‘By honouring one, I honour them all’
This was my feeling as I approached Wootton Bassett to pay my respects to Lt Daniel Clack, the latest tragic death of a young, so very young soldier on patrol in Afghanistan.
The journey, not a difficult one was made perilous by driving rain with attendant standing water and spray. Several times turning round seemed to be the sensible option, but stubborness drove us on. How could rain turn us back when travelling to honour a soldier’s return from a war zone? Compared to the ordeals faced by our troops, bad weather is trivial.
Wootton Bassett has an air of the everyday, and it is this as much as anything that marks the glory of what they do. Amid the day to day tasks of their lives, the town’s people take time to mark each repatriation with a quiet dignity and tremendous respect.
Uncannily the rain stopped as we waited, though the sky remained lowered by cloud as if in recognition of the distress of the mourners. The wait was long and many of those waiting were elderly, old soldiers numbered many among the crowd. No-one grumbled. The conversations were friendly as stranger made connection with stranger, united by the need to show gratitude. In the wake of the riots on other towns, it was difficult not to make comparisons between the young people who peppered this High Street with the hooded thugs who had terrorised streets elsewhere. Solving the dilemma of why some give so generously while others take so viciously was for another day, another occasion.
Many times I have read about the patience of the growing crowd that lines the High Street, the solemn tolling bell, the quality of silence that falls as the cortège approaches, the dignity with which the crowd melts away as the hearse with its precious burden eventually passes on its way. I have no words to add except that, even though I was expecting it, the experience took my breath away.
Sadly the need for repatriation ceremonies has not passed, will not pass in the foreseeable future, but Wootton Bassett has come to the end of its time at their heart. Whether the arrangements for the memorial garden under construction beside the route from Brize Norton will fill the gap remains to be seen.
I came to Wootton Bassett for many reasons, some simple, others complicated. I came looking for something that I did not find. I suspect what I am looking for lurks within me. I found something I did not expect, but most of all I was glad to have been there to whisper my own prayer for that young man, for all the members of the armed forces and their families – those who are grieving and those, like me, who are fearful and proud in the very same moment.