Body of British soldier returns to England

AP News
Posted: Dec 15, 2009 11:47 AM

The road out of this quiet market town was strewn with red and yellow roses on Tuesday, flowers that fell from the hearse carrying the body of Lance Corporal Adam Drane _ the 100th British soldier to die this year in Afghanistan.

The grim milestone struck a strong chord in Wootton Bassett, which has become Britain's ground zero for mourning its war dead, and renewed debate over whether the nation's troops are paying too high a price for a sometimes unpopular enterprise.

After repatriation to a nearby Royal Air Force base, the flag-draped coffins of fallen soldiers are taken on a solemn journey through the town of about 11,000 people to a coroner's office in Oxford.

Each time, residents turn out to salute the cortege.

On Tuesday, Drane's family had placed the roses _ a symbol of Drane's Royal Anglican Regiment _ on the car when it paused to allow mourners to pay their respects.

In a freezing drizzle, Drane's fiancee Sian Goodenough waited for the hearse near the town's war memorial, alongside his parents. On the other side of the street, her grandfather, Peter Ward, held the flag of the regiment in which the 23-year-old had served.

"He was absolutely brilliant. He was well-loved," Ward said.

The numbers of mourners lining the main street of Wootton Bassett, about 85 miles (135 kilometers) west of London, started small _ and have grown. At some repatriation ceremonies, people have stood five or six deep on the sidewalks.

Local shops post notices in their windows, letting everyone know when the cortege is to pass through. The local Royal British Legion, a veterans charity, telephones and e-mails to spread the word. The local pub, the Cross Keys, sets aside a room as a refuge for family and friends of the slain serviceperson, giving them some privacy and a cup of tea as they wait.

"It's something that has been done since the very beginning," said Ann Doyle, the wife of an ex-serviceman and receptionist at a local law firm. "It's just something that happens, as a mark of respect from the people of Wootton Bassett."

As the cortege approached on Tuesday, a bell tolled to let the crowds know, and the town fell silent. Businesses closed up shop, staff joining the hundreds outside. After a phalanx of police outriders passed through, the hearse rolled to a stop and paused in front of Drane's family. After a few moments, it resumed its journey, and the town began to get back to normal.

The public nature of the repatriations contrasts with U.S. policy, which until this year prevented media from covering the return of soldiers killed in action to the United States.

Like Canadians, who line the "Highway of Heroes" _ which runs from an air force base in Ontario to the coroner's office in downtown Toronto _ and publicly honor the fallen, Britain has taken its grief outside.

Since the beginning of hostilities in October, 2001, 237 British forces personnel have died in Afghanistan.

"It just happens that Wootton Bassett was on the way and a convenient place for everyone to congregate," said 66-year-old Graham Smith, a former soldier who represented the veterans of the Royal Regiment of Wales.

"It's important to pay tribute to the guys that have fallen in defense of the country and let the guys on the front line _ the men and women _ know that we're supporting them."