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Remembrance Sunday: 'At least we knew what we were fighting for in 1944'

This year's commemorations were given added poignancy by events in Afghanistan. Cahal Milmo reports

In a quiet corner of Westminster Abbey, away from the crowd gathered at the Cenotaph, Arthur Bright's voice cracked as the 11am tolling of Big Ben approached. Stood in front of rows of small wooden crosses marking the British dead from Afghanistan, the D-Day veteran said: "There was a time not so very long ago when this day was a history lesson. Not today. Young men are getting killed again. And I'm not sure why."

The 85-year-old former infantryman, with a row of five medals glistening on his chest, was one of dozens yesterday whose Remembrance Sunday route through central London to participate in two minutes of silence in Whitehall included a detour to the neat rank of rain-streaked crosses, each adorned with a photograph of one of the 231 soldiers killed in Afghanistan since 2001.

Music from military bands was relayed across Parliament Square via loudspeakers while tourists mixed with grey-haired veterans and uniformed servicemen and women. But beneath the sombre dignity and pomp of the state occasion, it was not difficult to find the raw emotion caused by the steady stream of British deaths and casualties from Helmand.

Mr Bright, from Chatham, Kent, whose closest friend was killed inches from him during the Normandy landings, said: "When you see something like all these [crosses], it brings it home that there are lots of mothers, brothers and daughters waiting for terrible news again. Seeing this brings back what it was like to be at war. At least we knew what we were fighting for in 1944. We knew if we didn't win, our country would be destroyed. In Afghanistan, these boys are fighting for people who don't even want them there. That must be hard. That's the thing about war, you've got to believe the deaths of your mates are worth it somehow."

Across the country, thousands gathered to attend Poppy Day ceremonies. including in the Wiltshire town of Wootton Bassett whose citizens have grown used to stopping in their tracks to show the nation's respect as hearses conveying coffins repatriated from Afghanistan pass through from nearby RAF Brize Norton. In more peaceful times, such events might have attracted only a handful of dignitaries but recent events in Helmand seemed to have persuaded others of a duty to honour the dead of previously fought battles. Among them were indeed some of those mothers, fathers and loved ones who have in recent months received a visit from a delegation of two officers sent to deliver the worst news from the battlefields of southern Afghanistan.

Carol Brackpool's son, John, was killed on 9 July this year when he was struck by a Taliban bullet during a gunfight near Lashkar Gah. The 27-year-old private from Crawley, West Sussex, who served with the Prince of Wales' Company of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, was one of eight British soldiers killed in 24 hours. Mrs Brackpool, who after meeting the mothers of those other soldiers jointly set up a charity, Afghan Heroes, to help bereaved families, attended her local church for the two-minute silence she had routinely observed in previous years.

She said: "It is the first Remembrance Sunday since Johnny was killed. Every day since has been hard but of course this is especially so. I always observed Poppy Day because we have lost so many in previous wars but because of current events I think there is greater awareness and respect for the fallen."

Hitherto supportive of the need for British troops to remain in Afghanistan, Mrs Brackpool said the latest spate of deaths, including the killings this week of five soldiers by an Afghan policeman they were helping to train, had made her reconsider the purpose of the conflict. She said: "After this week, I've begun to think for the first time that this is too much, that these young are being killed without enough progress. I had always thought we needed to stay until the job was done but I am really beginning to question that. I am only worried that if we do bring the troops home, does that mean all those who have died did so for nothing?"

In Helmand, British forces attended services on the day it was announced that the 200th from their ranks to die in combat in Afghanistan since 2001 had been killed on Saturday. At Lashkar Gar, Padre Mark Christian, the senior chaplain of 11 Light Brigade, spoke of the five soldiers – from the Grenadier Guards and the Royal Military Police – killed by an Afghan policeman. He said: "Of course, I was the chaplain to the Grenadier Guards so last week's incident was personal for me too. So I stand here and I grieve, I think of the pain of their passing and I think of their families. But that of itself is not what remembrance is about. When we remember, we think of those who have gone before us, the tens of thousands of people who have given their lives for our nation and for what they believe in."

Back in the Garden of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey, a young woman who gave her name only as Kate briefly knelt down to study the Afghanistan crosses. A veteran came over to comfort her after noticing that she was in tears. Kate, who explained she was the girlfriend of one of the men pictured on the crosses, said: "It's nice to know other people realise the sacrifice of the guys. But it doesn't make it easier."