20th Century
Frieze from the Royal Artillery Memorial depicting a heavy guns in action

Remembering the Fallen: Six London WWI Memorials

The dead of the First World War seldom came home: where their bodies could be found, they were laid to rest near the battlefield. Mourners in Britain, bereft of individual graves, needed a focus for their grief. In response, tens of thousands of war memorials were built across the country.

English Heritage cares for six of central London’s finest First World War memorials, including the Cenotaph – the centre of the nation’s remembrance every November. Together they reflect the impact of the Great War, while their fascinating stories reveal different approaches to commemorating the dead.

The Cenotaph, one of the most admired and copied memorials in the world. At the top is a closed tomb, surmounted with a large laurel wreath. The word ‘cenotaph’ derives from the Greek for ‘empty tomb’ – a fitting memorial for the dead whose bodies could not be returned home
The Cenotaph, one of the most admired and copied memorials in the world. At the top is a closed tomb, surmounted with a large laurel wreath. The word ‘cenotaph’ derives from the Greek for ‘empty tomb’ – a fitting memorial for the dead whose bodies could not be returned home
© Historic England (photo by Jerry Young)

The Cenotaph

Standing at the heart of Whitehall, the Cenotaph is the main national memorial to the dead of Britain and the British Empire in the First World War and later conflicts.

The present memorial is not the first on this site. For the London Peace Celebrations of July 1919, Sir Edwin Lutyens designed a temporary structure made of wood and painted canvas. When the parading troops reached the memorial, they saluted the memory of their fallen comrades.

The public immediately took the temporary Cenotaph to its heart. Wreaths and flowers piled up and close to a million people made their pilgrimage to it. ‘You could scarce see the Cenotaph for the aura, the halo, the throbbing air that encompassed it,’ commented the Daily Mail. So a permanent version in Portland stone, also by Lutyens, was erected in time for the Armistice Day parade of 11 November 1920. This also saw the procession of the Unknown Warrior on his final journey to burial at Westminster Abbey.

Lutyens’s austere and dignified design for the Cenotaph rejected imagery, bombast and religious symbolism. Its timeless, non-denominational form has ensured its relevance to all the dead of the Empire and to audiences ever since. Its message was one of the universality of grief and the human cost of victory.

The Royal Artillery Memorial from the south-east. The dominant 9.2-inch howitzer on the top of the monument is a vivid reminder of the role of firepower in the First World War
The Royal Artillery Memorial. The dominant 9.2-inch howitzer on the top of the monument is a vivid reminder of the role of firepower in the First World War
© Historic England (photo by Jerry Young)

Royal Artillery Memorial

This outstanding memorial on the western side of the traffic island at Hyde Park Corner dramatically depicts the horrors of modern warfare. Unveiled in October 1925, it commemorates the 49,076 fatalities suffered by the Royal Artillery in the First World War, in which artillery played an increasingly central role. 

The monument’s crowning feature is a 9.2-inch howitzer – one of the main heavy weapons of the Western Front – depicted in Portland stone. Below it, a frieze depicts scenes of the gunners in action. Around the base stand four striking bronze figures of gunners: a corpse draped in an overcoat, a shell carrier, a lieutenant, and a driver with arms outstretched.

The recumbent corpse is a rare feature on British war memorials, which the sculptor, Charles Sargeant Jagger (who had served as an infantry officer), insisted on including. At his suggestion the inscription below the figure reads ‘Here was a royal fellowship of death’, taken from Shakespeare’s Henry V.

Initial reactions to the memorial were mixed. The politician Lord Curzon described the howitzer as ‘a toad squatting, about to spit fire out of its mouth … nothing more hideous could ever be conceived’. But members of the regiment strongly supported its design, and it is now internationally recognised as one of the finest memorials erected anywhere after the First World War.

The image at the top of this page shows the memorial’s north-eastern frieze, which depicts a battery of heavy guns in action.

The bronze figure of a dead gunner at the north end of the Royal Artillery Memorial. It is the only major British monument to feature a statue of a dead man
The bronze figure of a dead gunner at the north end of the Royal Artillery Memorial. It is the only major British monument to feature a statue of a dead man © Historic England (photo by Lucy Milson-Watkins)
Derwent Wood’s figure of David standing above the dedication to the ‘glorious heroes of the Machine Gun Corps’ and two Vickers machine guns garlanded with bay wreaths
The Machine Gun Corps Memorial. Derwent Wood’s figure of David stands above the dedication to the ‘glorious heroes of the Machine Gun Corps’ and two Vickers machine guns garlanded with bay wreaths
© Historic England (photo by Jerry Young)

Machine Gun Corps Memorial

Standing next to the Royal Artillery Memorial, the Machine Gun Corps Memorial, unveiled in 1925, is at first sight one of the most perplexing of British war memorials.

The Machine Gun Corps was formed in 1915 to improve the deployment of machine guns. 170,000 men served in its ranks. It was disbanded in 1922, so the memorial is a tribute to a lost unit as well as to the many thousands of fatalities it had suffered. Known by some as ‘the Suicide Club’, this corps was not for the faint-hearted.

