'The biggest single project since the pharaohs'

The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres, Belgium

Source: Dirk Debleu / Commonwealth War Graves Commission

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”.

This is premium content. 

Only logged in subscribers have access to it.

Login or SUBSCRIBE to view this story

Gated access promo

Existing subscriber? LOGIN

A subscription to Building Design will provide:

  • Unlimited architecture news from around the UK
  • Reviews of the latest buildings from all corners of the world
  • Full access to all our online archives
  • PLUS you will receive a digital copy of WA100 worth over £45.

Subscribe now for unlimited access.

Alternatively REGISTER for free access on selected stories and sign up for email alerts