Year after year, it is always one of the most moving sights in the calendar. For as far as the eye can see, there are veterans of all ages — a few frail witnesses to Monte Cassino or the Burmese jungle or the huts of Bletchley Park; old sweats from Korea or Malaya or Aden; the ranks of those who served in the Falklands or Ulster or the Gulf or Afghanistan . . .
There, too, are many more to whom our debt is just as great: the war widows, the families who grew up without a father, the support services which have done their bit in times of trouble.
They all line up neatly, more than 10,000 of them, standing to attention behind the Royal Family and the political leaders.
The civil servants presiding over this event have decided that it is too risky. Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph is, officially, ‘a closed ceremony’ for VIPs only. The public is being asked to mark the occasion at home
Looking down on it all from her Foreign Office balcony is the one veteran who has attended this event more times than anyone in history — the Queen.
And yet the only person who says a word is the Bishop of London, conducting the short service which precedes the great Royal British Legion parade.
Remembrance Sunday is always captured beautifully by the BBC cameras. It is always humbling for those lucky enough to attend in person. And it is all in honour of those who never had the chance to be there at all.
But what a sorry sight the monarch will behold this year as she stands before the Cenotaph. It will be exactly 100 years since our greatest national monument was unveiled by her grandfather, King George V, in the midst of a previous pandemic.
Looking down on it all from her Foreign Office balcony is the one veteran who has attended this event more times than anyone in history — the Queen
Yet there will be next to no veterans present, no spectators and no parade. The civil servants presiding over this event have decided that it is too risky. Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph is, officially, ‘a closed ceremony’ for VIPs only. The public is being asked to mark the occasion at home.
To which the ‘Glorious Dead’ might well wonder what on earth has happened to the country for which they gave their all. For this is not an appropriate response to the current crisis. It is cringeworthy.
Of course, it is inconceivable that we should expect anything like a traditional Cenotaph gathering in the midst of this pandemic.
The very idea of gathering thousands of elderly men and women from all over the country and lumping them together cheek by jowl for several hours would be insane — and criminally irresponsible, too.
However, that certainly does not mean that we have to shut down the most sacred and important event in our national calendar.
Unlike any other state occasion, the Remembrance Sunday service takes place entirely in the open air. It also happens on a major thoroughfare broad enough for six lanes of traffic.
In other words, with some careful and sensible planning, a reduced, socially-distanced assembly could be arranged with all appropriate dignity and solemnity.
Besides, this is an event where you are dealing with people who have spent much of their life on parade and following orders. They are also people with a professional understanding of managing risk as opposed to avoiding it altogether.
I understand that the Royal British Legion originally proposed to have a tiny wreath-laying unit from each of the 300 ex-Forces organisations which make up the annual parade.
So everyone from the Royal Marines Association and the Royal Green Jackets Association to the Royal Air Forces Ex-Prisoners of War Association, the WRENS and the Russian Convoy Club could each delegate a wreath-layer plus one or two ex-comrades (certainly well within the ‘rule of six’).
They would line up many yards apart, certainly more than two metres distant (this lot tend to speak imperial rather than metric anyway), and march past the Cenotaph at sensible intervals.
No chance, said the officials from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the ministry which runs this event, citing Public Health England advice.
Instead of having a respectable, well-spaced cohort drawn from across the Services, they have permitted just a token presence. The DCMS has yet to confirm a figure but I am told that two dozen younger veterans will represent the entire spectrum of ex-Forces organisation. It is pathetic.
Last month, more than 200 RAF personnel were permitted to gather indoors at a sensible distance in Westminster Abbey to mark the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. The Prime Minister was there too, to read the lesson. However, he appears to have taken his eye off this particular ball.
Our Commonwealth allies will also be represented by a much-reduced delegation of High Commissioners. As for the media, it is all so terribly fraught with danger that, at present, the Government has found space for exactly one newspaper reporter to cover the entire event.
One bit of good news, though. There are no plans to reduce the number of politicians on show. The whole event, of course, serves as an illustration of the broader Whitehall mentality towards this virus. At the very moment when we want a bit of ‘can do’ thinking, we get ‘can’t do’ dithering and meek inertia.
The conclusion which the nation and the wider world can draw is this: you can’t possibly stand in the open air near the Cenotaph because it’s just too risky. But never mind. Wherever you live, why not pop to Sainsbury’s before you take the whole family down to the pub for Sunday lunch. Because that is still fine regardless of which Covid ‘tier’ you live in.
The Government has actually created a Remembrance Sunday exemption for all parts of England, stating that people are allowed to participate and spectate at local memorial services, providing they maintain a social distance. Yet the most important event of all looks set to be a dismal affair.
In other words, with some careful and sensible planning, a reduced, socially-distanced assembly could be arranged with all appropriate dignity and solemnity. Besides, this is an event where you are dealing with people who have spent much of their life on parade and following orders
One of the most striking elements of this pandemic is the contrast between the resourcefulness of those whose jobs and livelihoods are on the line versus the ponderous bumbling of those who know that the pay-cheque will be in the post regardless.
Sadly, it is the latter who continue to write the Covid rules.
Fortunately, other Remembrance events are available. Take the International Bomber Command Centre in Lincoln. It is run by a charity who will be holding their annual Remembrance Sunday service at their outdoor memorial, to which members of the public can book a place.
The dwindling band of Bomber boys all understand the risks of the coronavirus (just as they understood the risks all those years ago when they volunteered for the most dangerous job of the war and almost half were killed).
Since the start of the pandemic, 37 Bomber Command veterans have died with a Covid infection. But everyone also knows the importance of remembrance, too.
‘I hear quite a few veterans say ‘I’d rather die of this bug than die of loneliness’ and there are some who are determined to be here,’ says the IBCC’s chief executive, Nicky van der Drift.
‘We always read out the names of those who have passed away in the last year — it always makes me cry just drawing up the list. I am afraid that we have lost five in the last week alone. It is why we are going to do all we can to make this a safe but correct act of remembrance.’
If only the same could be said for the Cenotaph.
This week, we saw the Queen leading by example as she went with the Duke of Cambridge to visit staff at the germ warfare HQ at Porton Down. It was an event loaded with a broader, simple message: ‘Keep calm and carry on.’
I am afraid that, as things stand, Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph will be saying something rather different.