The scene became a familiar backdrop to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan here: funeral processions slowly creeping through the market town of Wootton Bassett, met by a silent, dignified line of residents, heads bowed.
As the coffins, draped in Union flags, passed through the main street, flags of veteran groups were lowered, and grieving relatives threw flowers in the hearses’ path. The parades marking the repatriation of war casualties galvanized the nation.
What began as an informal ceremony four years ago when a handful of local residents paused to honor two deceased soldiers in coffins passing through the Wiltshire town, has become a living memorial for British servicemen and women who died in the two wars. Despite not being officially organized, the repatriations soon attracted thousands of people, many from outside the area – giving a very public face to those who died in war and making it uncomfortable for politicians grappling with a lack of support for the wars.
But tonight, after four years and 167 repatriation processions, the tradition in Wootton Bassett will officially come to a close.
The ceremonies are ending because nearby Royal Air Force Lyneham, where the bodies were flown into for the 40-mile trip to the coroner’s office in Oxford, is closing. Now bodies will be flown into RAF Brize Norton and brought to Oxford through the town of Carterton, which plans to continue the tradition.
Tonight’s flag-lowering, marking the closure of RAF Lyneham, will be especially poignant for former town mayor and soldier Percy Miles, who was among the handful of people who unwittingly started the tradition four years ago.
“I was mayor at the time and we had a call to say two bodies were coming through, so I went and got changed and put my mayoral chains on. A few of us stood in silence as the coffins went past," he said. “We spoke about it at the next (Royal British) Legion meeting and what we could do for the next ones. I got in touch with RAF Lyneham and we told others when they were happening and it grew from there.”
On the day of a repatriation, shops would shut as the procession drove slowly through the town, led by a police escort and undertaker on foot. It wasn’t until 2009, two years later, that the ceremonies drew media attention, earning praise for Wootton Bassett. US President Barack Obama said the processions typified "the best of British character."
But residents say the compliments are unwarranted. “It’s just what we do in Wootton Bassett. As a market town we’re used to welcoming people and looking after them so when these servicemen started coming through, we naturally wanted to pay our respects," says Rev. Canon Thomas Woodhouse, vicar of the local church St. Bartholomew’s and chaplain of the local Royal British Legion.
“A lot of the coverage we’ve received is a bit embarrassing really because what we’re doing costs nothing or takes up too much time.”
Mayor Paul Heaphy, who will conduct tonight’s ceremony with the Reverend Woodhouse, added, “It’s one hour every so often. We didn’t plan it and they’re not organized, but the ceremonies have acted as a kind of vessel for Wootton Bassett – and indeed the nation – to pay their respects for the servicemen who died for our country.
“I’ve spoken to families of the deceased, usually when they return to the town later, and I know they are grateful for the recognition of their sons – they haven’t been forgotten, if you like."