The soldiers did not wish to talk about the war or about the loss of life; whereas the rest of society needed to. Nine hundred thousand dead requires public grieving, public remembrance. Bodies of half the men killed in the war were never identified, much less recovered. Following the armistice, Parliament established the Imperial War Graves Commission to oversee the creation of proper cemeteries in France to honor the deceased. Few British casualties returned to British soil. For the nation to bring closure to so stupefying a loss, the British people had to commemorate, to grieve publicly as one.
The business of honoring the dead was traditionally the domain of the religious, but here the Church of England found itself in an awkward position. The Church’s chaplains were bitterly resented during the war—they had mouthed all the patriotic guff the soldiers came to hate and they had failed to accompany the men to the front, to the gates of hell. The parsons could do little to compensate for that kind of failure. Any attempt to recall the glory days of imperial Britain, the dedicated spirit of Victorian days, met with bemused disaffection. Church memorials were shunned, and overly patriotic monuments fared no better.
The right chord was struck in London, almost accidentally. The government commissioned Sir Edwin Luytens to construct a temporary monument in Whitehall, centerpiece for a celebratory march by British forces and their leaders during demobilization in 1919. Luytens delivered a spare, geometrical shape, an empty tomb bereft of all religious and patriotic connotations. The cenotaph was simple and sobering, a spare shell over a gnawing emptiness. The work so perfectly reflected public feeling that the government had no choice but to permanently install the monument at Whitehall as a national symbol of all that was lost in the Great War.