On October 14th 1918, Robert wrote to his close friend and fellow architect Robin Dods: “I was asked rather suddenly to take up the job of Principal architect to the Imperial war graves commission for Italy + Egypt.” It is likely that he was recommended for the postion of Principal Architect to the Imperial War Graves Commission by architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.
Between 1919 and 1927, Robert designed more than three hundred war memorials in Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Greece, Macedonia, Egypt, Palastine and one in Queenstown in South Africa. He made eleven tours of duty in Europe and the middle east, beginning in Italy a week after being appointed.
Travelling through Europe while the war was ongoing, the shell fire was so close at one site in Italy that he was made to wear a heavy tin hat. He later wrote to Sir William Burrell, a friend and fellow antiques collector, “I have witnessed the agony, the desolation, the ruin caused by the war, how half of Europe is one vast graveyard.”
“No tongue can tell, no pen describe, no picture convey any - not the remotest idea of the appalling scene of desolation that extended mile after mile after mile, every yard current up by shell fire, any remnants of trees, mere tortured stumps… To think that this country has been fought over again and again - how human beings, how either side could ever stick it will remain a mystery.”
- Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer to Robin Dods, 14th October 1918
Letter from Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer to Robin Dods (14th October 1918) , Photo: © University of Edinburgh
“All really great works of art are public works - monumental, collective, generic - expressing the ideas of a race, a community, a united people”
- Walter Crane
More than a quarter of Scotland’s soldiers did not return home after The Great War. Proportionally, Scotland lost more of its people than any other country in the British Empire: almost 150,000 people of a population of under 5 million. The Scottish National War Memorial, designed, built and funded by Scots, is the lament of a nation, not only for the tragedies of WWI but for all Scotland’s wars.
Robert's ambition, leadership and respect for tradition, craftsmanship and proportion poured into the Scottish National War Memorial, the pinnacle of his career. Robert chose and directed a team of over two hundred people to build the memorial, which holds more than sixty separate works of art. Thomas Beattie carved several inscriptions, while the brothers William and Alexander Clow carved St Michael who stands triumphant above the wrought iron gate made by blacksmith Thomas Hadden, all craftsmen who had worked with Robert for decades. Alice Meredith Williams modelled St Michael and the great frieze, working from sketches done by her husband Morris, many made during the war, while Phyllis Bone remembered the animals who “served and died” and made the handles of the Scottish oak door. The "captain of the band of carvers," was Charles d’Orville Pilkington Jackson.
When the memorial opened on 14th July 1927, the crowds stretched all the way down the royal mile to St Giles Cathedral, where Robert had first worked with stained glass artist and maker Douglas Strachan. Strachan designed fourteen magnificent stained glass windows for the memorial, one of which depicts the farewells of family’s to the soldiers at Edinburgh’s Waverley Station.
The Scottish National Memorial is not something you walk past. It is a building which you choose to enter. The names of the dead are not recorded on walls which can be glanced over. They are recorded in leather books which you choose to open and read. At every turn, the memorial keeps its promise to remember the lives of all who lived and died in the Great War, holding a visitor's attention and turning them from a passive passerby to an active participant in remembering Scotland's sacrfice.
Robert recommended to the Duke of Atholl, key in the memorial’s organisation, that Douglas Strachan, Charles d’Orville Pilkington Jackson and Alice Meredith Williams be put forward for knighthoods, proposals which were denied. However, Robert’s own knighthood for the Thistle Chapel and KBE for the Memorial are testimony not only his achievement as a leader, but the achievements of the people he led.
Listen to an account of the Scottish National War Memorial by Charles d'Orville Pilkington Jackson, read by his granddaughter Kirsty Jackson.
Watch the opening ceremony of the Scottish National War Memorial
Scottish National War Memorial (1927), Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer, Edinburgh Castle, Photo: © Charlotte Lorimer
The Pelican in her Piety (1927), modelled by Alice Meredith Williams, gilded by Charles d'Orville Pilkington Jackson, Scottish National War Memorial, Photo: © Antonia Reeve
Sketch of interior, gates leading to the Shrine (c.1927), Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer, gates by Thomas Hadden, Photo: Scottish National War Memorial
St Michael (1927), modelled by Alice Meredith Williams, carved by William and Alexander Clow, Scottish National War Memorial, Photo: © Antonia Reeve
Panel from the Shrine (1927), modelled by Alice Meredith Williams from sketches by Morris Meredith Williams, Scottish National War Memorial, Photo: © Antonia Reeve
Hall of Honour (1927), Scottish National War Memorial, Photo: © Antonia Reeve
Robert designed more than thirty-three war memorials in Britain. Many incorporated wrought-iron gates from Thomas Hadden and sculptures from Charles d’Orville Pilkington Jackson, Alice Meredith Williams and the Clow Brothers: the family of craftsmen traveled the country together to remember their countrymen.
History repeated itself when his son Hew was commissioned to do a memorial for WWII, an example of the emphasis he placed on lettering. The importance of lettering was first impressed on Hew by his father and was reinforced during his apprenticeship with Eric Gill. In the memorial, the sailors, soldiers and airmen are remembered with gentle words, elegantly carved into the stone.
Plaistow War Memorial, Hew Lorimer, Photo: © The National Trust for Scotland