Page last updated at 16:44 GMT, Friday, 9 October 2009 17:44 UK

Silent grief marks conflict's end

Plaque and candle in St Paul's
Hundreds of service personnel gathered to remember the fallen

By Andy McFarlane
BBC News

Many words were spoken during a moving service but it was the simple act of lighting a memorial candle that said everything for those gathered.

It burned at St Paul's Cathedral in memory of the 179 British military and civilian personnel who died during the six-year conflict in Iraq.

Emotions weighed heavily on the congregation as they listened to the Archbishop of Canterbury's address at a commemoration service, attended by the Queen and political leaders, to officially mark the end of hostilities.

The air in Sir Christopher Wren's magnificent building was thick with sorrow as grieving parents, brothers, sisters and children remembered those taken away from them.

But as the invited guests filed out just after midday, tensions were released and smiles returned.

Among those to emerge was Millie Manning, clutching the arm of Keisha-Ann Meade.

Mrs Manning's stepson Stephen was killed by a roadside bomb alongside his friend and fellow Royal Fusilier, Miss Meade's brother Donal, 20, in 2005.

Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams
[It is a time] to speak our thanks for those who have taught us through their sacrifice the sheer worth of justice and peace
Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams

"It would have been his 27th birthday today," Mrs Manning explained, a catch in her voice. "It's very important for the nation to recognise their sacrifice."

For Miss Meade, the service provided some comfort.

"It brings an end to the conflict in a very thoughtful way," she said.

They had arrived an hour earlier as the Band of the Coldstream Guards sent sombre hymns reverberating around the 17th Century cathedral's huge dome.

Among those sitting below that dome were 2,000 serving and retired personnel from the forces.

And the face of every soldier, sailor or airman hid a story - of a fallen comrade, an injured friend or a sight seldom spoken of. Statues of revered, if long-deceased, generals looked on, as if acknowledging the collective loss.

A fanfare from the Central Band of the RAF heralded the arrival of the Royal Family, led by the Queen to their places to the right of the main aisle.

The UK's political elite sat to the left. But this was not a day for those in power.

It was a day for those who could not be there and those who served alongside them and did come home. The men and women of Britain's armed forces filled the hall, immaculate in military greens, blues and reds.

Some sported the elaborate dress of the high ranks, others the simple uniforms of non-commissioned officers. All wore the Iraq Medal.

Before them rested the memorial plaque from the Basra Wall, built by service personnel at the UK's Iraqi base to honour those who would not return home with them.

L/Cpl Carl Stevens, of 37 Armoured Engineer Squadron, described his honour at helping to construct the wall, which is to be rebuilt at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.

The bereaved family of RAF Flt Lt Paul Pardoel
The focus of the day was on bereaved families and services personnel

In clear tones he read the quotation it bears, taken from the Book of Wisdom: "Honourable age does not depend on length of days, nor is the number of years a true measure of life".

A prolonged silence, followed by the choir launching into a haunting Latin verse, was Tracey Hazel's cue.

She lit the memorial candle to remember her son - Cpl Ben Leaning, killed by a roadside bomb in 2007 - and the 178 others.

Faces betrayed little emotion but across the hall hands wiped away tears of silent, dignified grief. Heads were bowed in contemplation, people's minds were doubtless thousands of miles away in a more inhospitable place.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, had a soothing message, as he spoke of the "unexpected qualities" of those who served.

"People like ourselves who, caught up in the confusions of a great international upheaval, simply got on with the task they were given because they believed that order and justice mattered," he noted.

He acknowledged that questions remain over the justification for the conflict but said the services' obedience was "anything but mindless" and paid tribute to their efforts to "heal" Iraq's society.

As Prime Minister Gordon Brown looked on, his predecessor Tony Blair just behind, the archbishop delivered barbed comments about "policy makers and commentators" who talked about war "without really measuring... the cost".


Members of the Royal family attended the service

The archbishop hit out at the "satisfyingly overblown language" that recalled the war on terror and so-called shock and awe bombings, and warned against "denying the difficulties or failures to present a good public face".

But for the most part, the service came back to themes best associated with the armed forces - of friendship, sacrifice, unity - and finally to a prayer for peace.

After representatives of each of the services offered prayers of hope, many of the guests made their way to gatherings at the Mansion House and Guildhall.

Others milled around outside the cathedral, catching up with old comrades.

L/Cpl Daryl Dewar, 24, of the Royal Logistics Corps, was among them.

"It's really good to remember the people we lost and see old friends," he said.

"We often hear how many people have died but people tend to forget about those who are injured and it's really important we've done that."

Capt Chris Warner, 28, of the Royal Engineers, praised the archbishop for recognising "the contribution people can make by working together".

As the crowds drifted away from St Paul's, ready to carry on with life, behind them the candle continued to burn in recognition of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

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