For the close relatives of the fallen, the Cenotaph has long been a place of personal association and deep reflection. Royalty, famous military commanders, returned comrades, visiting dignitaries from many nations, as well as countless individuals, have all laid wreaths in memory of those who died in numerous wars.
The word cenotaph is from the Greek words taphos–tomb, and kenos- empty; combined to indicate an “empty tomb”.
In the still, pre-dawn air, the same time as the first wave of 1500 Australian troops landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula on 25 April 1915, thousands gather each Anzac Day around the Cenotaph for the Dawn Service. A deeply moving and reverent occasion that precedes the Anzac March, commencing nearby at 9.00am. Martin Place was recommended by the Returned Sailors and Imperial League of New South Wales for the erection of the Cenotaph, as many returned veterans associated the location with recruiting programs and patriotic rallies conducted throughout the First World War.
A competition for the design was to be held, but abandoned when the expatriate sculptor, Sir Bertram MacKennal, visited Sydney in 1926 to oversee the installation of his Shakespeare Players statue in front of the Mitchell Wing of the State Library of NSW. MacKennal so impressed NSW Premier Jack Lang that he convinced the Cenotaph Committee to choose him for the project, and in due course the contract was awarded on 9 March 1926.
The Cenotaph’s base is comprised of 23 pieces of Moruya granite, the same stone as used for the Sydney Harbour Bridge pylon facings. The important rectangular altar-stone is 3.05m long, 1.6m wide and 1.22m high, with a weight of some 20 tonnes. It was put in place on 1 August 1927. The work was supervised by Dr. John Bradfield, engineer for the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and the Bridge contractor, British firm Dormon Long was responsible for the construction.
The stone structure was dedicated, and handed to the City, on the 8 August 1927. Lieut.-General Sir Harry Chauvel delivered a speech in which he explained 8 August was an important date, for in 1918, it was the day in France when the Australian Imperial Force (A.I.F.) took a major part in battles that marked the beginning of the defeat of the German army. Described by General Erich Ludendorff as “..the black day of the German Army in this war...”.
MacKennal sculptured two sentinel bronze figures, one an A.I.F. soldier and the other an Royal Australian Navy (RAN) sailor. Some artists believe he would have used drawings of actual servicemen for preparation rather than attempting to create plaster or plasticine models while in Sydney, as these would be difficult to transport back to London for casting by the A. B. Burton Foundry. In any case, he would most certainly have required detailed references for the uniforms and kit needed for the two service figures. Sydney City Council Archives documents record that Leading Signalman John William Varcoe RAN was the naval model with Private William Pigot Darby representing the A.I.F. soldier. Both men acted as typical stand-ins for their 300,000 plus Australian comrades who saw overseas service during the First World War. In recognition of this generic representation, the figure of the soldier has no colour patch.
The stone altar section was used for commemorations until the Cenotaph, complete with the sentinel bronze figures, was unveiled on 21 February 1929, the anniversary of the day the Australian Light Horse entered Jericho. Sir John Monash, named by Field Marshall Montgomery “as the best general on the western front in Europe”, delivered the address. Following a satisfactory conclusion to the project, Sir Bertram MacKennal was paid his £10,000 commission fee.
North face, in gilt lettering:
Lest we Forget
South face (the GPO building side):
To our glorious dead
West end on south side of sailor statue:
B. MACKENNAL 1928 A. B. BURTON FOUNDER
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