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Britain mourns WWI dead as Afghan toll mounts

Queen Elizabeth II led Britain in a sombre Armistice Day commemoration on Wednesday for the end of the World War I generation of soldiers, made more poignant by the rising death toll in Afghanistan.

world Updated: Nov 11, 2009 19:25 IST

Queen Elizabeth II led Britain in a sombre Armistice Day commemoration on Wednesday for the end of the World War I generation of soldiers, made more poignant by the rising death toll in Afghanistan.

At 11:00 am (1100 GMT), 91 years on since the guns fell silent in the Great War, people across Britain fell silent for two minutes to remember those who fought and gave their lives in the 1914-1918 conflict.

The final three World War I veterans living in Britain all died earlier this year. A special memorial service for their generation was held at Westminster Abbey in central London, in a season of remembrance now growing to include the young lives regularly being cut down in Afghanistan.

"We have now lost our living link with the Great War," said Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who attended the service.

"But we must never forget what they did for each and every one of us. The courage and selflessness of those brave men who fought in that war will never be forgotten.

"And today of course our thoughts are also with all the men and women of our armed forces, serving with such distinction at home and overseas."

Brown who has faced severe personal criticism this week over the ongoing war in Afghanistan, where a new generation of service personnel -- some 232 troops so far -- have made the ultimate sacrifice.

At 11:00 am on the front line in Afghanistan, British troops in the troubled southern Helmand Province paused to remember the fallen.

In Camp Bastion, the main British base in Helmand, soldiers stood still to pay their respects, the BBC reported.

Of the last three British World War I veterans living in Britain, William Stone died in January, aged 108, followed in July by Henry Allingham, 113, and Harry Patch, 111.

Last November, the frail, wheelchair-bound trio fell in line for the last time at the Remembrance Day commemorations. In moving scenes, Allingham fought one last battle, trying for minutes to lay his wreath himself.

Patch was the last veteran to have fought in the trenches of Europe. He fought at the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele -- where an estimated half a million troops perished.

More than 700,000 British service personnel were killed and some two million were wounded during the entire conflict.

Of the eight million British soldiers who fought in World War I, only 108-year-old Royal Navy veteran Claude Choules, who lives in Perth, Australia, remains.

Choules took no part in Wednesday's commemorations there because he is against the glorification of war, his daughter said.

The Westminster Abbey service remembered the British empire service personnel who died and the impact it had on those who remained.

Queen Elizabeth, 83, laid a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, aided by two serving British and Australian winners of the rarely-awarded Victoria Cross, the highest honour for valour in the face of the enemy.

"Now that the last of his comrades in arms has gone to his eternal rest, we are here once more to remember," said the Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend John Hall.

"We remember, with grief, the gas and the mud, the barbed wire, the bombardment, the terror, the telegram; and, with gratitude, the courage and sacrifice."

Church of England leader Rowan Williams called the war a "huge collective bereavement".

"The generation that has passed walked forward with vision and bravery and held together the bonds of our society, our continent, our Commonwealth, through a terrible century," the archbishop of Canterbury concluded.

"May we learn the lessons they learned, and God save us from learning them in the way they had to."