The Devon County War Memorial
, outside Exeter Cathedral
, was also designed by Lutyens and was unveiled in 1921. It and the York City memorial are unusual in being iterations of Lutyens' War Cross to stand in a city.
In the aftermath of the First World War, thousands of war memorials were built across Britain. Amongst 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; 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' civic memorials. The York City Memorial was the fifteenth and final War Cross designed by Lutyens, all to a broadly similar design. Most were commissioned for villages—the Devon County War Memorial in Exeter is the only other example of a War Cross serving as a civic memorial in a city.
Proposals for a war memorial in York were mired in controversy from the outset. A war memorial committee was established after a council meeting in May 1919 and the committee opened a memorial fund for donations in August, but six years elapsed before the City War Memorial was unveiled. The first point of contention was one that arose in many communities when considering a war memorial. Some felt that the war dead should be commemorated through a building with some community purpose rather than a purely decorative monument. Multiple ideas were put forward and the council tasked the war memorial committee with considering several proposals, including a new city hall and a convalescent home. The committee generated several ideas of its own including a new bridge over the River Ouse, homes for war widows, a maternity hospital, and several ideas for an educational institution. A series of public meetings produced still further ideas until a meeting on 14 January 1920, where a consensus was established in favour of a monument rather than any utilitarian proposal.
The committee requested that the city engineer produce a design for a memorial garden with an archway and a cenotaph. The city engineer reported back with a design which he estimated would cost around £7,000 and the war memorial committee appointed Lutyens to oversee the project. Lutyens had recently been commissioned to design a memorial for the North Eastern Railway Company (NER) which was based in York and planned to erect its own memorial in the city dedicated to those of its staff who fought and died in the war.