CBD036-04.jpg (79488 bytes) Sydney Architecture Images- Central Business District

The Cenotaph


Sir Edgar Bertram Mackennal, the first Australian artist to be knighted.


Martin Place, opposite the GPO.




Inter-War Art Deco


Moruya granite (same as used in Harbour Bridge pylons) and two bronze figures




Loosely based on the London Cenotaph, there is one in each city of the Empire.
The memorial is a granite plinth with life-size bronze statues of World War I servicemen, a soldier at the east end and a sailor at the west. The figures stand at ease and each holds a bayoneted rifle. The soldier wears a steel helmet rather than a slouch hat. A bronze wreath sits on top of the plinth. There is a flagpole at either end and the area is enclosed by a chain and post fence.

The designer was Sir Edgar Bertram Mackennal, the first Australian artist to be knighted.

Permission to reproduce the following article has been kindly given by the author, Donald Richardson of the University of South Australia, Adelaide, South Australia. ©

The Sydney Cenotaph 1

In 1924, the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of New South Wales approached the NSW government for its moral and financial support to erect a memorial as 'a thanks offering' to the men and women of the state who had served and died in the First World War 2. A trust was set up and about £60,000 had been subscribed by 1923, but the death of one of the trustees tied the funds up legally for a time 3. Discussion ensued as to whether a utilitarian structure, such as a memorial hall, or 'an idealistic Memorial in St James's Square, adjoining Hyde Park Barracks', should be built 4.

In January, 1926, the Lang government agreed to add up to £10,000 to the 'large sum' of money already raised by the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League 5.

The government then gave 'informal instructions'6 that a sub-committee be appointed to organize a competition for the design of a cenotaph. The centrally-located Martin Place was chosen as the location, but this was challenged immediately - as it was periodically right up until the time the street was declared a pedestrian mall in 1967.

The term cenotaph derives from the Greek words taphos, meaning tomb, and kenos, meaning empty. This form of monument was deemed appropriate - as it was for Whitehall, in London - because the war-dead of both countries had been interred overseas. But Whitehall is a much more spacious street than Martin Place and, although motor-vehicle traffic was much less in the 1920s than it was soon to become, many far-sighted citizens criticized the choice of site for this reason. Martin Place was described as 'an ever-deepening canyon of a commercial centre' where the memorial would not be able to be seen for the 'traffic rushing by'7, and no more than 'a cab-rank'8. One writer 9 opined that the site was 'no more suitable a spot for a market place (than) could be imagined' and 'no one, except from an aeroplane, may ever see it from far'. Dr John Bradfield, one of the designers of and the engineer in charge of the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge (which had commenced a few months earlier), who maintained a continued interest in the project, suggested - with much justification - that it would look 'more imposing' in Wynyard Square 10.

But the RSSIL had chosen Martin Place because its central location had made it the venue of many patriotic rallies during the war, and no amount of public persuasion could divert it from its decision. There was even a suggestion that the city council might pave Martin Place with rubber to lessen traffic noise 11.

However, the plan for a design competition was abandoned when Mackennal arrived in Sydney (in February, 1926) to oversee the erection of his Shakespeare Memorial, which is situated near the Mitchell Library, and 'to get some sunshine'12. Mackennal was feted during his visit, which lasted for more than a year - from February, 1926, until March, 1927 13. He lunched with Prime Minister Bruce and gave him his advice on the future development of the new city of Canberra, proposing the central location of a 'symbolic' group of statuary 'representing the accomplishment of Federation' 14. In an interview published in Art in Australia 15, he advised Sydney on how to realize its potential as a major city of beauty. Premier Lang was very impressed by him and it seems that he convinced the committee to award the contract for the cenotaph to Mackennal without having a competition - which it did, on 9 March, 1926 16. Although there were some objections to this move 17, the public rallied in support. The memorial would be smaller than Victoria's 18, but it would be certain to be of high quality and there would be another - larger - 'ANZAC Memorial', provisionally costed at £100,000, built later 19.

Whereas the Town Planning Association - a consistent critic of the concept - continued to discuss the restoration of the competition, 'many returned soldiers felt that, if the choice of design were left to judges, some terrible effigy might be erected' 20.

The Design

In spite of the fact that the Sydney Morning Herald attributed the design to Dr Bradfield 21, he only collaborated with Mackennal on designing the stone base.

