A Town Weeps Yet Again
I was very surprised to open a copy of last Sunday’s Observer newspaper and find a picture of my dad heading a very touching story about the repatriation of UK troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
From The Observer:
A single bell tolls as the hearse slowly comes to a halt. Some heads bow, some arms are raised in firm salute and the high street falls silent. Another repatriation means another flag-draped coffin and another tribute from the people of Wootton Bassett.
If any town can really know the raw reality of the risks taken and sacrifices made by those now serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is this small north Wiltshire market town, near Swindon. The tangible evidence is in front of them, week after week.
Friday saw them on the streets once more; hundreds turned out to pay their respects to a soldier fallen while serving his country. All know his name, his age, his regiment, and the manner of his death. Ranger Justin James Cupples, 29, from the 1st Battalion, the Royal Irish Regiment, who died in an explosion on foot patrol in southern Afghanistan is the 99th victim of the Iraq and Afghan conflicts to be repatriated through nearby RAF Lyneham. Tommorow they will congregate again to honour the 100th victim to be slowly led through the town and many will weep.
‘The people of Wootton Bassett have been there for each and every one of them,’ said Anne Bevis, secretary of the local Royal British Legion. And it is in recognition of this that the town’s residents will line the streets once more next month. This time, though, the tribute being paid is to them. A military parade is to be held in their honour on 12 October as the armed forces say thank you for the unswerving support shown during these difficult times.
It’s an honour welcomed by mayor Michael Leighfield. ‘It’s something we wish Wootton Bassett didn’t have to be recognised for. But we are very proud. It’s a hell of a tribute.’
But the army, airforce and navy see the people of Wootton Bassett as unsung heroes during these trying times. To them it is the town that cares when soldiers fear wearing uniforms in public in some places, or face being turned away from hotels, and when arguments rage over homecoming parades.
Come rain, snow or hail they gather beside the war memorial. ‘We have been there three times a week at times,’ said Bevis. When details are known, she rings round regulars, who pass them on to others. Word spreads. There are rarely fewer than 150, sometimes as many as 500. Veterans, former military personnel, the ‘chain gang’ as the local mayors and councillors refer to themselves, stand alongside mothers, school children, shoppers.
As Jai Cunningham, 24, a youth support worker, put it: ‘You hear on the news that we have lost a few more boys. But, by standing here, it’s really making it real. It’s always emotional. There are often tears, especially when we see six come through together. Just the sheer number, everyone is in tears. The sad thing is, the people of this town actually realise how many are going through and it’s quite scary.’
Angelina Peaker tries to attend them all. A former army nurse, she brings her children Tom, nine, Elly, seven, and Chloe, two, when school hours permit. ‘It’s important they know what sacrifices are being made.’ With Tom desperate to follow in his father’s army footsteps ‘he needs to know it is not all glory and uniforms,’ she said.
‘But it is important, too, because I absolutely know I would want people to come if it was my child.’
Relatives of those whose bodies are being brought back join the townsfolk. Bob and Roseleen Reeve, whose son Corporal Sean Reeve, 28, of the Royal Signals, was killed with three others on 17 June in Helmand when their vehicle was caught in an explosion, told The Observer the town’s tribute ‘left a deep impression on us and, we are sure, other families in the same situation.
‘Having been in Wootton Bassett that day to see the gathering was something for which we are very grateful and we find of great consolation. Thank you to the people of Wootton Bassett and please continue to do it.’
The town receives many letters of gratitude, from relatives or colleagues. Anne often puts them on display to illustrate how appreciated their gesture is.
Schoolboy Jake Smith, 12, says: ‘It’s important to be here. I feel very sad, but also I feel proud of them. And I hope the families know that we feel so proud.’
Often, curious visitors ask what’s going on. ‘I point them to the words on the war memorial “Lest We Forget”. That’s what’s going on,’ said Brigadier Robert Hall, chairman of Wiltshire county council. Ian Henderson, chairman of North Wiltshire District Council, said: ‘I feel we are doing this on behalf of the whole country. Not just Wootton Bassett.’
The tributes began in April last year when the military began using Lyneham rather than RAF Brize Norton for repatriation ceremonies. To get to the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford, the hearses must pass along Wootton Bassett’s high street and, by chance, two members of the Royal British Legion saw it and saluted as it went past. People heard and asked if they could be informed of repatriations. Now they come in from the surrounding towns and villages.
Lieutenant General Sir Philip Trousdell, Colonel of the Royal Irish Regiment, was at Ranger Cupples’s repatriation at Lyneham when somebody mentioned the Wootton Bassett tribute. He decided to join it. ‘I’d never heard about it,’ he said. ‘But it’s a tremendous tribute. And I am sure that to know people are doing this will be as deeply comforting to Justin Cupples’s family as it has been deeply moving for me’.
Retired firefighter Chris Wannell has attended all but one, with his wife, former mayor Audrey. ‘Yes, we give up our time,’ he said, ‘But they have given up their lives. You always hope and pray with each one that it will be the last.’
Sadly, he and the others will be on the high street again tomorrow to pay their respects to the 100th member of the armed services to pass through Wootton Bassett.
Categorised as: The World of Me