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The Greatest, Saddest Cenotaph Ceremony

The Cenotaph ceremony held every year on Remembrance Sunday has become one of the most familiar and hallowed events in the British calendar. The nation, represented by its political, religious and military leaders as well as hundreds of veterans, gathers in London’s Whitehall to lay wreaths at the foot of the Cenotaph monument, led by the national mourner-in-chief, Her Majesty the Queen, and other members of the Royal Family. The ceremony is simple but powerful, and in such guise it has held the nation in a spell for almost 100 years. And yet, this revered tradition as performed today pales in emotional comparison with the first Cenotaph ceremony performed in 1920.

The first Remembrance Day was held in 1919, one year after the First World War ended. The ceremony, however, was only provisional on that first occasion, with a temporary cenotaph erected in Whitehall and an equerry placing a wreath on behalf of the King and Queen. It wasn’t until 1920 that the present ceremony took shape, after the present Cenotaph was built and when the Unknown Warrior—the body of a nameless soldier found on a battlefield in France, meant to symbolize all the British fallen—was repatriated to Britain. These symbols of military sacrifice were jointly honoured on 11 November 1920 when the Cenotaph monument was officially unveiled and the Unknown Warrior was given his official burial in Westminster Abbey. It was on this hauntingly sad day that the present Remembrance Day rituals were born, led at the time by the Queen’s grandfather, King George V.

What follows below is an account of the events of the day as reported in The Times (of London) newspaper the day afterwards, 12 November 1920, in a special commemorative edition (see photo below). The account rendered is composed of excerpts from different articles found in that day's edition. It includes a description the journey of the Unknown Warrior from Victoria Station to Whitehall, the ceremony held at the Cenotaph, and the subsequent burial of the Warrior in Westminster Abbey. The full articles can be read at The Times Digital Archives website (those living in the UK can access the site free via their local library website with a library card).

The special supplement to The Times of London for 12 November 1920


The account of the day's events began with a description of the Unknown Warrior’s coffin resting at Victoria Station, and its departure on its last journey:

" Day found the Unknown Warrior sleeping where night had left him, in his funeral coach at Victoria Station…Yesterday in little silent groups they approached the draped coach and raised their hats and sighed and walked away. Perhaps when seven days’ leave or a puff of gas or a bullet had brought them respite in the years of fighting they had come to this spot, with him they saluted their party. But yesterday even the sentries were not so still as he. And the stillness that held these guardsmen—their head bowed, their arms reversed—clung about the funeral coach, about the Unnamed Dead."

" Soon came the gun-carriage, drawn by six horses, wearing their war colours. It was swiftly brought into position, and then the funeral coach, with its wreaths of laurel and purple drapings, was moved slowly up the line until it stood precisely opposite the gun-carriage…The doors of the coach stood open, and the Union Jack that covered the coffin could be dimly seen, with here and there the cold whiteness of a flower gleaming through the shadows….The calm was split by a cry: “Bearer party—‘tion—quick march!’. An interval passed while the men of the Grenadiers entered the coach. Another interval, and then they returned bearing on their shoulders a dead comrade. Admirals and Field Marshals saluted as he passed by; the Firing Party swung their arms to the slope and to the present, and then, as the coffin was secured on the carriage, to the reverse…The pallbearers ranged themselves on either side of the coffin, and as the gun carriage began to move, the drums of the massed bands rolled out the first deep sigh of Chopin’s Funeral March. It was as if his watching countrymen relaxed at last their hold upon their tears, as the Warrior was borne away to burial."

The funeral carriage of the Unknown Warrior in London Victoria Station, with the Union Jack-draped coffin visible inside. Photo: Imperial War Museum collection.

As the Unknown Warrior began his last journey through London, The Times noted the items resting on the coffin that all to see: a military helmet, a belt and a weapon, used as honourable insignia like crown, sceptre and orb are used on the coffins of monarchs during state funerals. The procession travelled up from Victoria Station to Hyde Park Corner, then down towards The Mall, passing through countless crowds.

" The slow procession drew out under the western arch of the station into the kindly sunshine of a mellow day—and in the midst of many men—each by the mysterious and indefinable bonds of comradeship bound to that flag-covered coffin, with its steel helmet, its belt and bayonet—the Warrior, now for all dead warriors, honoured, was carried for the world to see his glory and to show its pride and grief."

