First world war centenary marked on Armistice Day

People across Britain, parts of Europe and the Commonwealth observe two-minute silence in honour of war dead

A two-minute silence has been observed across Britain, parts of Europe and the Commonwealth to mark the armistice which ended the first world war.

On the stroke of 11am, much of Britain, including shops, offices, railways and airports came to a standstill in remembrance of those who died in a century of conflicts.

In the year that marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the 1914-18 war, the Tower of London provided a focal point in London. Thousands had gathered from before dawn to witness the planting of the last of 888,246 poppies as the two-minute silence began. A 21-gun salute by the Honourable Artillery Company on the Tower’s wharf at 10.30am signalled the start of the solemn ceremony. A gun was fired every minute, and between each the names of 20 of the fallen of the Great War were read aloud during a roll call of honour.

Staff from Cabot Circus shopping centre in Bristol pay their respects during the two minute silence.
Staff from Cabot Circus shopping centre in Bristol pay their respects during the two minute silence. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

The last ceramic poppy was planted by 13-year-old cadet Harry Hayes at 10.50am, having been handed to him by the artist who created the work, Paul Cummins. The middle verse of Lawrence Binyon’s poem For the Fallen, was then read to the hushed crowd.

The playing of the Last Post by a lone bugler marked the start of the silence as people bowed their heads, raising them only to the sounds of the Reveille.

Among those attending, Karen Brown was remembering her nephew Daniel Simpson, of the 2nd Battalion The Rifles, who was killed on 10 July 2009 in Afghanistan at the age of 20. “It’s such a large crowd,” she said, “I’ve just come to pay my respects.”

Lord Dannatt, Constable of the Tower of London and former Chief of the General Staff, told the BBC the installation Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red, had been seen by more than 5 million people.

The two minute silence is observed at the 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' poppy installation at The Tower of London.
The two minute silence is observed at the ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ poppy installation at The Tower of London. Photograph: Jonathan Hordle/REX

It had captured the imagination of the public, both young and old, because the number of poppies was not random, he said. “That is the number of British and colonial soldiers who lost their lives in the first world war. Every poppy represents a life lost and a family shattered.

“Young and old have come and stood up there at the railings, and they have been standing here since 4am, 5am, and they have been doing that for the last few mornings.”

Dannatt said Armistice Day was a time “to reflect on the meaning of service and sacrifice … [and] to reflect on the horror and the reason this happened and to make sure in our generation this does not happen again”.

Since Armistice Day last year seven British service personnel have died.

Tom Piper, the theatre designer who worked with Cummins to stage the Tower installation, said he felt “honoured” and “thrilled” at its success.

“I came up with the water blood theme of the poppies flowing around the moat, cascading out of windows, and the wave that hovers over the bridge. “ He added that the animation, because of the phased planting , felt that “you are gradually watching the blood, or the poppies, seep out from the building as we plant them”.

Answering criticism that the installation did not reflect the horror of the Great War, he said “What we are trying to do is celebrate the spirit and the loss of those lives. As a theatre designer I don’t think one should illustrate with the obvious and actually this isn’t an installation about the horrors of war. It’s a commemoration about loss and lost lives, and the fragility of life, and actually the poppy is a beautiful emblem of that. And I feel it is the perfect thing, and it has really touched people. They can see both the individual, they can have their individual stories for their family, and also the huge epic scale of it”, he told the BBC.

In Trafalgar Square, where the Royal British Legion held its Silence In The Square, poppy petals were thrown into the fountain to mark the end of the silence.

David Cameron paid his respects at the Cenotaph in Whitehall in a remembrance service organised by the Western Front Association. Afterwards he tweeted: “It was profoundly moving to stand with so many at the Cenotaph today – remembering those who sacrificed so much so we that could be free.” Wreaths were laid including by pupils of Thetford Grammar school, which lost seven former pupils and four teachers in the first world war.

There was also a remembrance service at Westminster Abbey.

The Queen privately observed the two-minute silence before beginning an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

Stephen Clarke, head of remembrance for the British Legion, told the BBC: “This year it feels like there are more poppies out in the streets and a lot of different styles of poppy, because remembrance is very personal.”

Richard Hughes of the Western Front Association said this year’s commemorations were not just about the end of the first world war. He said: “We have got the modern version here with us stepping back from Afghanistan. That itself has tremendous resonance.”

