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The Cenotaph, Martin Place

The Cenotaph, Martin Place
The Cenotaph, Martin Place, north face
The Cenotaph, Martin Place, south face
The Cenotaph, in its setting in Martin Place
The Cenotaph, Martin Place, close-up of soldier statue
The Cenotaph, Martin Place, close-up of soldier statue
The Cenotaph, Martin Place, close-up of sailor statue
The Cenotaph, Martin Place, close-up of sailor statue
The Cenotaph, Martin Place, close up of south face inscription
The Cenotaph, Martin Place, close up of north face inscription
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Description / Background

For close relatives of the fallen, the Cenotaph in Sydney's iconic Martin Place has long been a place of personal association and deep reflection. Royalty, famous military commanders, returned comrades, dignitaries from many nations, and countless individuals, have laid wreaths upon the memorial in honour of those who have died in service to their country.

The word cenotaph is from the Greek words 'taphos', meaning tomb, and 'kenos', meaning empty. Combined, these words indicate an 'empty tomb', which is reflected in the overall rectangular shape of the monument and its inscriptions.

Design and construction

The Cenotaph is a rectangular granite 'altar stone', inscribed with two simple but meaningful phrases, which are highlighted in gold. On the north face are the words 'To our glorious dead' and the south face reads 'Lest we forget'. The north face, which faces the GPO building, is generally considered to be the front of the memorial. The Cenotaph also features three sculptural elements. On its top face is a bronze wreath and standing 'at ease' on plinths on its east and west ends are two monumental bronze statues. One statue is of an Australian Imperial Force (A.I.F.) soldier and the other is of a Royal Australian Navy (R.A.N.) sailor. The memorial is flanked by two flagpoles and is surrounded by bollards, which are linked by chains.

The Cenotaph is located towards the eastern, or George Street, end of Martin Place, a pedestrian mall that runs through the heart of Sydney's CBD. This location was first suggested by the Returned Sailors and Imperial League of NSW in 1923, as many returned veterans associated it with recruiting programs and patriotic rallies conducted throughout the First World War (The Sun, 16 November 1923, 22 February 1924).

Discussions regarding building a 'memorial shaft' began in 1923 and planning continued over the next two years. In early 1926, Premier of NSW Mr J.T. Lang delegated the coordination of plans and designs to a sub-committee consisting of the Government Architect; Mr Sydney Smith, President of the Sailors and Soldiers’ Fathers’ Association; and Mr Fred Davidson, the NSW President of the same association. Mr Lang also promised government funds of £10,000 for the project (The Daily Telegraph, 21 January 1926).

A competition for the design was considered but was abandoned when expatriate sculptor Sir Edgar Bertram Mackennal visited Sydney to oversee the installation of one of his statues at The State Library of NSW. Mackennal so impressed Mr Lang, he convinced the Cenotaph's committee to choose him for the project. The contract was awarded to Mackennal in March 1926 (Evening News, 4 March 1926).

The Cenotaph's base is comprised of 23 pieces of Moruya granite, the same stone used for the Sydney Harbour Bridge pylon facings. Atop the base is the altar stone, which is 3.05m long, 1.6m wide, and 1.22m high, with a weight of some 17 tonnes. It was moved into place on 1 August 1927 by a team of horses. The work was supervised by Dr. John Bradfield, engineer for the Bridge and the Bridge's contractor, British firm Dormon Long, who were responsible for the Cenotaph's construction (The Sydney Morning Herald, 2 August 1927).

Dedicating the altar stone

The Cenotaph's altar stone was dedicated in front of 10,000 people on 8 August 1927, including NSW government dignitaries, military officers and personnel, consular representatives, and religious leaders. The next day, the Sydney Morning Herald published a detailed account of the event, including the speeches by Premier Lang and the Governor of NSW, Sir Dudley de Chair. The Herald described the emotional and respectful occasion as follows:

There were no dazzling embroideries about the ceremony with which the Cenotaph in Martin-place was dedicated yesterday to the memory of sailors, soldiers, and nurses killed during the war. A few gestures, simply, directly expressing sentiments which needed little rhetoric and explanation, struck from the hearts of the 10,000 who watched, old familiar throbbings of sorrow, and hope, and comradeship.

The Governor laid the first wreath on behalf of the citizens of NSW, Premier Lang performed the dedication, and Lieutenant General Sir Harry Chauvel delivered a speech in which he explained the significance of the dedication date. A portion of his speech was published in the Maitland Daily Mercury the following day. He said:

The importance of this date to the British Empire is that it marked the commencement of the British share of the great counter-offensive on France and Flanders which did not cease until Germany sued for peace in November of the same year. Its importance to Australia lies in the fact that the Australian troops took a very important part in the great battle … and that it was the first occasion on which the whole five divisions of the Australian Corps fought together under one command. 

The Governor then formally handed over the site to the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Alderman Mostyn, following which countless wreaths were laid by officials, organisations, and individuals.

The statues

Mackennal was also responsible for creating the two statues, which were added to the Cenotaph several years after the dedication. Leading Signalman John William Varcoe was the model for the Navy statue and Private William Pigot Darby was the model for the soldier. The statues were cast by the London-based A B Burton Foundry, the name of which is inscribed on the Cenotaph.

Once on site, they were moved into position using a crane from Yellow Express Carriers Ltd, a Sydney-based company that is still operating today. 

Unveiling the Cenotaph

The altar stone was used for commemorations until the finished Cenotaph, complete with statues, was unveiled on 21 February 1929, which was the anniversary of the Australian Light Horse entering Jericho. Sir John Monash delivered an address and Premier of NSW Sir Thomas Rainsford Bavin performed the unveiling. The well-attended event was covered the following day in the Sydney Morning Herald, including excerpts from the speeches. In his speech, the Premier said:

The figures to be unveiled to-day will complete the Cenotaph, which is intended to express in a permanent and material form the admiration of the people of this State for the brave deeds of our soldiers and sailors, our imperishable gratitude for their sacrifice, and our deep and abiding sympathy for the relatives of the fallen. 

The Dawn Service

The Cenotaph is the main site for Anzac Day commemorative services in the Sydney, CBD and is also where the tradition of the Dawn Service originated. In the early hours of Anzac Day 1927, a group of veterans found an elderly woman placing flowers at the site of the incomplete Cenotaph. They joined her to pay their respects and planned to mark the occasion annually. On Anzac Day the following year, a service began at 4.30am and attracted around 100 people. Several wreaths were laid and silent reflection was observed (The Sun, 25 April 1928).

Over the years, the event has grown in scale and formality. It is a deeply moving and reverent occasion that precedes the Anzac March, which usually commences nearby at 9.00am.

Dawn services have become a common format for commemorations throughout Australia. Holding services in the still, pre-dawn air, recalls the same time the first wave of Australian troops landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey on 25 April 1915.



North face

To our glorious dead

South face 

Lest we Forget

West face, on south side of sailor statue


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10 Martin Place
Sydney NSW 2000
Local Government Area
Sydney, City of
Public square
Location status
Original location
Memorial type
Recorded by
NSW War Memorials Register. John K. Wright. Photos by Peter Williams and Megan Reilly.
Year of construction
Dedication date
21 February 1929
All conflicts