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In May 1919 the War Cabinet decided that a day of celebration should be held to mark the signing of the peace treaty on 28 June 1919 and a Peace Celebrations Committee was appointed; the high point of these celebrations would be a victory parade in London. In part, this jamboree was intended to divert public attention from growing national disquiet, economic recession, labour unrest, as well as growing discontent in the army.
At this time the French had already decided on their own victory celebrations, which would take place on 14 July in Paris. Here the troops would march past a 'great catafalque' erected beside the Arc de Triomphe, which they would salute, in honour of their war dead. The catafalque was dismantled after the parade.

The Prime Minister Lloyd George 'came back from France deeply impressed by the historical ceremony in Paris in which he had participated. The catafalque in honoured association with the Arc de Triomphe appealed to his sense of what harmonized with the solemn occasion. His inner self envisaged our need for a point of homage to stand as a symbol of remembrance worthy of the reverent salute of an Empire mourning for its million dead', noted the architect Edwin Lutyens.

Shortly after Lloyd George’s return from Paris Edwin Lutyens was invited to Downing Street and asked to design a non-sectarian structure for the parade, to be designed and built in two weeks. A plaster and wood cenotaph very similar to the present one was the result.

The Cabinet was very specific about the form which the monument should take, not so much for aesthetic reasons, but because it was keeping tight control of all the arrangements for the Peace Day parade. Arrangements for a 'salute to the dead' were regarded as sensitive. Cabinet members were not prepared to leave such an important symbol entirely to the discretion of an artist, however eminent. Not all of the Cabinet thought the project a good idea, and some were afraid that the monument might be desecrated. The Cenotaph was one of a number of temporary structures erected for the Peace Day celebrations.

The word cenotaph derives from the Greek words kenos meaning empty, and taphos meaning tomb. The origin of this type of memorial can be found in the importance the ancient Greeks attached to the proper burial of their dead, even if no corpse was available. If recovery was not possible, either because of defeat or because death took place at sea, the Greeks built a cenotaph or a sema to replace the body. A sema may be a piece of stone or a stone figure. This stone substituted for a dead person is 'both the external sign of the invisible dead... and the substitute person, especially kept alive in memory when written upon'.