Mackennal conceived the whole structure during his sojourn at East Sydney Technical College, in a small studio which became known as 'The Kennel' afterwards. The Cenotaph is a rectangular structure composed of 23 pieces of tightly-fitting granite, culminating in an altar, with life-sized bronze figures of a soldier and a sailor placed at either end.

The contract stated that the work was to be completed by Anzac Day, 1929 - and it was, the bronzes having arrived in Sydney in February, 1929 22. The maquette for the whole work was approved by the committee from a number of alternative designs 23 before Mackennal left for London in 1927, never to return to Australia again.

The stone structure was erected while Mackennal was back in London, where he made the two bronze figures in 1927-29. Dr Bradfield supervised the construction as Mackennal's agent in Sydney in an honorary capacity. He also selected the stone - from the Moruya quarry (on the south coast of NSW) which was currently supplying the granite for the facing of the bridge pylons. Although the RSSIL had wished to have incorporated in the structure two blocks of stone which soldiers had brought back from France and Gallipoli 24, it is unlikely that this happened.

The memorial carries two inscriptions: 'To our glorious dead' on the side facing the General Post Office building and 'Lest we Forget' on the street side. Mackennal successfully resisted having '1914-19' added on the grounds that it would be totally evident from the sculptures that the monument related to the 'Great War' and that, anyway, the memorial was to be dedicated not only to those who had died in those years but also to the 20,000-25,000 who had died since 25.

The two bronze figures were, according to the Sydney Morning Herald 26, to be 'cast from living models'. This is not only an example of shoddy journalism but also of the naive popular misconceptions that the work should be a supreme example of realistic sculpture, that this was the only appropriate style for it and that such realism could only be achieved by life-casting (none of which are true, of course). It was also reported that Mackennal's model for the soldier was a man who had 'served in three wars' 27 - indicating another false, naive belief: that this would somehow add to the efficacy of the memorial. The Melbourne Herald of 30 October, 1929, added that this man was 'now living in Queensland' and, on 8 January, 1936, that his name was William P. Darby and that he had died in January of that year. The model for the sailor was Leading Signalman John William Varcoe (1897-1948) of the Royal Australian Navy.

However, this may all be mere journalistic supposition. It is unlikely, given the practicalities involved, that Mackennal would have transported half way across the world life-sized Plasticene or - even - plaster models of bronzes he proposed to make in England. It is more likely that he would only have taken drawings of the models with him. But, he would probably have felt it necessary to draw in Australia from actual service-men in authentic costume given that most patrons of war memorials placed great store on details of costume and accoutrements.

Both figures are represented with rifles, guarding the altar-stone, but standing at ease. In reply to some published criticisms of the pose of the figures, Mackennal cabled from London 28 that the structure was '..not a tomb. Figures not mourning. Guarding altar of remembrance.'

Mackennal did not include a colour-patch on the soldier to avoid unnecessary recriminations and jealousy 29.


The construction of the memorial was undertaken by the British engineering firm of Dorman Long, which was then building the Sydney Harbour Bridge - no doubt as a gesture of good will to the city which had commissioned its services.

Sydney City Council made the 3.05 x 7.32m site available, this being judged to be the maximum area that would allow traffic to flow past it safely. Excavation began in June, 1927. The stone-work was completed in a few weeks, the last block of granite - the altar-stone, a rectangular prism, 3.05 x 1.6m in plan, and 1.22 m high, and weighing approximately 20 tonnes - being put in place on 1 August 30. Bradfield, as ever, supervised the placement.

The completed stone structure was unveiled and dedicated on 8 August, in the presence of the Governor of NSW, Sir Dudley de Chair, and Premier Lang, who handed it over to the city. The significance of the date was explained in a speech given by Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Chauvel. It commemorated the day of the battle, in France in 1918, in which the Australian Imperial Force took a major part, and which was the beginning of the defeat of the German army. The proceedings were reported in detail in all newspapers.

An impressive, if not very imposing, structure in its own right, the altar was used for commemorative purposes many times before the bronze figures were added. The completed memorial was unveiled on 21 February, 1929, the anniversary of the day the Australian Light Horse entered Jericho during the Palestine campaign. Sir John Monash, who had planned the successful offensive in Flanders of  8 August, 1918, addressed the crowd 31.

Mackennal was paid £10,000 in 1929, and there was some discussion about whether income tax was payable on the fee 32.

