‘Something more than a tribute to the dead’: the story of Manchester’s cenotaph

It’s the 11th of November, 1920, and we’re in Albert Square, Manchester. Eleven o’ clock is approaching and the streets are packed. People have climbed onto the monuments in the square, they’re up on the roofs all around, and there are faces in every window. We’re standing next to a journalist from the Manchester Guardian and he’s watching, and noting, the mood of the crowd. The Town Hall clock strikes eleven, a bugle sounds, and then silence descends. ‘The effect upon the people was curious,’ the journalist writes in his notepad.

‘Everyone stood very still; no one sought his neighbour’s eye or passed remark. The stress of movement had passed from the street and given way to the stress of emotion – emotion displayed awkwardly, perhaps, but deeply felt. The hush deepened. It had spread over the whole city and become so pronounced as to impress one with a sense of audibility. It was a silence which, in the words of an Italian poet, “had its language and its prayers” – a silence which was almost pain. Market Street seemed to have become transfigured into a cathedral nave in which women and men were offering an unspoken devotion. And the spirit of memory brooded over it all.’

After the service, the crowds cheered as the men of the Manchester battalions marched past and it was at this point that many people wept. ‘The marching tunes were so unbearably jolly,’ the journalist noted.

The formal service of remembrance was held in Albert Square, but the two minute’s silence was observed throughout Manchester:

‘In the mills of Manchester there was the abrupt cessation of the whirr and din of the looms and the silence of the weaving sheds as men and women stopped work to think what might have been, and the quick resumption as if nothing had happened. In the municipal schools children and teachers stood in silence, with bowed heads and hands together… In public places of business, such as the General Post Office, there was the same curious effect, as of a clock being stopped and then, after a spell beginning again.’[i]

‘Lest we forget’

After the battalions had marched through Albert Square, they moved on to St Ann’s Square, where wreaths were laid on the South African War Memorial. This would be the pattern for the first five years after the end of the war, but for many it didn’t seem quite right. In November 1921 a letter was published in the Manchester papers, signed ‘Lest we forget’. It asked: ‘As Armistice Day draws near I would like again to inquire the reason why Manchester has not erected a city cenotaph in commemoration of its lives given and sacrificed?’[ii]  

The South African war memorial in St Ann’s Square, 1919. William Hamo Thorneycroft’s ‘The Last Shot’, which had been dedicated in 1908, represents a soldier of the Manchester Regiment, a wounded comrade at his feet, standing with bayonet fixed
Armistice Day scene in Albert Square. Manchester Guardian, 12th November, 1921

In 1922 a War Memorial Committee was appointed. It would be required to choose a ‘suitable monument’, and an appropriate site for it, but at no greater cost than £10,000. (This was a relatively modest target; Rochdale had recently raised £30,000 for its cenotaph). Local businessmen immediately offered substantial donations, but that wasn’t the spirit that the War Memorial Committee sought. As the monument was to commemorate all of Manchester’s lost sons – ‘drawn from all sections of the community’ – the Committee felt strongly that it should ‘be the gift not of a comparatively few individuals but of the city as a whole’. A public subscription was opened and it was emphasised that even the smallest contributions would be welcomed.[iii]

The disputes and difficulties that would follow over the next couple of years underline the scale of the War Memorial Committee’s responsibility – and how much this mattered to local people.

‘The Unknown Warrior is the Defrauded Warrior too’

The Committee initially recommended that the memorial should be sited in Albert Square – the ‘pivot’ and ‘first position of honour in the city.’ It was proposed that all existing statuary be removed from the Square, including the Albert Memorial, in order that the war memorial would be the one dominating feature. To that end, an approach had been made to the King who duly consented to the re-siting of the Albert Memorial.[iv] The Manchester Guardian’s C. E. Montague applauded this bold plan – and the King’s ‘handsome assent’ to it:

‘If our common memorial were not as close to the city’s very heart as the dead in the war remain to the hearts of the living, we all should feel that a false sense of values was disfiguring our streets. The site of the Albert Memorial is the only possible site, especially since the remarkable character and profound appeal of the annual service on Armistice Day have consecrated the square, at least for one day of each year, into a kind of memorial chapel.’[v]

Not only was this the principal civic space in the city, this was the location where many men had volunteered their services for the Pals battalions, and where they had paraded in front of Lord Kitchener in 1915.

