'For the sake of all of our futures, we must remember the past'

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The crowds were modest, the tone one of quiet dignity. It was a day for remembrance between Saturday's nostalgia and today's joyous carnival of fireworks and beacons.

The largest gathering of overseas leaders since the Queen's coronation in 1953 joined veterans and dignitaries inside St Paul's Cathedral.

After the service, the Queen hosted a lunch for the world leaders at Buckingham Palace, before they all gathered in Hyde Park for a pageant of peace.

Politicians and monarchs held hands with children. The Prince and Princess of Wales appeared together with Prince William and Prince Harry.

Franois Mitterrand, the outgoing President of France, and Al Gore, the United States Vice-President, shared the Royal Box with leaders of their wartime adversaries - Roman Herzog, Germany's President, and Helmut Kohl, the Chancellor, with the Italian President, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro.

All were led by English children to a giant flower-decked globe, where they signed olive leaves as doves and white balloons were released into the sky. The European Youth Orchestra, with guests from Russia and the US, played Beethoven. The heavy symbolism somehow left a sense of goodwill.

Organisers of the service in St Paul's had scrutinised every hymn and reading to avoid any hint of triumphalism or nationalism. The thin crowds outside seemed to take the same view: Chancellor Kohl, who had asked for the suffering of German soldiers to be remembered too, was cheered as he arrived.

The Dean of St Paul's, the Very Rev Eric Evans, set the tone for the day with the words of Sir Winston Churchill: "In war, resolution; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity, and in peace, goodwill." The list of heads of state and leaders from 55 other countries bore reminders of how reconciliation is still needed: it included the Bosnian Foreign Minister and the Croatian President.

The Queen Mother, 94, walked slowly to her seat at the front with the Prince of Wales supporting her arm, but she stood for each hymn and address. She gazed up at Field Marshal Lord Bramall as he read from the 1945 diary of the diplomat and politician, Harold Nicolson: "I walked back through the happy but quite sober crowds to Trafalgar Square. The statue of Nelson was picked out by searchlight, and there was a smell of distant bonfires in the air."

Others in the congregation, including Sir Edward Heath, Lord Healey, Lord Aldington and Lord Merlyn-Rees, were not in London, but in uniform in Europe, when peace came.

In his sermon, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, warned it was vital to face up to the past: "Even those of us who experienced something of those momentous days can easily forget the depth of the terror and the bondage which afflicted so many before the liberation of 1945. Yet, for the sake of all of our futures, we must recall the past."

As the congregation left St Paul's, several veterans shed tears at memories half a century old - brought back, so vividly, for perhaps the last time.


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