After the figures had been put in place it was observed that, while the sailor faced inland, the soldier faced the sea. It was decided to reverse their positions, but which version was originally intended is not clear.

Public Acceptance

Criticisms of the structure started even before the official unveiling. Some were primarily practical. The Town Planning Association found it 'too squat' and suggested it be placed on a wider and higher base and a more imposing site. It should be removed to the location of the Shakespeare Memorial - which Mackennal had completed just three years earlier 33. A correspondent to the Sydney Morning Herald 34 suggested that the two figures should be turned to face out towards the street.

The Returned Soldiers' League, basing its remarks on the photographs of the bronzes which Mackennal had sent in advance found - somewhat trivially - the details of the soldier wanting 35: the puttee on one leg shows eight folds and on the other nine, and there are 'two eyelets in one boot and three in the other, while the end of each puttee juts out over the tongue of the boots'. 'Whether the errors in dress were committed by the Digger who posed... or by the sculptor himself, the League will seek to ascertain'. The League explained that the digger wears a tin helmet because he is in full battle-dress but claimed credit for 'instructing' Mackennal to place the chin-strap behind the head rather than under the chin, as this was the soldiers' general practice 36. These silly quibbles are further examples of the general misunderstanding in Sydney at the time of the art of sculpture.

On the other hand, graphic designer George Patterson's criticisms 37 were more based on aesthetic considerations. His article is headed: 'A Soulless Cenotaph: No Inspiration in these Figures'. 'It is a shock...', having recently returned from a visit to the battlefields, '....to turn into Martin Place.....and halt before the "cenotaph" which is not a cenotaph, and the so-called replicas of "precious friends", which are so commonplace and unreal as to make you think it were better to have nothing at all'. The memorial 'lacks nobility and pathos' and 'implores the passing tribute of a sigh'. Patterson's views were shared by many.

None of these quibbles had any result, however.

Over the years The Cenotaph featured in the press in other ways. There were frequent discussions as to whether it was being accorded due respect - for example, whether people should not rush by it, and whether men should remove their hats and/or salute when in its vicinity. It was desecrated by some university students in May, 1929, during their annual Commemoration Day ceremonies when, after a theatre performance, they destroyed floral tributes which were on the memorial. Two students spent a night in gaol, and both the university and the student body apologized to the city 38. On 5 November, 1929, the Sydney Morning Herald published a photograph of a party of Italian officials, led by the Acting Consul-General, saluting The Cenotaph in the Fascist manner - without comment. In December, 1932, someone placed a joint of beef on the soldier's bayonet and posters mentioning 'the dole' and 'wage slaves' were stuck to it 39 - the former somewhat trivial, but the latter reflecting the employment situation of the time.

In 1929, a peaceful Communist Party demonstration in support of the American working-class martyrs, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, paused before the Cenotaph. There was controversy in 1933 as to whether the sailors of the visiting German cruiser, Köln, should be permitted to place wreaths on it. They were, and the ceremony passed without incident.


Australian Archives, Adelaide, Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney; Australian War Memorial, Canberra; Mortlock Library, Adelaide.

Tranter, R R, 'Bertram Mackennal: A Career' (MA thesis, University of Sydney, 1990).


1 Its title was officially stated to be 'The Martin Place War Memorial to Fallen Sailors, Soldiers and Nurses' in a note in the Morning Herald of 7 January, 1927, p. 12. There is little wonder, however, that this title did not stick.

2 Apparently, the issue of a national war memorial for Sydney was first raised in 1920, when a city alderman and former state president of the RSSIL, Mr Fred Davidson, lobbied influential people for support. See the Sun, 20 February, 1929, and Sydney City Council Archives file TC6325127.

3 From a pamphlet published by the Federal Council of the Australian Institute of Architects in 1923 - National War Memorials.

4 Ibid. The AIA recommended a non-utilitarian memorial.

5 Sydney Morning Herald, 21 November, 1926. It appears that the RSSIL had raised £60,000. Mackennal's bill only came to a total of £10,000 (Melbourne Herald 30 October, 1929). The £50,000 balance may have been passed over to the ANZAC Memorial funds.

6 Sydney Morning Herald, 9 March, 1926.

7 Letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, 6 March, 1926. An indication of the depth of feeling about this point is that notes of this tenor appeared in this paper even before the memorial was built. Several letters to the editor appeared in April-May, 1923. That published on 4 May also suggested removing the site to between St James's and the Hyde Park Barracks.

