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A solemn day, a fond farewell

Friday’s leaden skies compared to Thursday’s abundant sunshine seemed to reflect the sombre, respectful mood of the royals on Anzac Day at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

There was no official release of Kate’s wardrobe details, no extensive meet-and-greet with the crowd, no collection of bouquets and gifts as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge tried their best to keep the focus on remembering the nation’s war dead and wounded.

Their presence at the mid-morning national ceremony obviously had an effect with a record crowd of 25,500 turning out, 8000 more than last year, according to the War Memorial.

The royal couple also made a surprise visit to the dawn service, which also had a record crowd of 36,500, an increase of 1000 on last year.

Anzac Day was in stark contrast to the jubilation which greeted the royals’ official engagements in Canberra on Thursday and a serious note on which to end their triumphant tour of Australia and New Zealand as the young parents with baby Prince George jetted out of Fairbairn on Friday afternoon, bound for home.

The Duke and Duchess laid a wreath of poppies on the Stone of Remembrance, their accompanying hand-written note attached by a silver pin reading: ‘‘Never forgetting those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom, William and Catherine’’.


Prince William stood alongside Governor-General, General Sir Peter Cosgrove, as they inspected the march past of parade participants while Kate sat ramrod straight alongside War Memorial director Dr Brendan Nelson.

The Duke, in particular, was respectful but almost uncomfortable when any attention was drawn to himself and Kate, including by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who said ‘‘long ago we ceased to regard Britain as the mother country but we’re still family. Your presence, Sir, reminds us of all our comrades in arms. These are the ties that bind’’.

In a heartfelt speech, Mr Abbott said as ‘‘someone who has never served in the armed forces , never faced a shot fired in anger and never lost close family members in war, I am in awe of the Anzac generation who were tested almost beyond endurance’’.

‘‘The First World War impacted Australia like nothing else before or since,’’ the prime minister said. ‘‘From a population under five million; 417,000 enlisted; 332,000 served overseas, 152,000 were wounded and 62,000 never came home. Of men aged 18 to 42, almost one in two served in uniform. Of those who served overseas, almost one in five died on active service. Of the 270,000 who returned, more than half had been wounded and others had mental scars that never healed.

‘‘Individually and collectively, it was sacrifice on a stupendous scale.’’

Against such sobering statistics, the glamorous royals were understated and showing deference to the occasion.

Kensington Palace decreed it would not be appropriate to release the Duchess’ navy coat outfit details; that fashion was a little too frivolous to discuss on a day such as Anzac Day, this year also the 99th anniversary of the Anzac landing.

She was wearing a poppy brooch given to her at a reception at Government House on Thursday by Emma Roberts-Smith, wife of Victoria Cross for Australia recipient, Ben Roberts-Smith.

The royal couple, along with many others in the crowd, did allow themselves a little chuckle when MC Ross Symonds, warned of the impending very low and very loud flyover of three F/A-18 Hornet fighters.

William was wearing his Irish Guards tie and old and Diamond Jubilee medals given to him by the Queen.

When the royal couple arrived, there were a couple of cries of ‘‘Hello Kate’’ but mostly the crowd was constrained and greeted them with polite applause.

The couple also paid their respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier and planted a sapling grown from the historic Lone Pine that was planted at the memorial by the Duke of Gloucester in 1934. They were presented with a photograph of the 1934 ceremony in a wooden frame crafted from that tree, as well as a box from the same source.

Dinah Bryant and her daughter Kayla, five, of Amaroo, didn’t get to give a posy of flowers to Kate but understood Friday’s was a different kind of engagement for the royal couple.

‘‘I thought it was really important [they were there] and I read they were at the dawn service as well. I think it really means they want to show respect for our country and I think they’ve done a lot for the monarchy since they’ve been here,’’ Mrs Bryant said.

‘‘We’re very lucky in Canberra. We get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see these things. My husband is over it, he’s gone to the car. But I have a little girl and just wanted her to see the princess and she was thrilled.’’

After the ceremony, plenty of people took the opportunity of sitting in the seat occupied by Kate and taking a photograph, including Kath Vinson, of Melbourne, who was there with her four-year-old son, David.

Mrs Vinson said she believed the presence of the royal couple had added to the gravity of the occasion.

‘‘I think they’re acutely aware of the importance of the day,’’ she said.

One of the younger veterans there on the day was 31-year-old retired corporal Marcus Randall, down from Queensland for the occasion and wearing his conspicuous service medal for his time spent serving in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007. He welcomed the addition of Kate and William to the day.

‘‘It’s a very special moment for us and to have them attend is enormous,’’ Mr Randall said.

‘‘They seem very down-to-earth. Maybe they didn’t want to take the gloss off for Australians, but us being part of the Commonwealth, it’s very special to have them here.’’

Fran Primaran, of Melbourne, became tearful as she told her calling ‘‘hello’’ to Prince William during the tree planting and him turning around to wave at her.

‘‘That was just so special,’’ she said.

Among those in the official party were ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher, federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, Speaker Bronwyn Bishop, High Court Chief Justice Robert French and  Today show host Lisa Wilkinson with her husband Peter FitzSimons, who is a member of the council of the Australian War Memorial.