Socially distanced commemorations mark Armistice Day across UK

Socially distanced commemorations have marked Armistice Day across the UK, as the nation honoured its war dead in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Much of the British public was forced to observe the traditional two minutes’ silence from home at 11am on Wednesday, due to widespread restrictions on gatherings and travel.

Elderly medal-wearing veterans stood on their own doorsteps or outside by local war memorials to join in the collective moment of national remembrance.

Scaled back, outdoor, socially distanced events were allowed to take place across the country, from London to Cardiff to Edinburgh.

In Liverpool, soldiers paused in their work helping with the mass Covid testing at the Arena Convention Centre.

At what would ordinarily be a busy concourse at London’s King’s Cross station, people observed the silence beneath a giant poppy installation.

Armistice Day 2020
Armistice Day 2020

A face mask-wearing Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall joined a socially distanced congregation at a private, but televised, service at London’s Westminster Abbey to mark the centenary of the funeral of the Unknown Warrior.

During the service, Poet Laureate Simon Armitage read out his specially penned poem honouring the symbolic “son we lost” who is “a soul without name or rank or age or home”.

The unidentified British serviceman whose body was brought back from northern France after the end of the First World War, was laid to rest at the abbey on November 11 1920.

For 100 years his grave has represented all those who lost their lives in the conflict but whose place of death was unknown or body never found.

The service was led by the Dean of Westminster David Hoyle, and included an address from the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.

Armistice Day 2020
Armistice Day 2020

Mr Welby said: “We pay tribute to the many millions of men and women who have died on so many battlefields, unnamed and unclaimed except by God.”

He added: “Sacrifice is not only in time of war. In war and peace, sacrifice is the virtue that smooths the rough roads over which our societies travel.

“This year sacrifices have been made and are being made by thousands, even millions unknown. People have put aside all they hold dear.

“We may never meet them, or read their names. We might not know what they have suffered or given up. They may be anonymous, but their actions are glorious.”

Armistice Day 2020
Armistice Day 2020

In his poem The Bed, Mr Armitage charts the fallen soldier’s journey, from being “broken and sleeping rough in a dirt grave” to being buried “among drowsing poets and dozing saints”.

It concludes: “All this for a soul, without name or rank or age or home, because you are the son we lost, and your rest is ours.”

Former Catatonia singer Cerys Matthews, the Prince of Wales and Prime Minister Boris Johnson also delivered readings at the service.

Singer Ruby Turner, accompanied by pianist Jools Holland, performed the hymn Abide With Me, which which was first sung at the Unknown Warrior’s burial 100 years ago.

Among the service guests were Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and leading figures from the armed forces.

Armistice Day 2020
Armistice Day 2020

On nearby Whitehall, a small, closed ceremony was held by the Cenotaph war memorial to mark 100 years since its permanent inauguration in 1920.

Lance Sergeant Stuart Laing, from the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, performed the Last Post and Reveille on a bugle recovered from the mud of the Somme battlefield in 1915.

For last weekend’s Remembrance Sunday service, attended by the Queen, the public were asked to stay away from commemorations due to the pandemic.

George Cowie, from west London, said it was “disappointing” that Covid-19 health restrictions had interfered with the memorial’s 100th anniversary.

The veteran, who served in the royal artillery for 20 years, came to lay a wreath on Armistice Day.

He told the PA news agency: “These people gave so much for the country and they went willingly to fight for king and country.

“I come down here when I can to lay a wreath when I can. It’s so disappointing to see it so different this year.”

Simon Edwards, 50, spent 23 years in the British Army and said Armistice Day is the “most important day in the military calendar”.

He travelled to the Cenotaph from south-west London to pay his respects.

He told PA: “I have been to places, I have lost friends. It’s something I have to do. I am one of the fortunate ones to come back. Some of my friends were not so fortunate.”

Armistice Day 2020
Armistice Day 2020

Earlier, environmental campaigners from Extinction Rebellion staged a protest at the memorial, unveiling a banner which read: “Honour Their Sacrifice, Climate Change Means War”.

Elsewhere on Wednesday, more than 100 poppy wreaths were carried by rail to Paddington station to allow those unable to travel to the capital to mark Armistice Day.

The Poppies to Paddington operation involved nine trains travelling across the Great Western Railway (GWR) network to ensure the wreaths were placed at a war memorial on Platform 1 in time for 11am.

Commemorations were also held in Staffordshire at the National Memorial Arboretum, where the Earl and Countess of Wessex laid wreaths.

Armistice Day 2020
Armistice Day 2020

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon observed the two-minute silence at St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh alongside service personnel from the Navy, Army and RAF.

She said the sacrifice of those who “helped to secure the freedoms we enjoy today” must never be forgotten.

At Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, people paused amongst 200 silhouettes of soldiers, created by Witney-based artist Dan Barton.

In Royal Wootton Bassett, Wiltshire, the town that has regularly turned out to pay respects to the repatriated servicemen killed in conflict, the last post was played by a war memorial.

Meanwhile in Gateshead, the Angel of the North statue was given its own poppy to mark the day.