March 1915: Lord Kitchener, and other dignitaries, salute the march-past. Kitchener watched from a raised platform in front of the main door of the Town Hall.

However, not everyone was quite so convinced of the appropriateness of this site – or of the plan to remove the existing statues. By March 1923 letters were appearing in the local papers articulating arguments against the choice of Albert Square. The volume and the tone of the letters, for and against, make it clear that this issue was provoking strong feelings. The arguments against the Albert Square site were on the basis of aesthetics (would the new memorial jar against the Square’s Gothic architecture?), precedent (if statues could so easily be removed, what was to stop a future generation doing away with the war memorial?) and expense (the city architect estimated that removing and re-siting the existing statues would cost around £8,400).[vi]

Some of the parties objecting to the reconfiguring of Albert Square were influential people. When the City Council came to debate the issue, the arguments against moving the statues were loudly and apparently convincingly voiced. The council voted – by 71 votes to 30 – that Piccadilly would be a more appropriate site. The old Manchester Royal Infirmary and Lunatic Asylum had been demolished before the war, and Manchester’s Art Gallery Committee supported the idea of a memorial being constructed in the open space that had been created.[vii]  

https://images.manchester.gov.uk/web/objects/common/webmedia.php?irn=7955&reftable=ecatalogue&refirn=68430
Piccadilly c. 1910, following the demolition of the old Infirmary. (Manchester Local Image Collection, m03962.)

But, within a month, the Piccadilly proposal would be rejected too. The issue of what to do with the old Infirmary site had been being debated since 1912 (should it remain an open space, or could an art gallery, a library or another public building be constructed on the site?), and it was still beset by disagreements. On the 4th of May the War Memorial Committee met and decided to recommend to the City Council that St Peter’s Square should instead be the site of the memorial.[viii]

But the suitability of the St Peter’s Square site would continue to be questioned. Many felt the location wasn’t quite right – it didn’t have the central status of Albert Square, it was slightly off-centre, already cluttered and felt crowded when people gathered there. It seemed like a second-best option. When the memorial was finally unveiled, in July 1924, the Manchester Guardian’s editorial would lament that ‘The Unknown Warrior is the Defrauded Warrior too’:

‘Our Manchester war memorial has been given a secondary site in the city, the best one being still dedicated to the memory of an estimable German who had the good fortune to marry a young English queen… We have honoured our dead substantially but not surpassingly.’[ix]

In 2014, in order to make room for the expanding Metrolink network, the monument was dismantled, cleaned and reassembled in the north-east corner of St Peter’s Square, surrounded by a new memorial garden. This does now seem more like a dedicated space.

 ‘Every mother’s son’

The site was finally fixed, but the controversy wasn’t yet over. The design of the memorial – and the method of its selection – was next to prove contentious. The initial plan was that the design should be selected by open competition. To that end, in June 1923, advertisements were placed inviting proposals. However, just a month later, this method of choosing a design was abandoned – due to, in the Lord Mayor’s words, ‘certain insuperable difficulties’. Argument seemed to have developed over who should have the final say over the design. A sub-committee was appointed instead, and instructed to approach an artist, ‘who can be trusted to prepare a suitable design.’ Another flurry of letters to the papers followed, debating how a decision on such a matter should be made, and expressing disappointment over the War Memorial Committee’s arbitrary and arrogant stance.[x]

That architect chosen was Sir Edwin Lutyens, designer of the Whitehall Cenotaph, and in September 1923 his proposed design was finally revealed in the local press.[xi] The official dedication programme described Manchester’s cenotaph thus:

‘‘The main feature consists of a pylon, rising to a height of 32 feet from the ground level, surrounded by a moulded and carved bier upon which is laid to rest the figure of a fighting man with equipment at his side and feet and a greatcoat thrown over the whole, conveying to those who stand below no individual identity and so in truth “every mother’s son.”’

