OTTAWA - Prince Charles joined Prime Minister Stephen Harper and thousands of others to pay tribute to the country's war dead at a packed national Remembrance Day ceremony Wednesday.

The prince, colonel-in-chief of three Canadian regiments, donned a full military uniform with the insignia of lieutenant-general as he laid a wreath at the foot of the towering National War Memorial.

Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean, titular commander-in-chief of the Canadian Forces, also wore a dress uniform in a rare display as she walked beside the prince and laid a wreath on behalf of the Queen. Her epaulets and cuffs carried the lion insignia of her office.

Along with Gen. Walter Natynczyk, their uniforms gave an unusual martial appearance to the front ranks of the ceremony.

Della Marie Morley of East Saint Paul, Man., this year's Silver Cross mother, was on hand representing all grieving families. Her son, Cpl. Keith Morley, was killed in Afghanistan on Sept. 18, 2006, while serving with the 2nd battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry.

The ritual began in bright sunshine and cool temperatures with a choir singing "O Canada" and a bugler playing the haunting notes of "The Last Post."

The crash of an artillery piece and the tolling of the Peace Tower clock sounding the hour of 11 a.m. heralded the two-minute silence.

The hush was broken by the crack of a second gun as a piper sent the keening notes of "The Lament" over the wide plaza around the memorial.

As a children's choir sang "In Flanders Fields," the dignitaries placed their wreaths in front of the tomb of the unknown soldier at the foot of the 21-metre-tall memorial.

Other wreaths were presented on behalf of the Forces, the Royal Canadian Legion and other veterans' groups. Young people laid one on behalf of the country's youth.

Dozens of diplomats laid row upon row of wreaths along the granite flanks of the monument.

On the plaza, hundreds of veterans, many frail and bundled against the cold, sat with moist eyes as padres offered prayers and poet Laurence Binyon's pledge of remembrance was spoken: "At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them."

Most Second World War vets are in their late 80s. Korean War vets are in their late 70s.

The wreath-laying ceremony concluded with the piped strains of Amazing Grace.

The spectators included 17-year-old Anastasia Burtnick of Winnipeg, the national Sea Cadet of the year, and 91-year-old Robert Guy, a Second World War paratrooper.

"It was just breathtaking," Burtnick, a Sea Cadet chief petty officer 2nd class, said of the ceremony. "Just watching the expressions on the vets' faces ... it makes you think of all they've been through."

Guy said the huge turnout was overwhelming.

"It's made my 91st birthday - 91 years, and I never thought I'd see it," he said.

Some onlookers arrived hours beforehand, but shrugged off the chill and said it was worth the wait.

"The day is great, and our veterans, there are fewer in number as the years go by, but it's always so wonderful to see them," said Dorothy Goubault of Douglas, Ont.

She said it was a bonus to have the prince and his wife Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, at the service.

"It means a lot, I think."

Susan McKendry of Ottawa, said it was important for her to mark the occasion, but not because of the royal couple.

"I came for Remembrance Day. I've been doing it for six years in a row now. I'm a daycare teacher and every day last week we talked about it, and the kids know why I am here."

It was one of many such commemorations held across the country and around the world, from Korea to Kandahar, wherever Canadian soldiers are stationed.

A separate ceremony was held at the National Military Cemetery in Ottawa, a couple of kilometres east of the war memorial, where a number of the dead from Afghanistan are buried.

In Kandahar, Defence Minister Peter MacKay, Industry Minister Tony Clement and representatives of the families of seven dead soldiers took part in ceremonies at a marble cenotaph that carries the names of 133 Canadian soldiers killed since 2002.

Brig.-Gen. Jonathan Vance, commander of Task Force Kandahar, compared the sacrifices in Afghanistan to those of previous generations.

"We are reminded today that former generations have had to fight, have had to endure hardship and have sacrificed to win freedom for Canada and people around the world."

In Hamilton, McMaster University announced it will offer four years of free tuition and first-year residence and meal fees to the children of Canadian soldiers killed in military action.

Similar scholarships are also offered by Memorial University in Newfoundland, the University of Ottawa, the University of Windsor and the University of Calgary.

Ceremonies also proceeded in Fredericton and Woodstock, Ont., despite vandalism against the local cenotaphs.

The tall marble cross atop the Fredericton memorial was toppled and broken on the weekend. The Woodstock memorial was spray-painted with a swastika overnight and the symbol was still visible despite cleanup efforts.

Nonetheless, thousands turned out in Fredericton, including many soldier and families from the nearby military base at Gagetown.

The Woodstock ceremony also went ahead, with Mayor Michael Harding calling the vandalism "truly sacrilegious."

Before the ceremony, Prince Charles issued a statement thanking Canadian troops in Afghanistan for their service.

"We join with the Canadian people in expressing our proud and heartfelt gratitude to all members of Her Majesty's Canadian Forces who are currently serving in Afghanistan for your selfless dedication on behalf of us all.

"My prayers and good wishes are with you at this time. May God continue to bless and protect you."

Senator Romeo Dallaire, a retired lieutenant-general who led the ill-fated UN mission during the Rwandan genocide and suffered years of post-traumatic stress problems, issued a statement urging Canadians to think of their soldiers and what they have given up.

He recalled the words of his own soldier-father:

"Soldiers are very unusual people. On the outside, they are the hardest, most demanding people, but underneath that, they are the most human, the most feeling, the most emotionally attached people who exist."

The prime minister issued a message saying Canada's military endeavours are part of its heritage.

"We must keep the torch of remembrance burning for future generations to come.

"Let us never forget these brave men and women whose sacrifice served to make life better for others. We must remember, not just today, but every day."