War

UK town gets royal title for honoring war dead

AP News
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Posted: Mar 16, 2011 2:26 PM
UK town gets royal title for honoring war dead

A town famous for honoring dead British soldiers as they are repatriated from Afghanistan will gain the rare honor of receiving a royal title, Britain's prime minister said Wednesday.

David Cameron told lawmakers that the town _ where people line the streets each time a soldier's cortege passes by _ will officially be renamed Royal Wootton Bassett, recognizing its efforts to honor the U.K.'s war dead.

The move marks the first time in more than 100 years that a town has been granted the title of "royal" _ an honor reserved for the very few.

"Their deeply moving and dignified demonstrations of respect and mourning have shown the deep bond between the public and our armed forces," Cameron told the House of Commons.

Cameron said Queen Elizabeth II bestowed the honor on the town of Wootton Bassett, 85 miles (135 kilometers) west of London, as tribute to the "enduring symbol of the nation's admiration and our gratitude to the people of that town."

After repatriation to a nearby air base, the flag-draped coffins of fallen soldiers are taken on a solemn journey through the town of about 11,000 people and on to a coroner's office in Oxford. Each time, residents shut the doors of their businesses, and line the sidewalks of the quiet market town to salute the procession.

Veterans and soldiers in uniform stand at attention, police outriders escort the hearse and stop in the town center, giving families a chance to lay flowers on the vehicle's roof, over the coffin. A bell tolls.

The moment has been replayed for television cameras hundreds of times. Though a mark of respect, it has also become an uncomfortable reminder of the war's terrible cost. The announcement of the royal honor accompanies the news that bodies will now be repatriated through another air base, since the one near Wootton Bassett is scheduled for closure.

Since the beginning of hostilities in October 2001, 359 British forces personnel have died in Afghanistan.

The town's residents began their efforts with only the humblest organization. Local shops post notices in their windows, while the local Royal British Legion, a veterans' charity, telephones and e-mails to spread the word. The local pub sets aside a room, so that family and friends of the slain troops can have privacy while they await the cortege.

"It is such spontaneous public support that captures the spirit of the British people, and I am very grateful for those who have participated," Defense Secretary Liam Fox said in a statement. "Such gestures do not go unnoticed by those deployed on operations."

Wootton Bassett's mayor, Mary Champion, said in a statement that the town was a bit taken aback, as they had never sought the recognition.

"I am certain that this will serve to reinforce the pride and gratitude we feel for the members of our armed services who will always be in our thoughts," Champion said.

Wootton Bassett will join two other royal towns in England _ Leamington Spa was granted the title in 1838 by Queen Victoria and Tunbridge Wells received the title in 1909 from King Edward II. Both of the towns had petitioned for the honor in recognition of their antiquity and royal patronage of their spa facilities.

A third town, Caernarvon in Wales, is a royal town of a different sort _ it was made a Royal Borough by the Queen in 1963 and allowed to retain the honor when it ceased to be a borough in 1974.

Greenwich is one of a number of Royal Boroughs in England.