" In Hyde Park the guns were firing a Field Marshal’s salute. The column passed into the Grosvenor Gardens between ranks, thousands strong of silent people—people who crowded pavements, roofs and windows and flowed in dense, packed masses up side streets and every open space…Behind the coffin was a long river of men that changed in colour from dark blue to turbid yellow and brown, and then to slate colour, and at last was all flecked with greys and blacks. First it was a stream of sailors, officers and men of the Royal Navy and the Mercantile Marine. Next, soldiers all in khaki, save for one or two Indians in their white turbans. Next were the slate-coloured airmen, and last the men who had been sailors or soldiers or airmen, and were so no longer. A few were in uniform. The others wore all sorts of clothes…not a few went limping with walking sticks to help them."

" [There were] dark lines in the Mall, seeming from a distance so symmetrical that they might almost be ranked; [ then there was] the conglomerate mass of humanity in Trafalgar Square, spreading its fringes down every avenue of approach; the climbers at the base of Nelson Column; the people at the windows and on the roofs…Down the long Mall came the procession, under the Arch, and disappeared in Whitehall."

The funeral procession of the Unknown Warrior passing through London, 11 November 1920. (Getty Pictures).


The set-up used for the ceremony in Whitehall in 1920 was almost exactly the same one that is used today. When The Times mentions the Home Office building below, it is actually referring to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office building that is used for the ceremony today. Until after the Second World War the building housed both government departments.

" Long before 10 o’clock Whitehall and Parliament Street were lined through all their length with the packed mass of selected spectators; a silent, strange, orderly crowd, chiefly composed of women in mourning, and one woman in every five or six carrying a great bunch or wreath or cross of white chrysanthemums in her arms…On either side of the Home Office door, very conspicuous against the sombre crowd, stood massed the Abbey choir in white surplices. Before them, in mid-roadway, rose the Cenotaph, shrouded in the flags—scarlet and white and blue—in the wide open space…A series of windows on the first floor of the Home Office, reserved for Royal spectators, was banked with purple."

" Never surely, can so large a crowd have waited in such silence, so that even a cough or the clatter of the restless horse of a distant mounted policeman sounded strangely loud. Then, out of the silence grew, as if suddenly far off, the sobbing music of the funeral march. From up by Trafalgar Square it came, but from the neighbourhood of the Cenotaph one could see nothing. Infinitely sad and faint it sounded at first, rising somewhere out of the mist above which only one thing—the figure of Nelson—stood clear-cut against the sky. Slowly—how slowly!—it drew nearer and, to the ringing words of command, company by company, the troops lining the roadway reversed arms."

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The scene at the Cenotaph, before its unveiling, on 11 November 1920. Photo from the Imperial War Museum Collection.

Note below that for this first ceremony King George V and the Royal Family stood on the opposite side of the Cenotaph from where Queen Elizabeth II and the Royal Family have been standing during this reign.

" It was 20 minutes to 11 when out from the Home Office door came the King. Walking reverently out to the middle of the roadway, he took his stand in front of the Cenotaph, to the north, facing Trafalgar Square. Behind him, in line, stood, from right to left, the Prince of Wales [the future King Edward VIII], the Duke of York [the future King George VI], Prince Henry, and the Duke of Connaught [Queen Victoria’s last surviving son], all, like the King, in uniform. On their left, in front of the surpliced choir, members of the Government and former Cabinet Ministers had ranged themselves, the five figures from the Cenotaph being the Prime Minister [David Lloyd George], with Mr Asquith [the previous Prime Minister and Opposition Leader] immediately behind him, then Mr Bonar Law [Leader of the House of Common], Lord Curzon [Foreign Secretary], and Mr Winston Churchill [War Secretary]. Above, in the windows banked with purple, appeared the Queen [Queen Mary, the current Queen Consort], Queen Alexandra [the previous Queen Consort], the Queen of Spain [granddaughter of Queen Victoria], and the Royal Princesses."

