Unknown Soldiers: Building Bodies in(to) the City

While searching for other stuff I came across this paper – the first academic paper I ever wrote and presented – which I gave at the Uncanny Landscapes conference in London in March 2013. It seems like the right time of year, so I thought I’d let it out in to the light…

Unknown Soldiers: Building Bodies in(to) the City

Abstract On 11th November 1920, the corpse of a British soldier arrived ‘home’ in London from the Great War. Exhumed and re-entombed after five years buried in a ‘foreign field’, the body of the Unknown Warrior – perhaps composite, certainly mutilated – was welcomed as a symbol of national mourning and commemoration, and remains built into the fabric and psyche of London to this day. “Unknown, and yet well known” – the words from Corinthians inscribed on the slab of Belgian marble which covers the Tomb in Westminster Abbey – the body of a soldier reifies both the foreign, gruesome, unknown and unknowable horrors of a mechanically and geographically impersonal war, but is also the morally exculpable embodiment of countless sons and husbands – a paradoxical symbol both of identity and anonymity; and a tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar typically associated with ideas of the Uncanny. This paper seeks to expand on what Laura Wittman refers to as the “disquieting” effect of the Unknown Soldier and, using as a comparison the empty tomb of the Whitehall Cenotaph, which was unveiled on the same day as the reburial of the Unknown Warrior, will explore the potential repression of the actual corporeal materiality of the exhumed body, both in terms of the occupied tomb and the empty one, with all the Biblical and Gothic connotations which that might entail. It may be possible to conclude at this stage that the ‘Uncanniness’ of the (dis)embodied soldier in the built environment was – and possibly still is – more easily repressed and accepted than the prospect of the living soldier in the city, manifest either in the mutilations of survival or as the embodiment of unpopular foreign policy.


The idea for this paper came out of a wider project involving how the figure of the soldier fits into society and space – in particular the urban environment of London – in a physical, visible, human way, but also in terms of how representations of the soldier have been built into the city in the steady creep of militarised space, and as spaces and places of memorial and remembrance. In terms of how ‘at home’ the soldier is in the city, it occurred to me that dead soldiers might be accommodated far more readily than living ones, possibly because they can so easily and uncomplainingly be built into the fabric of the city but also because, once dead, they seem to be able to transcend the politically, morally or socially unsavoury circumstance of their death and are thus able to join the national (or nationalistic) narratives of glorious remembrance and sacrifice which began in earnest in the aftermath of the First World War. And that is what started me thinking about the Unknown Soldier, and the empty tomb of the Cenotaph, both representing every soldier, but no soldier – both known and unknown – the anonymous face of war – and for the official agenda, a completely blank slate on which these mythic narratives could be written, but crucially a slate which covered up – and repressed – the trauma of the war as represented by the horrific material corporeality of the dead – or possibly undead – soldier beneath it. As Laura Wittman writes: “the Unknown Soldier was at once a representation of the body of the nation and of the human body, both felt to be ruptured, perhaps permanently, by the war and by modernity”[i]. It could therefore be said that the literal and imaginative co-opting of every one of these ruptured bodies was a means by which the body of the nation might more easily be mended.

This paper seeks to explore how the dual sites of the Whitehall Cenotaph and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey quite literally embody the two basic poles of Freud’s Uncanny – described by Derek Hook as anxieties around, on the one hand, an embodied absence – (in this case the unidentified corpse), and on the other hand a disembodied presence (ie the empty tomb), or in other words something present which should be absent or something absent where it should be present, and that the attempted repression of the material corporeality of the present/absent corpse was, and possibly still is, typical of the wider official reaction to the aftermath of war, its justification, and the management of trauma and remembrance.

Untitled2In 1915 the British authorities made the decision that bodies of the dead from the Western Front would not be repatriated, there were simply too many – and would remain in the soil in which they died – nearly 700,000 confirmed dead and 350,000 missing, so, despite, as Paul Connerton points out, “the absurd proximity of the trenches to home”[ii] they could never be brought back to that home and mourned. At the end of the war it was decided that a temporary monument be built in London as a focus for the 1919 ceremony of Remembrance. The location of Whitehall was chosen, and Edward Lutyens commissioned to create the monument. His design was simple yet striking, depicting a tomb on top of a pedestal. First used in Ancient Greece to commemorate the passing of a specific person whose remains were elsewhere, the Empty Tomb of the Cenotaph was to be a symbolic representation of the repatriation of a million dead soldiers. The temporary cenotaph, which was built of wood and plaster, took the authorities by surprise in its popularity with the grieving public, and was quite literally almost crushed by the quantity of wreaths, flowers and visitors it attracted.

