'The biggest single project since the pharaohs'

The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres, Belgium

As the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day nears, Glyn Prysor tells the story of the architects who commemorated death on an unprecedented scale

1917 was the darkest year of the First World War for the British Empire. Several costly offensives had failed to break the deadlock on the Western Front. Britain’s allies were faltering and German submarines were threatening her vital maritime supply lines. The prospect of victory had never seemed more distant, yet this was the moment when an organisation to care for the empire’s dead was established: the Imperial War Graves Commission.

A report by Frederic Kenyon, director of the British Museum, set out its earliest tenets: that the memorials should be permanent, and that there should be no distinction made on the basis of rank or class, whether military or civilian. Furthermore, wrote Kenyon, “no less honour should be paid to the last resting places of Indian and other non-Christian members of the Empire than to those of our British soldiers”.

This was a radical manifesto for an entirely new form of commemoration. Yet with an eventual death toll in excess of one million, this would also prove to be an unprecedented undertaking of commemorative architecture: “The biggest single bit of work since any of the pharaohs”, as Rudyard Kipling put it, “and they only worked in their own country”.

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