" The band was very close now, moving at funeral pace, and one could see the drums draped in black. It swung to the left, and came down on the east side of the Cenotaph: and now we saw behind it, on the right side of the road, the gun carriage drawn by six black horses on which the coffin lay. Swinging round, out into and across the road, the carriage drew abreast of the King, and immediately in front of him. As he and the Princes stood at the salute, it came almost imperceptibly to rest. As it stopped, the King stepped forward and, in his capacity of Chief Mourner, gently laid a wreath upon it, the token of the nation’s homage."

" Behind the coffin the 12 distinguished pallbearers drew up in a line across the road; and as it stood there, between the King and Britain’s greatest captains by land and sea, with all of England’s best gathered round, and the great throng bowed, silent or sobbing on either hand, the coffin looked, draped in its flag and with the trench helmet and equipment upon it, pitiably, pathetically small: a little casket to hold so much—all the sorrow and pride of the Empire."

King George V places a wreath on the coffin of the Unknown Warrior, 11 November 1920 (Getty Pictures).


" As silence fell, the Archbishop of Canterbury stepped forward to near the King’s right, facing the coffin, and began the Lord’s Prayer, which was joined in by the King, standing uncovered, and the whole vast assemblage. The prayer ceased, and after hardly a half minute’s silence the chimes announced the coming of the hour. One heard distant words of command from down towards Westminster, and then the first thundering stroke of Big Ben boomed out, louder, it seemed, than ever one hears it even in the stillness of dawn. The King turned to face the Cenotaph and, by a touch on a button, released the flags which hid the Cenotaph. They fell away, and it stood, clean and wonderful in its naked beauty."

" Big Ben ceased, and the very pulse of Time stood still. In silence, broken only by a nearby sob, the great multitude bowed its head, and to each one must have come the same thought, intruding on his prayer or words of thanksgiving, that it was not only throughout the city, but over all the Empire and the world’s seas, men’s hands had dropped from their toil and voices were hushed, and cities and peoples stood frozen, while no engine throbbed and no wheel turned. Then, suddenly, acute, shattering, the very voice of pain itself—but pain triumphant—rose the clear notes of the bugles in the Last Post. As the final note died away, the King stepped forward and placed a large wreath at the base of the Cenotaph on the north side [i.e. the opposite side from where the Queen and the Royal Family place their wreaths today]. The Prince of Wales laid one beside it, and, on the west side, the Prime Minister did the same, followed by a representative of the Colonies and of the people of France. Beyond the Cenotaph, towards Westminster, the Firing Party, with reversed arms, and buglers were already moving through the massed bands, who, playing as they went, turned counter-marching (an evolution admirably performed) and followed. Behind the bands the Archbishop of Canterbury moved to his place…then marched the King, the Princes, the Members of the Government and other distinguished men…the mourners from the Fighting Services moved off, six abreast now, with the ex-Service men behind them. Slowly, at funeral pace, behind the sobbing bands, the Procession, thus reformed, passed on towards the Abbey, and the saddest, stateliest, most beautiful ceremony that London has ever seen was over. The Unknown Warrior drew near home."

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"The Passing of the Unknown Warrior 11 November 1920", a painting by Frank O. Salibury in the Parliamentary Art Collection.


With the unveiling of the Cenotaph finished, and due silence paid to the fallen, the procession made its way to Westminster Abbey for the actual burial of the Unknown Warrior in the main nave of the church.

" Eyes were strained to get a first glimpse of the approaching coffin, and when, borne high on the shoulders of bearers whose steps never faltered, it came into view, the attention of the people was concentrated on the faded Union Jack, the side arms, and steel helmet that signified so much, that few took account of the men, Royal in blood, or leaders of the nation in war and peace, who followed as mourners. It was the Unknown Warrior who filled every mind. We saw and yet did not see the King walking immediately behind the coffin. We knew that the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Connaught, the Duke of York, the Prime Minister and a long file of ministers were there, and that Lord Haig and Lord Beatty were among the pall-bearers. But all these were only sharers in a tribute in which the humblest widow or mother in the Abbey had an equal part. The heart of everyone rested beneath the Union Jack."