When it was eventually taken down early in 1920 (due to weather damage), it was decided to build a permanent monument of remembrance. Despite calls to locate the permanent structure in a wider public space, the site in the centre of Whitehall – by now deemed to have made sacred by the tears of thousands of mothers and wives – was where the identical Cenotaph of Portland Stone was unveiled on 11th November 1920. Intentionally devoid of any religious symbol to honour the beliefs of every soldier of the Empire, the Cenotaph bore only the inscription – on Lloyd George’s suggestion – ‘The Glorious Dead’. However, despite the presence of a permanent monument to all the dead, the lack of Christian imagery had not pleased the Church of England, and when the idea of bringing the body of a soldier home for burial was raised earlier in 1920, the Dean of Westminster made it his own and the body of the Unknown Soldier (or Warrior to include the other services…) , first paraded past the newly unveiled Cenotaph, was buried in Westminster Abbey a few minutes later. Neil Hanson has pointed out that there was no provision for, or representation of, wounded or maimed veterans at either ceremony, a significant irony given the fate of the body in the tomb.[iii]

So the 11th November 1920 saw two separate tombs built into the fabric of London within 2 hundred yards of each other – one empty, and one containing painstakingly unidentifiable remains, both intended as the symbolic homecoming of a generation of dead young men. Yet while the ‘unknown’ body became ‘known’ for the purposes of commemoration and mourning, and the splendour of Westminster Abbey became the familiar ‘local parish church’ for the purposes of reclaiming the body to English soil, there were some distinctly ‘unhomely’ elements surrounding both the Tomb and the Cenotaph which, presumably because they did not further the official myth of sacrifice, or did not accept the anonymity of remembrance offered to them, were largely repressed.

The fact that the coffin of the unknown soldier had arrived in England by boat accompanied by 50 sacks of battlefield soil, was something which might not only resonate in the literary imagination only 20 years after the publication of Dracula, but more prosaically it meant that – quite literally – a corner of a foreign field would now be forever England. In addition, the deeply unpleasant reality that the body in the tomb had been exhumed 5 years after its probably horrible death in Flanders, its remains picked through to ensure anonymity and that it was sufficiently decomposed to be accepted into the sacred ground of the Abbey, seem to this day almost too taboo to mention, and are surely mixed up with the wider fear of death and dead bodies with which the western world seems more generally to suffer.

The official line of commemoration after WW1 was, as Jay Winter has said, written “by people determined to uphold the nobility of the war effort and the dignity of the dead.” Soldiers were remembered as morally exculpable victims of aggression – their characters and bodies unblemished by personal weakness or the brutality of a mechanised war. But, Winter goes on, “commemorating the war in this ill-informed and blatantly non-combatant manner took on the air of propaganda… and like most propaganda it did not dwell on the sadder facets of the war: the maimed, the deformed, the dead, the widows, the orphans, and the bereaved.”[iv] The apparent attempt at falsification of the official memory record was, however, impossible to sustain completely, and the invisible became visible in a number of different ways, leaking into the official record almost subconsciously through the prevailing public interest in spiritualism or through the ‘anti-monumental’ means of post war art and literature. In both cases, it is the recognition of the horrific consequences of the war on actual bodies and the trauma resulting from such recognition which makes both the Tomb and the Cenotaph such potent sites.


Major William Orpen was commissioned into the Army Service Corps as an official artist of the war, and, having witnessed the horrors of the trenches first hand he quickly came to sympathise with the soldiers he was painting rather than with the men in authority who were, it seemed to him, so carelessly sending them to their deaths. After the war he was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to paint a series of portraits of the dignitaries at the Paris Peace Conference, one of which, entitled ‘To the Unknown British Soldier in France’, featuring a Union Jack draped coffin foregrounded against the splendour of Versailles, was eventually accepted by the Museum in 1927.