8 Letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, 17 July, 1929.

9 Letter to Sydney Morning Herald 6 March, 1926.

10 Sydney Morning Herald, 21 May, 1927. A note in The Sydney Morning Herald of 21 March, 1927, indicates that Premier Lang favoured the Wynyard site.

11 The same proposal was made for London's Whitehall (The Advertiser, 4 August, 1923).

12 The Advertiser, 17 March, 1926.

13 A member of the Town Planning Association commented sourly that he had 'arrived in a halo of glory' (Sydney Morning Herald, 25 March, 1926).

14 Memorandum, signed 'S M Bruce' in Australian Archives A6006, Bruce-Page Ministry January-June, 1927. The memo concludes: 'in view of the heavy building and financial commitments it is not desirable to proceed ... but that the question be taken up at a later date'. It may be that Mackennal was angling for a commission here. Tom Bass's Canberra Ethos, in Civic Square - not quite what Mackennal had envisioned, was unveiled in 1962.

15 3, 16; June, 1926.. Mackennal's visit was a great personal success. Not only did he secure the commission for The Cenotaph and for the King George V memorial for Parliament House, Canberra, but he was also asked to complete the memorial to the Desert Mounted Corps for Port Said, which Web Gilbert had left unfinished at his death; and his October, 1926, exhibition of small sculptures at Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, realised him the sum of £3650 (Art in Australia, 3, 19; March, 1927, p.45).

16 Australian Archives ACT46118 C370111131 1.

17 Some of the objections may have been political in inspiration and others due to Ung's somewhat dictatorial style.

18 Although, by 1926, Victoria had planned to build Melbourne's Shrine of Remembrance, construction did not actually commence until 1928.

19 The Anzac Memorial, in Hyde Park, was unveiled in 1934.

20 Sydney Morning Herald, 25 March, 1926.

21 On 4 February, 1929. Mackennal wrote to the paper protesting (letter published 10 April, 1929). (Reports by SMH journalists of the day were often faulty, as was the work of the proof-readers. The reports in the Melbourne Herald are more reliable.)

22 Sydney Morning Herald, 7 February, 1929.

23 Sydney Morning Herald, 7 January, 1927.

24 Sydney Morning Herald, 30 July, 1925.

25 Sydney Morning Herald, 21 May, 1927.

26 Sydney Morning Herald, 19 March, 1927.

27 Not detailed, but possible the Spanish-American War of 1898, the Boer War of 1899-1901 and the First World War. Sydney City Council Archives documents record him as Private William P. Derby (1870-1936) of the 15th Infantry Battalion and the 4th Field Ambulance AIF. The same document also records the name of the model for the sailor.

28 Sydney Morning Herald, 8 September, 1927.

29 Sydney Morning Herald, 26 March, 1928.

30 Sydney Morning Herald, 2 August, 1927.

31 Sydney Morning Herald, 20 February, 1929. Sydney Mail, 27 February, 1929.

32 Melbourne Herald, 30 October, 1929.

33 Sydney Morning Herald, 11 July, 1929.

34 Sydney Morning Herald, 17 July, 1929.

35 Sydney Morning Herald, 20 October, 1928

36 Sydney Morning Herald, 26 March, 1928.

37 Sydney Morning Herald, 17 March, 1929.

38 Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Herald 22 May, 1929.

39 Sydney Morning Herald, 27 December, 1932.


South face

East end, on south side of soldier statue


North face

West end, on south side of sailor statue


Thanks to http://www.skp.com.au/memorials/default.htm 

Cenotaph - Martin Place Sydney

Martin Place
NSW  2000

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 April 25th, 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. Sir E. Bertram MacKennal - Portrait [drawing] 1895. 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 March 9th, 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 3.05m x 1.6m, and 1.22m high, with a weight of some 20 tonnes, was put in place on the 1st 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 8th August, 1927. Lieut.-General Sir Harry Chauvel delivered a speech in which he explained that the 8th August was an important date, for in 1918, it was the day in France when the AIF 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 (SEE Additional Images with accompanying information - below), one an AIF soldier and the other an RAN sailor. Some artists believe he would have used drawings of actual servicemen for preparation rather than attempting to create plaster or plasticine models whilst 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 AIF 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.



On the north face, in gilt lettering, are the words, "Lest we Forget", and on the 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.

