Page last updated at 17:55 GMT, Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Courage of WWI generation honoured

By Alex Kleiderman
BBC News, Westminster Abbey

Wreath is laid at the Tomb of Unknown Warrior
A wreath was carried to the tomb of the Unknown Warrior

The passing of the World War I generation has been marked on Armistice Day with a service at Westminster Abbey in the presence of the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh.

The event recognised the military contribution as well as the impact the war had on those who remained behind.

The congregation of about 2,000 was made up of a cross-section of people and generations from across the country.

Wearing poppies to honour the war dead, they packed into what appeared to be every conceivable space in the Abbey.

Serving armed forces members sat in their uniforms alongside former personnel bearing medals on their jackets and sombrely-dressed members of the public.

This year saw the deaths of the three remaining veterans of WWI living in Britain: William Stone in January, and both Henry Allingham and Harry Patch in July.

Relatives of the three men were in attendance, including Henry Allingham's nephew Ronald Cator and William Stone's daughter Anne Davidson, who gave a reading.

There were also the sons and daughters and grandchildren of other veterans, including some who never returned.

Many, like Michael Berry, from Gloucester, came wearing their relatives' WWI medals.

Mr Berry's middle name is taken from the grandfather he never met, Cpl Henry Berry, who died serving with Gloucestershire Regiment at the Battle of Aubers Ridge in May 1915.

Michael Berry
Michael Berry was among those wearing their relatives' war medals

The service was "moving", he said.

Of his grandfather's generation, Mr Berry added: "Their memory and sacrifice will not be forgotten.

"My father did not know him, as he was only four in 1915, but the memory has just lived on in our family."

Carolyne Crosby from Blackpool attended the event with her mother Norma Carr, whose grandfather John Hepworth was killed in France during WWI.

They visited his war grave at Steenwerch last year and said they felt privileged to be invited.

Mrs Carr said: "It just makes you realise how many men gave up their lives for the country."

Wreath laid

The service began with a musical variation of Laurence Binyon's famous war poem For the Fallen - "We will remember them," sang the choir.

Then Westminster Abbey fell quiet. As the chimes of Big Ben struck 1100 GMT, the congregation joined the country in observing a two minute silence.

More solemnity came towards the end of the service when a large circular poppy wreath was carried through the Abbey to the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior by Victoria Cross holders Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry and Australian Trooper Mark Donaldson.

Eighty-nine years ago the body of a British Serviceman, unknown by name or rank, was brought back from France and buried in the tomb to symbolise all those who died in the war.

A Union Jack known as the Padres flag that was once draped on the bodies of the fallen and used for services at the Western Front hung over the tomb as the Queen, dressed in bright purple, laid the wreath.

The generation that has passed walked forward with vision and bravery
Archbishop of Canterbury

Referring to the Unknown Warrior in his bidding, the Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend John Hall, said: "Now that the last of his comrades in arms has gone to his eternal rest, we are here once more to remember.

"We remember, with grief, the gas and the mud, the barbed wire, the bombardment, the terror, the telegram; and, with gratitude, the courage and sacrifice."

Heads bowed in reflection as a Royal Marines bugler played the Last Post and the colours of the three armed forces were dipped.

Ultimate sacrifice

The realties of the Great War were spelt out.

In his address, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said the service was "acknowledging the achievement of a generation who managed to recreate at a deeper level some of that shattered idealism" left at the end of WWI.

"The generation that has passed walked forward with vision and bravery and held together the bonds of our society, our continent, our Commonwealth, through a terrible century," he said.

Actor Jeremy Irons read Last Post by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy - written to mark the deaths of Henry Allingham and Harry Patch.

And tenor Ian Bostridge sang Agnus Dei from Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, which cites the words of war poet Wilfred Owen.

Maj Ronnie Proctor, Sonia Proctor, Lt Col Tim Coles
Maj Ronnie Proctor works to ensure the WWI generation will not be forgotten

Prayers were said for the WWI generation, nations still at war and members of the armed forces.

Gordon Brown was in attendance, along with former prime ministers Sir John Major and Baroness Thatcher, other senior politicians, the heads of the armed forces and Commonwealth dignitaries.

One reading was by 15-year-old Andrew Orr Ewing, whose great-grandfather fought in the Battle of Jutland and whose father is currently serving in Afghanistan with the Black Watch.

But the only direct Great War connection for some teenagers present was from history books or visits to the WWI battle sites.

They included Victoria Newark, 15, from London, and Millie Scott, 17, from Stoke on Trent, who were selected as wreath escorts as part of an Imperial War Museum project designed to help young people learn more about the impact of WWI.

It was a message not lost on another member of the congregation, Major Ronnie Proctor, who educates schoolchildren about the Great War in his role as curator of the Black Watch Museum in Perth.

The grandfathers of both Maj Proctor and his wife Sonia served in WWI.

The couple were accompanied at the service by Lt Col Tim Coles, of the Black Watch, whose great uncle was in the regiment during the war.

Col Coles said: "This service may represent closure on the generation who made the ultimate sacrifice but they will be remembered."

Scotland pays tribute to war dead
11 Nov 09 |  Scotland

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