Remembrance Sunday brings grief, reconciliation and Twitter exasperation

Queen leads commemoration in London and Irish PM heads north as more bad news emerges from Afghanistan

On one of the rare Remembrance Sundays when the day coincided with the date commemorated, the original Armistice Day of 11 November 1918, millions fell silent in town and village centres, workplaces and churches, in the open air and in their homes.

There was a poignant reminder that those who dubbed the first world war "the war to end all wars" were tragically premature. In Afghanistan there were unconfirmed reports that another British service member had died in Helmand province, shot by an individual wearing Afghan army uniform. Officially the incident was still being investigated, and the nationality of the member of the International Security Assistance Force who was killed was not confirmed, but it was feared that British forces in the country had suffered their 44th death of this year. At Lashkar Gah representatives of five nations, including Afghan generals, joined British troops for a Remembrance Day service.

This was the first Remembrance Sunday when no first world war veteran remained to bear witness: Florence Green, who served as a mess steward at RAF bases and died last spring aged 110, was the last known survivor.

In Ireland there was an unprecedented gesture of reconciliation, when the taoiseach, Enda Kenny, and his deputy, Eamon Gilmore, both crossed the border to attend official Remembrance Day ceremonies in the north. Kenny attended a particularly poignant event in Enniskillen, marking the 25th anniversary of the bombing when 11 Protestant civilians were killed at the town's Cenotaph. Gilmore went to the main Remembrance Day ceremony in the grounds of Belfast City Hall. Their attendance, described by a spokeswoman for the Irish department of foreign affairs as "an opportunity to underline the Irish government's support for reconciliation" was also seen as recognition of the thousands of Irish men who fought and died with British services in both world wars. Earlier this year the Irish government pardoned some 5,000 soldiers, many posthumously, who deserted the Irish army to fight with the British against the Nazis.

Across Britain buses and taxis were parked, shop tills stopped ringing, British Airways delayed firing up any of its plane engines, and even the constant background chatter of Twitter was hushed – if not silenced. The British Legion said 11 million people had signed up to its pledge not to tweet during the two minutes' silence. Just before and after 11am the subject was trending – although @Eliota_Sapolu tweeted in exasperation: "#RememberanceSunday is trending. You could at least remember how to spell remembrance."

At the Cenotaph on Whitehall, in brilliant chilly sunshine, the silence was so profound that heads turned to look up at a shrill flock of seagulls in the blue sky.

Crowds lined the pavement 10 deep more than an hour before the service started. Almost 10,000 members of veteran and civilian associations joined the marchpast after the Queen led the formal wreath laying service. The civilian contingents were led by the Bevin Boys, now only 48 men, many of whom were teenagers when they were sent to work in Britain's coal mines and keep the second world war fuelled.

However, despite the passing of years written in uncertain footsteps and grey heads – even the Duke of Edinburgh, who has been hospitalised several times in the last year, was a degree off his usual ramrod-straight stance – there was no sign that the parade will ever die out. This year nine associations joined for the first time, including the Association of Royal Yachtsmen, representing the 2,400 "yotties" who at some point served in the crews of the royal yacht Britannia.

Another group of 18, also marching for the first time, represented the Association of Munitions Workers, recalling the thousands, mainly women, who made the bombs and whose health often suffered irreparable damage from the dangerous materials they worked with. Their wreath was laid by Margaret Shields, 89, who recalled in a recent interview that the munitions girls were instantly recognisable, because the chemicals turned their skin and eyes yellow.

Remembrance services were held across Wales, and a group of cadets and volunteers from the Gwent and Powys army cadet force travelled to lay wreaths at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium, carved with the names of more than 54,000 missing men from the UK and Commonwealth, known to have died on the Ypres Salient but who have no known grave.

In Scotland more than 1,000 serving soldiers, veterans, cadets, police and fire officers joined the parade to the Cenotaph on Glasgow's George Square.

At the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire – where the armed forces memorial to more than 16,000 service men and women who have died since 1948 is designed so that a shaft of sunlight falls on a bronze wreath on the 11 November – a service was attended by more than 3,000 people, with the Queen represented by the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester.

In Cambridgeshire at the Imperial War Museum's Duxford branch, a former first and second world war airfield – which gave free admission to all to mark the day – hundreds of motorcyclists from the Royal British Legion bikers' branch joined visitors and veterans, including members of the United States Air Force 493 Flying Squadron and local air cadets, for a wreath laying ceremony.

Among the tweets that broke the silence was one flagging up the most watched Top Gear video this week, posted by BBC Worldwide at 1101am. It was promptly followed, as soon as normal Twitter traffic resumed, by one from @jcrclarksonesq – Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson – snapping: "@BBC_TopGear You sent this out during the 2 minute silence. Astonishingly stupid".

• This article was amended on 14 November 2012. The original said the Menin Gate was carved with all the known names of British and Commonwealth troops who died on the western front. In fact it carries the names of more than 54,000 men who died on the Ypres Salient and have no known grave.


Maev Kennedy and Henry McDonald

The GuardianTramp

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