Mr Fred Davidson, the then metropolitan vice president of the RSL, conceived the idea of having a suitable memorial to the dead erected in Martin Place the site of Armistice Day ceremonies.
He was a short story writer who, as such, knew Mr H.D. McIntosh the managing director of the Sunday Times whom he induced to provide publicity. As a result there appeared, in that paper on 16th November, 1924, an article which read in part:
"Let us keep holy our most sacred place. New South Wales should raise a Cenotaph or Memorial Stone in Martin Place. On Armistice Day (five days previously) thousands of Australians assemble in Martin Place to honour the memory of heir Glorious Dead. What other spot so fitting? Martin Place where our thoughts and our steps turned so often during four years of sorrow and triumph.
Martin Place where in all the days that are to come, we, or those who will stand in our places, will gather in times of stress or joy a place consecrated by its associations with the days when our worthwhileness as a people was being tried in the Furnace of War.
The sacred places of a Nation are not made they are like a Nations songs, they come to their own without design or plan. Martin Place has come. Therefore, let us now further consecrate it by raising a memorial stone or Cenotaph to those who died for us. Let us keep hold this most sacred and hallowed spot."
Ten prominent people accepted an invitation from Mr W.J. Stagg, the state secretary of the RSL, to join the 'Sydney Cenotaph Citizens' Committee, of which Mr Justice Ferguson became the chairman. On 13th May, 1925, the committee decided that a deputation should wait on the premier (Sir George Fuller), the leader of the opposition (Mr J.T. Lang) and the leader of the Progressive Party (Colonel M.F. Bruxner) in order to obtain their assurances of support of the project assurances which were subsequently received. Shortly afterwards an election resulted in Mr Lang becoming premier, causing the committee to send a further deputation to him on 30th October, 1925. At his suggestion a planning committee of three was formed, comprising the Hon. Sydney Smith (nominated by the Citizens' Committee) as chairman, Mr Davidson (nominated by the RSL) and Mr McIntosh (nominated by the government). It was called the 'Sydney Cenotaph Permanent Committee' and had Mr Stagg as its honorary secretary.
At the time the expatriate Australian sculptor, Sir Bertrand Mackennal, was visiting and, when asked he agreed to design and erect the Cenotaph. On 4th March, 1926, the premier was asked to commission Sir Bertrand, and four days later he agreed to provide a maximum amount of £10,000 in order to do so. The Permanent Committee met in Sir Bertrand's studio on 11th March, 1927, and approved the design; it also decided to appoint Dr J.J.C. Bradfield to supervise the construction work. Dorman Long and Co. was the contractor for the work and its Moruya quarry was the source of the granite from which the Cenotaph is made. It took a team of 20 horses to haul the 17 tonne main stone up from Sydney Harbour.
On the southern side of the Cenotaph is inscribed 'TO OUR GLORIOUS DEAD', and on the northern 'LEST WE FORGET'. The southern side is the 'official' side so that the Australian flag is flown on the left side (western) side and Union Jack on the right hand (eastern) side.
The Cenotaph incorporates bronze soldier and sailor statues superior figure. Both figures are standing rigidly in the 'at ease' position, with rifle and fixed bayonet. The soldier figure wears a tin hat and the rough, unironed serge uniform with puttees of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).
Superior figure during the Great War the Australian Flying Corps was a part of the Australian Army; also, those women who served did so in the navy or the army; consequently the only two figures are a soldier and a sailor.
Its model was Corporal William P. Derby, who, despite his age, had the physique of an athlete of 30 and was a popular artists' model. He was Irish born and had served in the Spanish-American War, but had migrated to Australia and joined the AIF in which he served on Gallipoli and up the Western Front, first as a 15th Battalion stretcher bearer and then in 4 Field Ambulance. He lost his hearing and ended his AIF service as a medical orderly at the Randwick (NSW) Military Hospital. He would later be critical of the figures saying they should have been 'at rest on arms reversed'. He died in January 1936 in Brisbane at the age of 66 years. The sailor figure is in the old traditional uniform of jacket and bell bottom trousers with belt and gaiters; on his sleeve are two inverted stripes representing eight years good conduct. It model was 3059 Leading Signalman John William Varcoe, DSM, who had been born at Bakers Swamp, NSW, on 20th July, 1897 and educated at Dubbo Public School. He joined the Royal Australian Navy on 3rd June, 1913 as a 'Boy Second Class'. On 22nd September, 1914 he completed his initial training in the three masted sailing ship HMAS Tingira (previously the Sobraon) and was posted as a signal boy to first HMAS Cerberus and then HMAS Pioneer. On 14th April, 1917 he was transferred to HMAS Parramatta as a signalman. When, on 15th November, 1917 the Italian steamer Orione was torpedoed in the Mediterranean, the Parramatta took it in tow and Varcoe was placed aboard, where his efforts in maintaining communications earned him the Distinguished Service Medal on 17th May, 1918. He remained in the navy until 8th April, 1928 and died in October, 1948.
On 8th August, 1927 the Cenotaph was dedicated, although the soldier and sailor statues were still being manufactured in England by A.B. Burton. Sir Dudley de Chair, the state governor, presided over the ceremony and gave an address; Mr Lang delivered the speech of dedication; the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Alderman Mostyn, accepted the Cenotaph on behalf of the people of Sydney; and Lieutenant General Sir Harry Chauvel spoke on the significance of the day's date 8th of August, the German Army's 'black day'. Two Victoria Cross holders - Messrs W.E. Brown and G.J. Howell were the two flagmen on the day. The governor laid the only wreath (of laurel); it carried the words: 'A symbol of national homage superseding and consummating all private tributes'.
After the statues were fitted on their pedestals there was an unveiling ceremony on 21st February, 1929 the anniversary of the entry into Jericho by the Australian Light Horse. Again Sir Dudley de Chair presided; the dean of Sydney read a prayer of dedication; the premier, Mr T.R. Bavin, delivered an address and performed the unveiling; and General Sir John Monash gave an address. Messrs G.J. Howell and Bede Kenny, both Victoria Cross holders, were the two flagmen.
In July, 1938, it was decided to plant a poplar tree at each end of the Cenotaph. In the event Wagga Wagga City Council donated six Lombardy Poplars, two of which were planted on 21st July. In the following year the Cenotaph was flood-lit. Later (in 1955) extensions were made at each end of the Cenotaph to prevent vehicles from encroaching on it.
Since 1928 a person nominated by the RSL has been appointed by the Sydney City Council as 'Custodian of the Cenotaph' to control activities associated with it and to ensure that it is properly maintained. In addition the City Council's By-Law No. 18 under the Sydney Corporation Act of 1932-3 (published in New South Wales Government Gazette No. 24 of 19th February, 1937) regulates conduct in the vicinity of the Cenotaph.