But this was not before Orpen’s first version of the painting, depicting the tomb flanked by two ghostly, half naked and deranged soldiers, had been rejected on the grounds that a) it was not what the Museum had commissioned, and b) perhaps unsurprisingly the museum did not think it fitted it with the official narrative of a glorious victory, and Orpen was forced to paint over the figures. His diaries are a telling insight into his crisis of conscience; after the signing of the peace by the ‘frocks’ as he disdainfully called The Big Four, he wrote “And it was all over. The ‘frocks’ had won the war. The ‘frocks’ had signed the peace! The army was forgotten. Some dead and forgotten, others maimed and forgotten, others alive and well – but equally forgotten.”[v]


Another contemporary representation of the Unknown Soldier appears in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, when the ironically named pacifist Miss Kilman has her existential crisis next to the Tomb in Westminster Abbey. Bathed in the “bodiless light” from the Abbey windows, we are told she is surrounded by people who, “shuffling” around the Tomb, are “keen to see the waxworks”.[vi] The tension between the bodiless light, and the body in the tomb is enhanced by the suggestion of the waxworks – the uncanny reality of the known but unknown body, haunting the text. Woolf had herself been particularly scathing about the ceremonies of remembrance, describing what she called “the night of the cenotaph” as…”a lurid scene, like one in Hell… women crying ‘Remember the Glorious Dead’, & holding out chrysanthemums”, but her description of demobilised limbless soldiers at Waterloo Station as “dreadful looking spiders propelling themselves along the platform”[vii] showed in reality how the horrors of the war-mutilated body dehumanised returning soldiers in a way in which the cleansed and sanctified body in the Tomb did not.

The Cenotaph too, with its missing body becomes a strangely unsettling concept when looked at in a historical and cultural context – “saturated with ghostly national imaginings”[viii], as Benedict Anderson famously put it in the opening chapter of Imagined Communities. Although deliberately secularised, the empty tomb carries with it the considerable Biblical weight of the Resurrection, but also conjures up images of the Gothic. The un-dead body missing from its tomb, and indeed the un-dead body stuck inside its tomb had been a staple of late Victorian gothic and sensationalist fiction through the likes of Bram Stoker, Wilkie Collins and Edgar Allan Poe, and the already popular trend of spiritualism and even occultism, was enhanced and indeed exacerbated by the desperation of grief after the war.

In the early 1920s, a 58 year old cleaning lady/turned medium called Ada Emma Deane began taking photographs of the Cenotaph on Armistice Day. When developed, the photos appeared to show the ghostly images of soldiers hanging above and mingling with the mourners.


The pictures were hugely popular, some people convinced they could recognise in them the faces of their lost sons and husbands, and Deane carried on for several years until a newspaper claimed to have identified the mysterious faces in the ether as famous footballers and boxers of the day. Even then she was fiercely defended by her supporters who included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.


What we can see from this, therefore, was a strong need for actual bodily recognition… to see face to face the soldiers apparently brought to life and absconding from their collective empty tomb, and what lends a particularly uncanny edge to this need for recognition could also be seen by the rumour in the press that the Brigadier General who had selected the body of the Unknown Soldier had been blindfolded, as if he somehow might have been able to recognise one of the piles of bones and rotting flesh in front of him as an individual human being.


There has been much theoretical debate since the First World War on the political significance and affective power of monumental space, and in particular the “transformation of the body into monument” which, according to Mark Auge, occurs with “the mummification of a body or the erection of a tomb”[ix]. In The Production of Space, Henri Lefevbre writes that “only through the monument, through the intervention of the architect as demiurge, can the space of death be negated, transfigured into a living space which is an extension of the body”[x]. It is this idea of the body/monument which I want to briefly touch on in relation to the monuments of the Tomb and Cenotaph, and also with reference to more recent war memorials.

The condition of death has been described by Carlos Sancho as difficult to grasp because death “stands as a negation, an object that, as we stare harder, we find out that ‘there is nothing to see’. This ‘vacuum of death’ creates empty or negative spaces… quite as the imprint that is created when a body is removed, the shape of a person impressed on the bed”[xi].

Untitled7This idea of the physical ‘vacuum of death’ can, as we have seen, be monumentalised in the form of the Cenotaph – or empty tomb, but more recently the work of Rachel Whiteread has illustrated how absence and loss can be articulated by the physical expression of negative space. Whiteread’s work ‘House’ in Grove Road, Mile End has already been written about as an example of uncanny architecture by Anthony Vidler[xii] – her representation in concrete of a space symbolically devoid of what should be there turns a homely, domestic space into the ‘unhomely’ in much the same way that the absence of a body turns the Cenotaph into – for want of a better word – the ‘untombly’.