The noted sculptor Francis Derwent Wood was chosen to create the memorial. Its most striking, and seemingly incongruous, feature, placed over depictions of two machine guns, is an exquisite classically inspired nude statue of the young David holding Goliath’s giant sword. The biblical inscription below – ‘Saul hath slain his thousands / but David his tens of thousands’ – refers to the devastating killing power of machine guns.

Derwent Wood’s statue of David was once dismissed by critics as crass in its irrelevance to modern warfare. However, recent research has shown that he had good reason for choosing to depict an idealised human figure alongside the technology of killing. He was a pioneer of facial prostheses, and spent much of the war creating bespoke prosthetic masks to help disguise the wounds of disfigured soldiers. He was therefore better placed than most to understand the terrible impact of modern warfare on the human body.

The statue of Field Marshal Earl Haig, which stands on Whitehall facing the Cenotaph. The stylised depiction of the horse contrasts with the more naturalistic figure of Haig
The statue of Field Marshal Earl Haig, which stands on Whitehall facing the Cenotaph. The stylised depiction of the horse contrasts with the more naturalistic figure of Haig
© Historic England (photo by Lucy Milson-Watkins)

Field Marshal Earl Haig Memorial

Field Marshal Earl Haig (1861–1928) was Commander-in-Chief on the Western Front from 1915 to 1918, leading the largest British army ever assembled to eventual victory. He remains a controversial figure, because of the huge loss of life in battles such as the Somme, Arras and 3rd Ypres (or Passchendaele). 

Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin suggested erecting a monument soon after Haig’s unexpected death in early 1928. The sculptor Alfred Hardiman was chosen to design a realistic portrait, and he depicted Haig – a former cavalry officer – hatless, wearing an open greatcoat over his uniform, and seated on a powerful horse.

Haig’s widow had decided views on the representation of her husband and wanted a more naturalistic horse. Hardiman’s approach ultimately won through, but the complexities of agreeing on the design and manufacturing the costly statue nearly ruined him. The memorial was eventually unveiled on 10 November 1937. Placed close to the old War Office on Whitehall, it was one of the last equestrian statues of military commanders erected in Britain.

Some critics at the time took exception to aspects of the sculpture, such as the stylised horse, Haig’s stiff posture and his bare head. But it is now seen as a powerful example of inter-war classical statuary which strove to reconcile modernity and tradition.

The central bronze group of the Belgian Gratitude Memorial, representing a mother and two garland-bearing children
The central bronze group of the Belgian Gratitude Memorial (also known as the Anglo-Belgian Memorial or Belgian Refugees Memorial). To pay for the memorial, subscriptions were raised from Belgian troops, as well as donations from the Belgian royal family
© Historic England (photo by Lucy Milson-Watkins)

Belgian Gratitude Memorial

One of the most unusual war memorials in London, the Belgian Gratitude Memorial was unveiled in 1920 on the Victoria Embankment, opposite Cleopatra’s Needle. It was a tribute to Great Britain in recognition of the welcome extended to the thousands of Belgian refugees fleeing the German invasion of Belgium in August 1914. The invasion triggered Britain’s entry into the First World War.

The monument’s central feature is a fine bronze group depicting a mourning mother, representing Belgium, urging two garland-bearing children forward. In the words of the sculptor, Victor Rousseau, himself a Belgian refugee in London, she is ‘telling her children that Belgians will never forget their debt of gratitude to Great Britain’. Sir Reginald Blomfield designed the architectural setting, which includes figures of Justice and Honour and the coats of arms of the provinces of Belgium.

The London memorial reflects the impact of conflict on civilian populations, poignantly expressed through the fatherless family group.

The figure of Edith Cavell on her memorial, with the later inscription below
The figure of Edith Cavell on her memorial, with the later inscription below
© Historic England (photo by Jerry Young)

Edith Cavell Memorial

Edith Cavell is perhaps the most renowned woman casualty of the First World War. Born in Norfolk in 1865, she was in charge of a training school for nurses in Brussels when war broke out. She refused to leave when the Germans invaded, and soon became involved in an escape line for Allied soldiers and would-be recruits. When caught, she confessed to her deeds and was shot by a firing squad in October 1915. She quickly came to be seen as a martyr for the Allied cause.

Her memorial stands outside the National Portrait Gallery, just north of Trafalgar Square. One of the very earliest memorials of the war, it was commissioned soon after her execution and unveiled in 1920. Edith’s sister posed for the rather idealised marble figure of Cavell, carved by the renowned sculptor Sir George Frampton.

The memorial was unconventional in both subject and design. At the top is a seated group, with the larger figure, representing Humanity, sheltering an infant, representing the smaller states – it was for Belgium and Serbia that Britain had gone to war. The lion on the rear depicts British valour.

The quotation of Cavell’s final message, ‘Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone’, was added to the memorial later, when the National Council of Women lobbied to have a less martial note included.

Read more about Edith Cavell

Legacy

A hundred years on, the sacrifices of the First World War remain heartfelt. In their different ways, these six Great War memorials commemorate the universality of death, the harrowing reality of combat, the vulnerability of human flesh, victorious leadership, the sacrifice of the individual and the debt owed by civilians to the military. They still speak to us of individual and collective losses and act as a focus for commemoration.
    

The text of this article is drawn from Wellington Arch, Marble Arch and Six Great War Memorials by Roger Bowdler and Steven Brindle, published by English Heritage in 2015.

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