Just 26 veterans allowed at Cenotaph as Poppy Day hit by COVID rules
Written by on 7 November 2020
On the 11th of November 1920 the body of an unnamed soldier was drawn in a procession from Hyde Park up the Mall, past Buckingham Palace, between the silent crowds gathered to remember the unknown dead of the First World War.
At 11 o’clock there was two minutes of silence as the procession stood still at the new war memorial on Whitehall.
The body of the unnamed man was found on the battlefield and laid to rest at the end of the nave in Westminster Abbey.
On his tomb are the following words:
“Beneath this stone rests the body of a British warrior unknown by name or rank brought from France to lie among the most illustrious of the land.”
The Cenotaph had been unveiled by George V to mark the second anniversary of the armistice, and since then it has been the focal point of an annual service of remembrance.
A hundred years on, his granddaughter attended her first engagement in London since March.
The Queen wouldn’t ordinarily visit the tomb of the unknown warrior, but this year she went to mark the centenary and show solidarity in an extraordinary year.
Up and down the country, the traditional rituals of Remembrance Sunday have been made difficult this year.
Indoor services are cancelled and at the Cenotaph, where ordinarily 10,000 veterans would gather, there will be just 26 former service men and women.
Wreaths will still be laid by the Royal Family, senior politicians and the Armed Forces, but there will be no march past the memorial and strict social distancing measures will be in force.
For the first time in history the event won’t be open to the public.
Ena Collymore-Woodstock, 103, is believed to be the oldest surviving female veteran from the Second World War.
She was found thanks to a campaign run by the Women’s Royal Army Corps Association, a charity that helps female veterans.
The centenarian says this year’s remembrance is a timely reminder of the wartime spirit, and hopes Sunday will bring people together.
Mrs Collymore-Woodstock will mark two minutes’ silence with her family in Barbados and wants others to remember, even if they can’t leave home.
She joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service from Jamaica aged 26, serving from 1943 in the UK and Belgium.
She was one of 16,000 men and women from the Caribbean who voluntarily enlisted in the Second World War, and was the first West Indian to become a radar operator.
The veteran says she was determined to see action when she arrived in England: “They offered me an office role typing, but I told them that I hadn’t joined up just to type!”
“There weren’t many women in the army at that time,” she added.
“And very few women of colour. I wanted to do my part and I felt special.”
The Royal British Legion hopes stories like Mrs Collymore-Woodstock’s will inspire and “British creativity” will endure this Remembrance Sunday.
Bob Gamble, assistant director for commemorative events at the Royal British Legion, says he is “deeply disappointed” this year’s events won’t be as planned, but wants people to take part in “remote acts of remembrance” instead.
He says the public should mark the two minutes’ silence on their doorstep and display poppies in their windows at home.
Poppy collectors haven’t been collecting on the street as usual, but Mr Gamble says people should show their support by donating online.
“Remembrance Sunday is an intrinsic part of what it means to be British and I hope we never lose that,” he told Sky News.
This weekend, the military band at the Cenotaph will also be much smaller, but its conductor believes the message will be “even more poignant”.
Lieutenant Colonel Simon Haw has been part of the Remembrance Service for more than 30 years.
He says: “One thing is constant and that is the music. I think that’s important because it brings a sense of comfort to people and I think through music people are able to express their feelings, where sometimes it’s difficult to find the words”.
Lt Col Haw has composed a new requiem for Sunday, to mark 100 years since the war memorial was unveiled.
He hopes people will listen from home, even if they can’t attend a service in person: “Obviously it’s going to be smaller, but for the Armed Forces, we never forget and we honour and reflect on the sacrifice that all servicemen and women have made in the service of their country.
“I think that is a very remarkable thing… It’s a very difficult time for the whole country, so I hope people do find that sense of comfort in the music.”
The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, said it was with a “heavy heart” that he asked people not to attend the Cenotaph ceremony this year “to keep veterans and the public safe”.
He said he wanted to “properly” mark the centenary of the Cenotaph, however, and “will ensure our plans for the day are a fitting tribute to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice and that our veterans are at the heart of the service – with the nation able to watch safely from home”.
A hundred years since the Unknown Warrior was buried in Westminster Abbey, the pomp of a Whitehall parade may be lost, but the message of remembrance has rarely seemed so timely.
As Mr Gamble says, “The thing that will mark us as special is how we deal with adversity, and I’m hoping that even on Remembrance Sunday we will rise to that challenge”.