Its creator designed it with the aim of expressing, ‘the triumphant end of the war as well as the sadness and sorrow it entailed.’[xii]

‘A warning to the living’

The memorial was finally consecrated on the 12th of July 1924. The act of unveiling was carried out by Lord Derby and a Mrs. Bingle, from Ardwick, who had lost three sons to the war. As the red, white and blue drapery fell away, Manchester saw its monument for the first time. A journalist from the Manchester Guardian described the moment: it seemed ‘to offer itself to those in front as an imposing open-air temple, roofless and without walls, but none the less certainly entombing the great host of Manchester’s dead.’ The dignitaries then stood aside and the bereaved families were allowed to approach with wreaths:

‘A stream of women flowed between the obelisks and covered the great expanse of stone with flowers. The crowd felt a quick sense of community with these mourners, and the flowers they left lying in the sunshine made together a brightness so vast and intense that it outshone in significance the glint of steel and brass and gold lace on the military background.’

Lord Derby, who had been so active in recruiting the Manchester battalions, gave the address. The memorial was “something more than a tribute to the dead,” he said. His speech went on:

‘”It is an example, and at the same time a warning, to the living. It is an example in that it will show for all time that in her country’s need Manchester came forward to do its part, and her citizens, counting not the cost, laid down their lives that we and those who come after us might live in a free country. It is a warning in that it will show to future generations yet unborn what the cost of war is, and will teach them that though they must always be prepared for war the very worst way of settling difficulties is by war.”’

The official ceremony complete, the public were permitted to move towards the memorial. The number of people wanting to approach the Cenotaph was so great that police had to marshal the queue. They would still be doing so at 10 o’ clock that night. Thousands paid their respects.[xiii]

The Cenotaph, with wreaths, in the 1920s.

Lutyens designed a series of cenotaphs after the Whitehall model (in chronological order – Southampton, Rochdale, Derby and finally Manchester). On all of them a soldier rests at the top of the plinth. Manchester’s soldier, the last in the series, differs from those that preceded him, though. While the others rest their heads on a wreath or cushion, and are draped in a cloak or shroud, Manchester’s soldier is rather more authentically a soldier of the First World War. His head lies on a kitbag and he is covered with a trench coat. At his feet there is a haversack and his helmet. There is less classicism and heroism to the styling of Manchester’s soldier; he is more distinguishably a son of the city. ‘Manchester comes into possession to-day of one of the few fine war memorials in the country,’ the Manchester Guardian wrote.

‘The subject would seem at first sight to leave the artist little scope; the recumbent figure, of a fighting man, all his equipment about him and an overcoat as a shroud. And yet, in this case, the general impression, for what it may be worth, is that Sir Edwin Lutyens has given a realistic effect, a nobly harmonious form. The overcoat, as it is flung over the figure, is first realistic and then, as if by a natural accident, beautiful.’[xiv]

The first Armistice Day ceremony at the new Cenotaph. Manchester Guardian, 12th November 1924

https://images.manchester.gov.uk/web/objects/common/webmedia.php?irn=82088&reftable=ecatalogue&refirn=80443
Statue on top of the Cenotaph, St Peter’s Square, Manchester. (Manchester Local Image Collection, m80515.)

In 1924 the crowds that gathered to honour the war dead on Armistice Day were reported to be bigger than ever before. ‘Six years – in some cases even ten – have not given life, with all its insistent urgency, time enough to obliterate under vivid new impressions the sorrows that came of the war,’ the Manchester Guardian reflected. The sight of the survivors too struck the journalist with sadness. Watching as the men of the Manchester Regiment marched past to wartime tunes, he recorded:

‘These lively tunes had a special poignancy of their own. It was to these tunes that so many men had marched away. The appearance of many of the ex-servicemen yesterday was not such as to check emotion. Some of those who went by were crippled so badly that they hopped rather than marched in step; one assisted himself to the quick pace of his companions with a pair of crutches;  and many more showed by unmistakeable signs that they had had no luck in their return to normal life.’[xv]

