The North Eastern Railway (NER), one of the largest employers in the north of England, released over 18,000 of its employees to serve in the armed forces during the First World War, many of them joining the 17th (North Eastern Railway) Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers. By the end of the war, 2,236 men from the company had died on military service overseas; others were killed at home by bombardments of east coast ports, such as the raid on Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby, and in the three Zeppelin raids on York.
After the war, thousands of memorials were built across Britain. Among the most prominent designers of memorials was architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, described by Historic England as "the leading English architect of his generation". Lutyens designed the Cenotaph on Whitehall in London, which became the focus for the national Remembrance Sunday commemorations, as well as the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing—the largest British war memorial anywhere in the world—and the Stone of Remembrance which appears in all large Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries and in several of Lutyens' war memorials in Britain, including the North Eastern Railway's.
The war memorial is one of several buildings and structures in the centre of York related to the NER, including the company's headquarters and the city's original railway station. The site—chosen as being immediately adjacent to the company's head office—was originally a coal depot and carriage sidings.