In Ypres, Belgium, where an evening ceremony has been held at the Menin Gates every night since 1928, a large crowd gathered for the two-minute silence at 11am. Staged by the Last Post Association, the daily tribute is conducted as a way to repay the debt of honour. Tuesday’s ceremony was the 29,759th held at the memorial, which bears the names of the 54,389 British and Commonwealth soldiers who fell in the Ypres Salient and who have no known grave. During the ceremony some of the names of the fallen were read aloud.

Ceremonies were also held at the war cemeteries dotted around Belgium and France. In Paris, President François Hollande laid a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier at the Arc de Triomphe.

In Edinburgh, 11,000 wooden crosses have been planted at the Field of Remembrance to remember the men and women killed in conflicts over the years. A special area is dedicated to the men and women who have died in Afghanistan. The start of the two-minute silence was signalled by the firing of the guns from Edinburgh Castle.

In Afghanistan, a memorial service took place in the capital of Kabul to commemorate British service personnel killed there.

Earlier, in Australia, five-year-old Alex Hopkins, whose father, Corporal Mathew Hopkins, 21, was killed in Afghanistan when his son was just five weeks old, placed a poppy on the Australian war memorial’s Roll of Honour in Canberra.

Five-year-old Alex Hopkins places a poppy next to his father's name at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
Five-year-old Alex Hopkins places a poppy next to his father’s name at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Photograph: Alan Porritt/AAPImage

“He’s grown up knowing his dad only through photographs,” his mother, Victoria, told Australian Associated Press. “But he knows who his dad is and that’s the best I can do for him.”

Around 4,000 veterans, relatives and dignitaries attended the national ceremony during which 102 poppies were laid in recognition of Australia’s 102,000 war dead.

Prince Harry, who spent Remembrance Sunday in Kandahar, Afghanistan, will visit Wounded: The Legacy of War, an exhibition of photographs by singer-songwriter Bryan Adams documenting young British service personnel who sustained life-changing injuries on duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Harry, who served on two tours of duty in Afghanistan, will meet some of the soldiers at the Somerset House exhibition in London.

* The headline to this article was amended on 11 November 2014


Caroline Davies

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Four war memorials given Grade I listing for Armistice Day
Monuments in Birmingham, London, Newcastle and Wirral upgraded to highest listing with two others raised to Grade II*

Maev Kennedy

11, Nov, 2014 @2:56 PM

Article image
War poem written in poppies to launch British Legion appeal
Lines from John McCrae’s remembrance poem In Flanders Fields appear at locations such as the white cliffs of Dover

Caroline Davies

25, Oct, 2017 @11:01 PM

Article image
Remembrance Sunday: thousands gather to honour the fallen
Royal family and politicians join veterans at Cenotaph, while services held across UK

Caroline Davies

10, Nov, 2019 @3:55 PM

Article image
British forces' century of unbroken warfare set to end with Afghanistan exit
Next year could be the first since at least 1914 that British soldiers, sailors and air crews will not be engaged in fighting

Ewen MacAskill and Ian Cobain

11, Feb, 2014 @3:28 PM

Article image
UK may double troops in Afghanistan after Donald Trump request
US asks for reinforcements after Taliban resurgence

Ewen MacAskill Defence correspondent

17, May, 2018 @11:11 PM

Article image
Use abandoned British army equipment to save Iraqi refugees, say campaigners
Humanitarian charity says tent village in Afghanistan could save almost 1,000 people if RAF moved it to Irbil

Andrew Brown

16, Oct, 2014 @12:42 PM

Article image
Commonwealth veterans face UK visa fees and deportation
British Legion says treatment of ex-soldiers is ‘a poor way to say thank-you’

Caroline Davies

08, Mar, 2019 @6:01 AM

Article image
Britain cannot send its young to Afghanistan simply because Trump demands it | Owen Jones
The US president should not be allowed to dictate UK defence policy, says Guardian columnist Owen Jones

Owen Jones

18, May, 2018 @10:49 AM

Article image
UK military awards £30m contract to develop laser weapons
MoD contract aims to have army and navy using technology by mid-2020s and air force by mid-2030s

Ewen MacAskill Defence correspondent

05, Jan, 2017 @4:39 PM

Article image
Robert Gates's attack on UK military spending is vague and opportunistic

The real question is not whether Britain is spending too little on defence, but whether it is spending too much

Ewen MacAskill, defence correspondent

16, Jan, 2014 @1:07 PM