Established: 1927

Dedication: 08 August,1927
Photographed and recorded by:
John K. Wright, State Library of New South Wales

Special thanks to http://www.warmemorialsnsw.asn.au/index.cfm 

In May and June 1942 the war was brought home to Australians on the east coast when the Japanese attacked Sydney Harbour from the sea.

In the late afternoon of 31 May 1942 three Japanese submarines, I-22, I-24 and I-27, sitting about seven nautical miles (13 kilometres) out from Sydney Harbour, each launched a Type A midget submarine for an attack on shipping in Sydney Harbour. The night before, I-24 had launched a small floatplane that flew over the harbour, its crew spotting a prize target – an American heavy cruiser, the USS Chicago. The Japanese hoped to sink this warship and perhaps others anchored in the harbour.

After launching the three two-man midget submarines, the three mother submarines moved to a new position off Port Hacking to await the return of the six submariners sent into the harbour. They would wait there until 3 June.

galleryAll three midget submarines made it into the harbour. Electronic detection equipment picked up the signature of the first (from I-24) late that evening but it was thought to be either a ferry or another vessel on the surface passing by. Later, a Maritime Services Board watchman spotted an object caught in an anti-submarine net. After investigation, naval patrol boats reported it was a submarine and the general alarm was raised just before 10.30 pm. Soon afterwards, the midget submarine’s crew, Lieutenant Kenshi Chuma and Petty Officer Takeshi Ohmori, realising they were trapped, blew up their craft and themselves.

Before midnight, alert sailors on the deck of USS Chicago spotted another midget submarine. They turned a searchlight on it and opened fire but it escaped. Later, gunners on the corvette HMAS Geelong also fired on a suspicious object believed to be the submarine.

[AWM F00348]The response to the attack was marred by confusion. Vision was limited and ferries continued to run as the midget submarines were hunted. At about 12.30 am there was an explosion on the naval depot ship HMAS Kuttabul, a converted harbour ferry, which was moored at Garden Island as an accommodation vessel. The crew of the midget submarine from I-24 had fired at the USS Chicago but missed, the torpedo striking the Kuttabul instead. Nineteen Australian and two British sailors on the Kuttabul died, the only Allied deaths resulting from the attack, and survivors were pulled from the sinking vessel.

[AWM F00348]A second torpedo fired by the same midget submarine ran aground on rocks on the eastern side of Garden Island, failing to explode. Having fired both their torpedoes, the crew made for the harbour entrance but they disappeared, their midget submarine perhaps running out of fuel before reaching the submarines’ rendezvous point.

The third midget submarine from I-22 failed to make it far into the harbour. Spotted in Taylors Bay and attacked with depth charges by naval harbour patrol vessels, Lieutenant Keiu Matsuo and Petty Officer Masao Tsuzuku, shot themselves.

The mother submarines departed the area after it became obvious that their midget submarines would not be returning. The submarine I-24 is believed to have been responsible for a number of attacks on merchant ships as well as shelling Sydney Harbour a week later.

[AWM F00348]The bodies of the four Japanese crewmen from the midget submarines launched by I-22 and I-27 were recovered when these two midget submarines were raised. They were cremated at Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs Crematorium with full naval honours. Rear Admiral Muirhead-Gould, in charge of Sydney Harbour defences, along with the Swiss Consul-General and members of the press, attended the service. The admiral’s decision to accord the enemy a military funeral was criticised by many Australians but he defended his decision to honour the submariners’ bravery. He also hoped that showing respect for the dead men might help to improve the conditions of the many Australians in Japanese prisoner of war camps.

After the recovery of the two midget submarines a composite was constructed using the bow section of one and the stern of the other. It was decided to use this composite midget submarine to raise money for the Royal Australian Navy Relief Fund and the King George Fund for Merchant Sailors. The composite submarine was first put on display at Bennelong Point, now the site of the Sydney Opera House, and people paid a small fee to see it. It was then transported by truck on a 4000-kilometre journey through south-eastern Australia raising further funds. Eleven months after the submarine raid, the composite submarine was installed at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. 

In 1968, Lieutenant Matsuo’s mother travelled to Australia to visit the spot where her son had died. During her visit she scattered cherry blossoms in the water where her son’s midget submarine had been located and later she presented a number of gifts to the Australian War Memorial.

With thanks to http://www.ww2australia.gov.au/index.html