Armistice Day: A rare moment to reflect together on the price of freedom

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The Independent Online

Britain's oldest war veteran said of the men in that battle, also known as Passchendaele: "They knew what was coming. It was pathetic to see those men like that. In many ways, I don't think they have ever had the admiration and respect they deserved."

One of just nine known survivors of the First World War and the last founding member of the Royal Air Force, Mr Allingham, 109, marked Armistice Day by laying a wreath at the first permanent memorial to the 4,700 British airmen who died on the Western Front in the Great War.

Eighty-eight years after last serving at the barren aerodrome of St Omer, near Calais, the largest British airbase in Europe at the time, he had travelled from his home in Eastbourne.

At St Omer in 1917 that he worked as an aircraft engineer with the Royal Naval Air Services, which merged with the Royal Flying Corps to become the RAF.

Yesterday he was helped from his wheelchair to lay a poppy wreath before the memorial bearing the RAF's motto, Per Ardua Ad Astra, or Through Struggle to the Stars.

"I dare not think about things too much because I would not be able to control myself," he said. "I take a deep breath. You and I owe so much to these men who gave all they could have given on my behalf and everyone's behalf. It is so important that we acknowledge them."

Asked if he would return to France next year, he said: "I do not want to come back again because there is so much I want to forget, but I still want to do what I can for the men who did so much for me, our people and these people here today."

Air Vice-Marshal Peter Dye, the RAF's deputy commander-in-chief and chief of staff, said he was "greatly honoured" that Mr Allingham had made the trip to St Omer with a dozen trainee aircraft engineers from RAF Cosford, near Wolverhampton.

"Although there are 90 years between him and the young aircraft engineers here today, there is a bond," Air Marshal Dye said. "They will see active operations in the very near future and I hope they will show the same values as Mr Allingham did, loyalty, commitment and sacrifice."

In Baghdad, British soldiers commemorated Armistice Day to the sound of explosions, machinegun fire and helicopter-gunships overhead. The British contingent of 130 in the Iraqi capital - largely members of the 1st Battalion The Royal Irish - spent the two-minute silence in quiet reflection.

The padre, the Rev Steven Griffith, talked to them about the losses in Iraq and other wars and the " human consequences of what we do with the members of the armed forces".

In Britain, an estimated 45 million people fell silent on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month for two minutes to commemorate the moment the guns stopped in November 1918 as well as all those who have since lost their lives.

Cities came to a standstill, businesses and schools paused to reflect. In London, Big Ben chimed and the London Eye, filled with schoolchildren accompanying a Second World War veteran, Len Jeans, stopped and was illuminated in red. Lloyd's of London rang the Lutine Bell to mark the start and end of the silence. The Last Post was played in the underwriting room.

Stuart Gendall, from the Royal British Legion, said: "The two-minute silence is the single biggest annual demonstration of public support for any cause in the country.

"This small yet significant individual and collective act is a rare moment when the nation can stand together and reflect upon the price of freedom."

Wreaths were laid at the Memorial Gates on Constitution Hill in London to mark 60 years since the end of the Second World War, as well as Armistice Day ,in a ceremony to honour the five million people from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Africa and the Caribbean who fought in both.

In the House of Commons, a debate on the climate change and sustainable energy Bill was halted as MPs observed the sombre silence.

In Aberdeen, traffic lights on Union Street were switched to red and Edinbugh's one o'clock gun was fired to mark the start of the silence.

James Allen, 81, who was wounded in Normandy, said: "During the silence, I had a list of names who were in my mind. They were just boys with me but never made it after their twenties."