The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme
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The leading piece in today’s Sunday Times:
He was a middle-aged, grey-haired man, indistinguishable from the ranks of politicians that stood in the pale November sunshine by the Cenotaph today.
But as he stepped forward to lay a wreath, that simple gesture, one moment of quiet respect in a day of commemorations all over the world, overshadowed all else. That bespectacled figure was Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the president of the Federal Republic of Germany.
And today, just a few minutes after the centenary of the exact moment the guns fell silent at the end of the First World War, he became the first German leader to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph.
Once, such a historic gesture of reconciliation would have been unthinkable. Even now, in an age when the presence of German dignitaries at First World War commemorations has become the norm, the presence of the German head of state at the heart of our national ceremony of remembrance still has the power to prompt nervousness in government circles: when the idea was first floated this year, there was concern in Downing Street over whether it would prompt anger from veterans associations.
In the event, such fears were unfounded, and the president’s moment under history’s spotlight summed up not old enmities, but how far two nations that were once bitter enemies have come to embrace each other, how much the rancour and sorrow of war has given way to the balm of peace.
The significance of the occasion was underlined by the president’s position in the line-up of dignitaries. Mr Steinmeier, 62, a former civil servant turned politician, was second only to the Prince of Wales in the order of VIPs queueing up to lay the wreaths at the base of the Cenotaph: before the prime minister, before the rest of the royal family, before all the politicians and representatives of every Commonwealth nation.
His presence, though, was echoed by an almost equally significant absence: that of the Duke of Edinburgh.
For the second year running Prince Charles laid a wreath on behalf of the Queen, 92, who with the passing of the years has decided to pass on her Cenotaph duties to the heir to the throne, who turns 70 on Wednesday.
Last year the Queen watched the ceremony from the balcony of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office overlooking Whitehall, with Prince Philip at her side. Today there was no Philip, an indication of how, at the age of 97, his public appearances have become a rarity. The most recent time he was on public display was at last month’s wedding of Princess Eugenie in Windsor.
Before last year the Queen had only missed the wreath-laying six times since 1945: on four occasions when she was overseas, and twice when she was pregnant.
Now there is a new tradition, and Prince Charles lays two wreaths, once in his own name and once on behalf of his mother, while the Queen looks down from a Foreign Office balcony overlooking Whitehall.
The Queen was flanked by the Duchess of Cornwall and the Duchess of Cambridge, while the Duchess of Sussex made her first appearance at the Cenotaph ceremony, standing on another balcony next to the wife of the German president, Elke Büdenbender.
The ceremony began with the firing of a gun as Big Ben sounded the eleventh hour of the eleventh day. It was first time Big Ben has sounded since renovations to the Elizabeth Tower began in August last year.
Four former prime ministers were among those at the service — Sir John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron.
However, the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, managed to attract attention to himself by wearing a dark grey anorak, an echo of the infamous car coat — unfairly dubbed a donkey jacket — once worn by Michael Foot. It was affixed with a small enamel poppy.
Among those at the Cenotaph was Lieutenant-Commander Sarah Bligh of the Royal Navy, whose great-grandfather Lieutenant-Colonel William Arnold served in the Tank Regiment during the First World War. “There were four brothers — all voluntarily enlisted, and all four got medals for gallantry.
“He got injured in the Battle of Loos by a hand grenade, came back to the UK to get repaired and then carried on fighting, as many of them did.”
Although there have been calls for the centenary to mark a change in the way Britain remembers its war dead, Lt-Cdr Bligh – who is related to Captain Bligh of the mutiny on the Bounty — said: “Look at the turnout here. There are thousands of people who still want to remember. I talk about my family history to our children. They are interested and engaged and want to learn about it. I think it is important to keep the memories alive and keep remembering.
“For as long as I can remember the stories have been told to me. It is an important part of who I am and I want it to be part of the next generation. If by remembering we can prevent it ever happening again, it is critical.”
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