Council to consider designating Edmonton Cenotaph a municipal historic resource

· The Pulse
By Andy Trussler
in the Arts Roundup

The Edmonton Cenotaph could soon be designated a municipal historic resource, further cementing the importance of the memorial for Edmontonians who lost their lives in global conflicts like the First World War, Second World War, Korean War, and the Afghanistan War.

The designation, which executive committee recommended be approved by city council, would award the monument certain restorative and protective rights, including the preservation of distinctive features like wreaths, lions, tapering, and more.

The concept of a memorial cenotaph is credited to English architect Edwin Lutyens, who unveiled his first memorial sculpture, the Southampton Cenotaph, on Nov. 6, 1920.

Art historian Alan Borg wrote that Lutyens' cenotaph was the "one memorial that proved to be more influential than any other." Lutyens' design influenced the construction of cenotaphs worldwide, including in Edmonton, down to their symbolic engraving and features.

The torch, laurel wreath, cross, and lions on the cenotaph's south elevation.

The torch, laurel wreath, cross, and lions on the Edmonton Cenotaph. (City of Edmonton/Youtube)

Unpacking the symbolism

Laurel wreaths are featured on the south, west, and east elevations of the Edmonton Cenotaph. This imagery can be traced back to Greek mythology and sun god Apollo, who is depicted wearing the wreath on his head. These decorations have come to symbolize victory and triumph for both athletes and newly crowned commanders.

An additional display box on the west elevation holds a laurel wreath from the Edmonton Salutes Committee.

A large torch, coupled on with a cross, is displayed on the south elevation in reference to the line, "The torch; be yours to hold it high" from Lt.-Col. John McCrae's famous poem, In Flanders Fields.

Decorative garlands — a wreath of flowers or leaves — extend along the top of the cenotaph to symbolize the victory of the Christian "redemption of humankind."

Three lions also stand prominently on the statue. The symbolism here is less specific, but lions can be interpreted as symbols for bravery, and courage.

Many of the features and engraving appear in sets of three: three lions, three drapes of the garland, three curves of ribbon on each side of the hand holding the wreath. The number three holds a powerful representation for all cenotaph statues.

The city heritage officer's statement of significance references the Latin phrase "omne trium perfectum" or "everything that comes in threes is perfect."

Even the shape has a purpose. Lutyens tapered the top of his sculpture for engineering and aesthetic purposes. This is "intended to draw the eye upwards in a (spiral) direction, first to the inscription, then to the lions, to the torch, and finally to the garland at the top."

Several inscriptions are featured as well: "Remembered" on the south elevation; "Our Glorious Dead" and "Afghanistan 2001-2014" on the east; and "1914-1918," "1939-1945," and "Korea 1950-1953" on the west.

The added inscriptions "Our Glorious Dead" and "Afghanistan 2001-2014" from the cenotaph's rededication ceremony on the 20th anniversary of Canada's introduction into the Afghanistan War.

The added inscriptions "Our Glorious Dead" and "Afghanistan 2001-2014" from the cenotaph's rededication ceremony on the 20th anniversary of Canada's introduction into the Afghanistan War. (City of Edmonton/Youtube)

History and tradition

The Edmonton Cenotaph carries a long and storied history. A citizens committee made up of representatives from 32 community groups lobbied for land and fundraising in 1929, with the aim to construct a memorial to the approximately 3,000 Edmontonians who lost their lives in the First World War.

Local architect William Blakey drafted up the original plans for the cenotaph. However, Blakey and the committee had a falling out over the exclusion of Alberta masons from a construction tender call.

Despite disagreements, the memorial was successfully crafted in 1936 and initially stood at 102 Street and 100 Avenue before moving to its current location by Edmonton's city hall in 1978.

To mark the 20th anniversary of Canada's entrance into the Afghanistan War, the monument was rededicated in honour of the conflict's military personnel on June 13, 2021.

Previous dedications followed the Second World War (dedication in 1946), the Korean War (dedication in 1956), and various other Canadian peacekeeping missions.

A short, outdoor Remembrance Day ceremony to honour the lives lost to global conflicts will take place in front of the Edmonton Cenotaph at 10:40 am on Nov. 11, and the decision to designate the monument as a municipal historic resource will go before city council at the end of November.