The guns fired, the bugles played, and a century's war dead were remembered

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A CENTURY of wars was commemorated at the last Remembrance ceremony of the millennium, when members of the Royal Family, politicians and more than 10,000 veterans gathered at the Cenotaph in London yesterday to honour the fallen of Britain and the Commonwealth.

Yesterday was also the 80th anniversary of the original Remembrance Day, when red poppies were first grasped by a nation seeking a focus for its grief following the end of what was then known simply as the Great War.

Then the flowers were real blooms, shipped by the thousand from fields in Flanders. The flowering of red around the Whitehall monument yesterday morning showed that the decades have done nothing to diminish the potency of the poppy as an enduring symbol of national respect.

The first wreath was laid by Prince Charles, following the traditional two-minute silence at 11am. He was representing the Queen, who was in South Africa attending the Commonwealth heads of government conference. It is only the fourth time that she has been abroad for Remembrance Day. Both she and Prince Phillip had laid their own wreaths at the war memorial in Durban two hours earlier, at 11am local time.

Jacob Zuma, the South African deputy president, said beforehand that the ceremony was intended to pay tribute, "not only to those who died in the Great War and the Second World War but all those who have sacrificed their lives to secure peace, freedom and democracy for all people in other conflicts across the globe".

In London, the Government was represented by John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, as Tony Blair was also in South Africa. The next wreaths were laid by William Hague, the leader of the Opposition, and the Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy.

After the Guards bands had run through their sombre repertoire, the buglers had played the "Last Post" and the guns had fired, it was the turn of the veterans.

Yesterday, for the first time, their march-past was led off by former members of the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines, representing and remembering the 23,000 sailors killed in the two world wars.

They were followed by more than 10,000 other veterans, sporting headgear from the bowler hats of former officers to the white berets of the Arctic convoy survivors, and the more famous red and khaki berets of the Parachute Regiment and the SAS. The parade swung by at a sprightly 100 paces a minute, although the veterans of the First World War, most of whom are at least as old as the century, are understandably not marching any more.

But it was those who were not there that dominated most thoughts. And if all the British and Commonwealth dead of both world wars had marched at the same pace, it would have taken them more than three days and three nights to pass.