‘Innumerable thousands’ of people made their way to Albert Square in 1928 to mark the tenth anniversary of the end of the war. Looking at a newsreel of that day, it’s the size of the crowds that’s striking, and the long lines of men on crutches and in wheelchairs. After the silence, the rain falling heavily now, the crowds watched the march-past. ‘Company after company came the ex-servicemen,’ the Manchester Guardian recorded:

‘Grey-haired men, disabled now from physical smartness, hurried by with the lame and the injured; old uniforms mocked at the uneven array of hats and caps. Some companies passed the Cenotaph bare-headed, the water streaming off the brims of their hats; some saluted only in the manner of soldiers, their eyes upon the white pillar. For three-quarters of an hour the detachments turned into Oxford Street, and at the end of it the Bishop and the Lord Mayor led a company of soldiers and sailors and councillors to lay a wreath upon the Stone of Remembrance.’[xvi]

War veterans join crowds of people in Manchester who pay tribute to those who fell in World War One. Armistice Day 1928. The video can be viewed here: https://www.britishpathe.com/video/impressive-scenes-in-manchester/query/armistice+manchester

There were some letters to the local papers complaining that the money that had paid for the Cenotaph might have been better used to assist ex-servicemen who were struggling financially. But, generally, both former soldiers and bereaved families appreciated the memorial as a mark of the city’s respect and gratitude.

George Barker, who had served with the 23rd Manchester Battalion, wrote an essay reflecting on what the memorial meant to him personally. Early one morning, in 1928, Barker was walking through St Peter’s Square, and found himself drawn towards the Cenotaph. His account may perhaps sound fanciful, but it reflects the depth of emotion with which some ex-combatants responded to this symbol of their war and its casualties. He wrote:

‘Past memories float through my brain. As I look upon the monument of stone, old sympathies are re-kindled. I am again in the trenches, happenings are going through my mind like a kaleidoscope working. Absent-mindedly I go forward and turn to my left, facing the coat of the warrior, and I seem to be glued to the ground. I look to my left, then to my right, and every time I turn my head I see hundreds of small lights, which gradually become larger, and in each of these appear familiar faces, nodding and smiling as if they want to be recognised. I can hear myself shouting “Jim,” “Bill,” “George,” and all manner of names known to me on the battlefields. They all seem to be a happy family, and I feel I want to be with them.’[xvii]



[i] Manchester Guardian, 12th November 1920.

[ii] Manchester Guardian, 7th November, 1921, 12th October 1922.

[iii] Manchester Guardian, 11th and 12th October, 1922.

[iv] Manchester Guardian, 7th February, 1923.

[v] Manchester Guardian, 7th February, 1923.

[vi] Manchester Guardian, 31st March, and 9th,10th, 11th and 12th April, 1923.

[vii] Manchester Guardian, 12th April, 1923.

[viii] Manchester Guardian, 5th May, 1923; 17th May 1923.

[ix] Manchester Guardian, 14th July, 1924.

[x] Manchester Guardian, 5th June, 3rd, 12th and 13th July and 20th September 1923. A further point of controversy was the means of the cenotaph’s construction. Instead of employing local men, as had been one of the original ideals of the committee, Lutyens used the London-based Nine Elms Stone Masonry Works.  Manchester Guardian, 8th July, 1924.

[xi] Manchester Guardian, 20th September, 1923.

[xii] Manchester Guardian, 8th July, 1924. The final cost of the memorial was £6,490. The unspent balance of the money subscribed – £4,082 – was used to provide beds (to be called the ‘Manchester War Memorial Beds’) in local hospitals for the dependents of servicemen who died in the war.  Manchester Guardian, 28th April, 1925.

[xiii] Manchester Guardian, 11th, 12th, 14th and 15th July 1924.

[xiv] Manchester Guardian, 12th July, 1924.

[xv] Manchester Guardian, 12th November 1924.

[xvi] Manchester Guardian, 12th November 1928.

[xvii] George Barker, Agony’s Anguish, p. 95.

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