, looking at an instantly familiar sight

Even the pigeons seem to sense that there is something sacrosanct about this spot. I am 50ft above Whitehall, looking at an instantly familiar sight. 

Yet it is also something few people have ever seen: the Cenotaph – from above.

Sir Edwin Lutyens’s peerless memorial to Britain’s war dead was designed as an empty tomb resting on a tall, gently tapered pedestal which draws the eye to the sarcophagus of Portland stone on top.

Like millions of people, I’ve seen it more times than I can remember. But not like this. 

Up here, for the first time, I can actually see the great stone wreath – carved by sculptor Francis Derwent Wood – which rests on the lid of this solid stone coffin. 

What is striking is that this remains in such fine condition after 100 years of urban filth, not to mention the Blitz.

It is an annual ritual, in the build-up to Remembrance Sunday, that the Cenotaph receives a thorough once-over before the nation and the Commonwealth come to pay their respects, led by the Queen. 

This week, as we prepare to mark the centenary of its unveiling, I have been allowed to join the team.

The monument’s custodians, English Heritage, have brought in conservation experts who start with steam cleaning and then working their way through every last blemish and stain.

Climbing on to the ‘cherry picker’ elevating work platform, I fully expect to see the upper reaches splattered with pigeon mess. 

A few years ago, I joined the restoration team at the top of Nelson’s Column, and found the poor admiral caked in bird droppings. The Cenotaph, however, appears to have none.

Up here, for the first time, I can actually see the great stone wreath – carved by sculptor Francis Derwent Wood – which rests on the lid of this solid stone coffin

‘Perhaps the birds know that this is a place to be respected,’ says Kevin James, of cleaning contractors DBR. There may, he adds, be a more prosaic explanation. 

For several years now, the civil service has paid a pest control company to fly hawks over Whitehall to drive the pigeons away from Government buildings. Either way, though, the birds are less of a problem than one or two human passers-by.

For, to my disgust, it turns out that the biggest problem for Kevin and his colleagues is graffiti. I arrive to find the cleaning team preparing to erase some squiggles daubed on the north face of the Cenotaph. Within the hour, it has vanished.

The only significant sign of wear and tear is a small patch of filled-in stone on the north face, which English Heritage historian Steven Brindle ascribes to bomb damage during the Blitz.

When you survey the memorial from all sides, you gain an even greater appreciation of its simplicity. Here is a monument to untold suffering, yet, aside from the dates of the two world wars, it is engraved with just three words: The Glorious Dead. 

It has no angels, no crosses and nothing remotely triumphal. The only additions are stone wreaths and the flags of the Armed Forces.

More huge crowds turned up to see King George V unveil the memorial at the sacred hour – 11am – on Armistice Day 1920. It would be followed by the state funeral for the ‘unknown warrior’ at Westminster Abbey. A year later the Royal British Legion came into being and held its first Poppy appeal. Thus was the pattern set for all national remembrance since. People are seen outside the memorial in 1932

Yet its impact a century ago was simply extraordinary.

For the Cenotaph was not even designed as the epicentre of a nation’s grief but as a piece of scenery. After the conclusion of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the Allied nations agreed that there should be ‘peace parades’.

Prime Minister David Lloyd George had been struck by the sight of troops saluting a symbolic catafalque, the platform for a coffin, in Paris. He asked for a ‘prominent artist’ to produce something similar.

Celebrated architect Edwin Lutyens came up with a ‘cenotaph’ – from the Greek word for an ‘empty tomb’ – on top of a pillar or ‘pylon’ that would serve as a saluting point for the 16,500 servicemen who would march by it.

Lutyens’s design was speedily constructed from wood, canvas and plaster and unveiled with such little fuss on the eve of the parade that even he was not invited. The following day saw a completely unexpected phenomenon.

No sooner had troops marched past than grieving families rushed forward to project their own grief on to that empty tomb, imagining that it might somehow contain the spirit of a fallen loved one. 

They began to lay flowers around the base. In no time, they were 10ft deep. A press account records the heartbreaking words of one boy in the crowd: ‘Oh, Mummy, what a lovely garden my Daddy’s got.’

There were immediate calls for this to become a permanent memorial. Lloyd George needed no persuading. His government commissioned Lutyens to rebuild his empty tomb for eternity in Portland stone. 

It is an annual ritual, in the build-up to Remembrance Sunday, that the Cenotaph receives a thorough once-over before the nation and the Commonwealth come to pay their respects, led by the Queen. Her Majesty is pictured above laying a wreath

He deliberately omitted all religious symbolism. As Steven Brindle explains: ‘He had been out to the Western Front. He knew that the troops of the British Empire were of all religions and none.’

More huge crowds turned up to see King George V unveil the memorial at the sacred hour – 11am – on Armistice Day 1920. It would be followed by the state funeral for the ‘unknown warrior’ at Westminster Abbey.

A year later the Royal British Legion came into being and held its first Poppy appeal. Thus was the pattern set for all national remembrance since.

It is untenable to think of Remembrance Sunday or Armistice Day as a moment for celebration. 

However, this year at least, we might surely contemplate a respectful round of applause for those 120 tons of sacred Portland stone – and the countless men and women whom they honour.

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