" Driving straight from the ceremony at the Cenotaph, the Queen came into the Abbey by the West Door very soon after 11 o’clock, and was escorted by the Chapter Clerk to a low purple-covered dais which had been placed near the grave. Her Majesty took her seat, with the Queen of Spain on her left hand. Queen Alexandra, who followed very shortly after, sat on the Queen’s right hand; and the Queen of Norway [George V’s youngest sister], Princess Mary [George V’s daughter], and other royal ladies close by. Very soon after they had taken their places, the increasing volume of the singing proclaimed that the funeral procession was coming down the church."

" Over the coffin lay ‘the Padre’s flag’, the Union Jack which, taken to the Western Front by a Church of England Chaplain, went through the war serving many a purpose, both sacred and social, and now, literally dyed with the blood of British soldiers, has come home to receive and to give honour in the ceremony of yesterday. On the Union Jack lay a shrapnel helmet, a side arm, and the wreath presented by the King. This wreath is of bay leaves, with red roses wound over and over, and it bears a card in which the King has written, with his own hand, this inscription:

In the proud memory of those who died unknown in the Great War.

Unknown and yet well-known; as dying, and behold they live.

George R.I., November 11, 1920

The pallbearers lowered the coffin till it lay on the bars across the open grave, and separated to stand at attention by the pillars on either side. The King took his place at the head of the grave facing west. A little behind him stood the Princes. At the foot of the grave, facing east, stood the Dean, with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London a few paces away…The eminent officers of His Majesty’s Forces who had acted as pall-bearers lined up on either side of the platform, the soldiers facing north and sailors and airmen facing south. Grouped to the east of the grave and facing it were row upon row of Cabinet ministers, with Mr Lloyd George and Mr Asquith next to each other in the front row."

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"The Burial of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey", a painting by Frank O. Salibury in the Parliamentary Art Collection.

" Beethoven’s ‘Equale for Trombones’ was played while this grouping took its final form. Then came the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my Shepherd”; and the lesson, taken from the latter portion of the seventh chapter of the Book of Revelations, was read by the Dean. At the close of it, the bearers came forward again, and during the singing of the hymn ‘Lead Kindly Light’ the Union Jack, with the wreath, helmet and side arm, was taken off, and the coffin was lowered into the grave. There it lies on sand that has apparently been untouched since that portion of the Abbey was built. The diggers of the grave found there no remnants of other humanity. The grave is to be filled in with earth from France, of which 100 sandbags have been sent over for the purpose; and it was French earth that was sprinkled on the coffin of the Unknown Warrior. [A silver shell was handed] to the King, and while the Dean was speaking the sentence which commits the body to the ground, ‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust’, the King sprinkled the earth from the shell upon the coffin."

" The Dean spoke the blessing. Then there was a pause…From somewhere far away in the great church a scarcely audible whisper began to steal upon us. It swelled, with absolute smoothness until we knew it for the roll of drums. Then the whole Abbey was full of the reverberating roar and then it began to die away, and died into a whisper so soft that no one could say for certain when it stopped. Into the silence broke the Reveille, flung from bugles somewhere high up in the arcades, and at the sound of it many woke indeed to the consciousness of the plain fact of things—the Abbey, the men and women in it, the passage of time, and that open grave whence this wonderful ceremony had sent us soaring into the emotional contemplation of the tragedy and the nobility of human life. The bands of the Grenadier Guards began to play a ‘Grand Solemn March’ by G.J Miller, and the King, the Queens, the Princes, the Dean and the Clergy, all who had taken active part in the ceremony passed out through the West Door into the winter sunlight...The ceremony was bound to be a moving one. Few could have foreseen how strangely and intensely moving it was. Of all the great ceremonies of which Westminster Abbey has been the scene in recent years, this was the most beautiful and the most affecting."

Thus finished the greatest Cenotaph ceremony in British history, and undoubtedly also the most emotional because of the real presence of the body of the Unknown Warrior. The Times summarised the day’s feelings in a separate article which ended with the following words:

" When the silence was over the great crowds moved on in silent contemplation and the dead resumed their silent sleep, no longer on the battlefields of the world, for they all lie buried from henceforth in our great Abbey—our fathers, our husbands, our sons and daughters, our brothers, our lovers. There is only one body, but the spirits of all the dead are there as well."

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