Untitled11It is therefore perhaps not surprising that Whiteread was chosen to create a memorial to the Austrian Jews killed in the Holocaust , a negative cast of a library with the books turned inwards in the Judenplatz in Vienna. What might be more of a surprise.. an uncanny coincidence perhaps… is her design for the 4th plinth in Trafalgar Square – a resin cast of the inverted pedestal -which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Cenotaph a few hundred yards away in Whitehall.

Untitled9Jenny Edkins and Jay Winter both pick out the Whitehall Cenotaph and the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington as examples of how memorial monuments can successfully harness the power of the body in recognising and confronting trauma. For Edkins, both memorials are “exceptional because they encircle trauma rather than absorbing it in a national myth of glory and sacrifice”. She sees the subjugation of trauma as a disruptive power which, if unrecognised, can “return to haunt the structures of power that instigated the violence in the first place”[xiii].

To Edkins, the two monuments are successful memorials because they face trauma full on by forcing reality and the recognition of the body onto their viewer, which is realised architecturally by the reflectiveness of the Vietnam Memorial Wall, enforcing bodily recognition as a mirror image – as this photo shows.


This paper has, however, tried to suggest that the bodily power of the Cenotaph is crucially enhanced by its coupling with the Tomb in Westminster Abbey – an uncanny doubling of the present/absent body which almost reifies the trauma so readily repressed in the myth (or Old Lie) of the Glorious Dead. And it is this official myth of remembrance and sacrifice – the absolution of blame and the repression of trauma, which, according to Mark Auge, is what needs to be forgotten in order “to remember the past as a present, to return to it to find the hideous shape of the unspeakable again”. Auge goes on: “Official memory needs monuments, it beautifies death and horror. The beautiful cemeteries of Normandy…align their tombs all along the intertwined pathways, nobody could say that this arranged beauty is not moving, but the emotion it arouses is borne from the harmony of forms, from the impressive spectacle of the army of the dead immobilised in the white crosses standing to attention. …it does not evoke the raging battles, nor the fear of the men, nothing of what would actually restore some of the past realistically lived by the soldiers buried in the Normandy soil.”[xiv]

This bringing of the past into the present in order to remember that which a mere monument and official rhetoric makes so easy to forget is, I would argue, embodied, if not personified by the duel presence, or absence of the bodies in the tomb. In highlighting the liminality of death, the mortality of the body and the blurring of anonymity and identity, they also embody the Uncanny. In the words of Ra Page: “[The Uncanny] puts us on edge — that place we really should be from time to time — and reminds us: it’s us that’s alive.”[xv]

[i] Laura Wittman, The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Modern Mourning, and the Reinvention of the Mystical Body, (Toronto: 2011) p.3

[ii] Paul Connerton, How Society Remembers, (Cambridge: 1989) p.20

[iii] Neil Hanson, The Unknown Soldier: The Story Of The Missing Of The Great War, (Corgi : 2007)

[iv] Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge: 1998) p.81

[v] William Orpen, An Onlooker in France 1917-1919, (Project Gutenberg 2006) [http://www.gutenberg.org/files/20215/20215-h/20215-h.htm]

[vi] Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, (Collector’s Library: 2003), p.149

[vii] Karen Levenback, Virginia Woolf and The Great War, (Syracuse : 1998) p.40

[viii] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, (Verso : 2006) p.9

[ix] Mark Augé, Non Places, (Verso : 2008) p.50

[x] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, (Wiley-Blackwell : 1991) p.221

[xi] Carlos Garcia-Sancho, ‘Building Death: Cemeteries and the Representation of Death in Western Culture’ (issuu.com) p.17 [http://issuu.com/cgsancho/docs/buildingdeath#]

[xii] Anthony Vidler, Warped Spaces: Art, Architecture and Anxiety in Modern Culture, (MIT:2002) p.142

[xiii] Jenny Edkins, Trauma and the Memory of Politics, (Cambridge: 2003) p.57

[xiv] Mark Augé, Oblivion, (Minnesota: 2004) pp. 88-89

[xv] Ra Page (ed.), The New Uncanny, (Comma: 2008) intro



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