As a damp grey Remembrance Sunday morning turned to rain, the Queen laid her wreath at the Cenotaph in London to lead the nation's mourning for those who died in the first world war and in almost a century of conflicts since.
The endurance of war was brought into focus by the absence of her grandson Prince William from the ceremony. He was with the defence secretary, Liam Fox, in Afghanistan – where he served two years ago as a Royal Air Force commander – to attend a service at Camp Bastion in Helmand province. The war there has cost more than 340 British lives since 2001 – more than 100 in the past year.
The prime minister, David Cameron, laid the first Cenotaph wreath for the government. But the political circumstances of the coalition government demanded a new protocol this year. Cameron's wreath was followed by Nick Clegg's, as coalition partner and leader of the Liberal Democrats. Ed Milliband, as very new leader of the opposition, was in third place.
Behind them stood three former prime ministers: Gordon Brown, apparently impervious to the rain without an overcoat, standing beside Tony Blair, and then John Major, Margaret Thatcher's successor, looking more sprightly than either.
Two unmistakable figures familiar from the ceremony for so many years were missing: the tall, solid figure of the Rev Ian Paisley, now Lord Bannside, was absent now that he is no longer either leader of the Democratic Unionist party nor, since the May election, an MP. Lady Thatcher was advised not to join the long cold vigil after her recent illness.
The crowds, 12-deep on the pavement, had filled Whitehall to capacity 40 minutes before the deep tones of Big Ben signalled the two-minute silence. The ceremony ended with a procession by an estimated 7,500 former service personnel and civilians, which took 40 minutes to parade past the Cenotaph. After the worst year for British casualties in Afghanistan since the conflict began, the British Legion has reported record sales of more than 46m poppies.
This year's Remembrance Sunday is particularly poignant in Coventry, falling 70 years after the devastating German bombing raid on the city that left the broken ribs of its medieval cathedral rising over acres of shattered and scorched buildings and streets.
In London yesterday, Prince Charles joined 150 members of the War Widows Association to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph before the Festival of Remembrance concert at the Royal Albert Hall. The concert was attended by the March for Honour teams of current and former servicemen who have raised £1m by marching 250 miles across Britain over the past fortnight, covering an average of 30 miles a day while carrying 18kg (40lbs) of kit.
First-hand witnesses of the first world war are nearly all gone. Since the deaths last year of Henry Allingham and Harry Patch, Claude Choules, who now lives in Australia, is the last British born man who fought in the war. Many second world war veterans at ceremonies today are increasingly frail.
• This article was amended on 19 November 2010. The original referred to Prince William as the Queen's eldest grandson. This has been corrected.