We will remember the British men and women who fought and died in that war and others since. In those moments of silence, too, we may reflect on how fortunate we are to live in a country that is prosperous and at peace - and how unlikely it is that we, our children or our children's children shall ever be asked to make a similar sacrifice. But that is also reason why, as this bloodiest of centuries ends, we should ponder the anniversary's relevance to the new age in which we live.
Remembrance Day is a profoundly British occasion, steeped not in jingoism but in solemn patriotism, when a nation given to pageantry and tradition honours its military dead. More subtly, it is tinged with nostalgia. It is a last link, however sombre, with what we think of as a golden age of empire, a civilisation that was destroyed for ever by the Great War. Even after the very last veterans of Flanders and the Somme have returned to their Maker, that patriotism and that nostalgia will survive. Britain will still celebrate Remembrance Day.
War, however, has changed. Men still fight each other; indeed, by the calculation of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, more than 100,000 people have died in armed conflicts over the last 12 months. But while the Great War may have been the first of this century's world wars, it was also in a sense the last of wars - the last major conflict in which the overwhelming majority of casualties were the soldiers who fought in it. The balance had already tilted by the time of the Second World War. Today the ratios have been reversed.
In a modern conflict, 90 per cent of casualties are likely to be unarmed civilians. Most of them perish not in wars between nations, but in dirty and brutal civil wars that are barely comprehensible to themselves, let alone to outsiders. There are exceptions; the Falklands, for instance, was a true soldiers' war. But Iraq and Kosovo produced no old-fashioned heroes like Colonel H Jones, who died at Goose Green, or the men on the Western Front, cut down in their hundreds of thousands.
Today's professional soldiers are more likely to be peacekeepers than warriors, so highly trained in computerised warfare that - unlike the cannon-fodder of the trenches - they cannot afford to be lost. In Kosovo, not a single Allied soldier died. In Iraq only a few dozen British troops lost their lives. Instead, the wrath of science has been turned on civilians, in the shape of cluster bombs and landmines, napalm and long-range missiles, chemical and ultimately nuclear weapons, all designed not so much to destroy armies as to terrorise and, if need be, annihilate the civilian population that supports them.
None of this is to belittle the hi-tech soldier of today, still less those who went before him. As every year, we bow our heads to those who gave their lives for their country. But it does not dishonour their memory to argue that, in a global age, we should also remember the civilian dead of wars around the world, who died without medals, without cause and without honour. In that way we also remember how dreadful war truly is.Reuse content