31 March 11
Posted at 9:00
A week or so ago the town of Wootton Bassett was awarded the title Royal, joining other 'Royal' towns like Lemington Spa and Tunbridge Wells. Wootton Bassett was awarded this title in recognition of the part it has played in dignifying the repatriation of our troops killed in action in Afghanistan and Iraq. The nws about the award reminded me that last August I visited a reptriation to shoot a 'reportage' record of an event that has become an all too common part of our recent history. Here are a few of my images and a brief insight.
The day starts early for some. Local and not so local ex servicemen arrive in the town early in the morning. They are extremely proud men. I also arrived early and found, by talking to these gents, that the press are pretty much hated in the town for the way the increasingly intrude on families and friends grief. With a pro camera round my neck it was initially assumed I was 'one of them' and I had a cold reception. I soon broke the ice and got the message across that I was not working for the Sun or worse still the Mail but I was there to learn about and record the whole day and had no intenetion of sensationalising personal grief. Within a short while I was approved by the towns elders.
These two chaps attend every repatriation they can. The one on the right has attended all 135 (including this day 5th August 2010 which was the 135th).
This is where and why the cortege stops for a minutes (actually about fifteen minutes) silence. The repatriated serviceman land at RAF Lyneham and have to pass through Wooton Bassett to get to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. In April 2007 the first repatriation slowed for respect as it past the church and then stopped again at this memorial. The memorial itself has an interesting history. A local teenager Jan Cunningham campaigned for five years to have a memorial erected in the main street to commemorate those who fell in the two world wars. Jan raised £30k and the memorial was erected in October 2004 - little did they know then it would take on such a different role a couple of years later.
During the day the crowds increase, the bikers arrive (more on that later) the families and friends arrive as do comrades, the public and the media. Then as the cortege arrive the whole town falls silent.
The two images above require no words. What is amazing is the hundreds gathered there visually share the grief. I had tears streaming. The silence goes on, it is humbling and haunting. Once the hurses have had every last wreath and flower put on their rooves they very slowly proceed. They dont accelerate until they are right out of the town. The silence continues and the public do not move or speak until the relatives have adjourned to their cars or the pub.It's an age before the town returns to any form of normality
What I hadn't realised is the whole Wootton Bassett repatriation is organised by the British Legion Riders, again I'd never heard of them. Visually they are like any other gang of bikers, big hairy guys dressed in leather and with a variety of shiny motorbikes. The difference is these are all ex servicemen and they are one of the most active and fund generating arms of the Royal British Legion. On the day they appear to co-ordinate things, liaise with families and friends and generally add to the occasion. Talking to them it is clear that they attract interest in the Legion from currently serving troops as they can identify with biking a lot more than the traditional fuddy duddy impression or the British Legion. As ever the media seem to ignore good news about a gang of bikers doing so much good.
Whe RAF Lynham closes next year and Brize Norton airport is used the route to Oxford will no longer pass through Wootton Bassett. It will be the end of an era in our history.
I am pleased I attended the repatriation of Marine Adam Brown and Lance Sergeant Dale McCullum, it opened my eyes to many things. I have no great interest in the military or the current conflicts but the day gave me an insight to generations of people for whom service and conflict is their life - and in some cases death. It also gave me the chance to experience a spectacle that is so quitessentially British.