Ceremony ends UK market town's repatriation role

AP News
Posted: Aug 31, 2011 3:21 PM
Ceremony ends UK market town's repatriation role

The large role the small town of Wootton Bassett has played in honoring fallen British soldiers has ended with a sunset ceremony Wednesday.

The market town about 85 miles (135 kilometers) west of London has earned fame throughout Britain _ and praise from the queen and prime minister _ for its solemn shows of support when the remains of soldiers killed in Afghanistan are driven through town.

Each time a soldier's remains pass by, normal life in the town of 11,000 comes to a halt. 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. The soldier receives salutes, and a bell tolls.

But that role is over now that the nearby Royal Air Force Lyneham base is closing and Wootton Bassett will no longer be on the route between the repatriation military base and the coroner's office.

The streets of the town were full as Wootton Bassett's Union Jack was lowered at sunset to mark the end of an era in the town's history. The flag was folded, blessed and will be placed on the altar of a local church overnight, then passed on to Brize Norton Royal Air Force base in Oxfordshire, which will on Thursday become the base where planes carrying fallen soldiers will land.

Prime Minister David Cameron on Wednesday praised Wootton Bassett's spontaneous demonstrations of support for British troops that began in 2007 and have continued each time a soldier has been killed.

"My message to the people of Wootton Bassett is a really big, heartfelt thank you on behalf of the government and the whole country," he said.

Cameron said residents "have done our country proud with the respect and admiration and passion they have shown for our armed forces and those who have tragically fallen in battle in Afghanistan and elsewhere."

Queen Elizabeth II also honored the town earlier this year by formally changing its name to Royal Wootton Bassett.

The town's residents began their efforts four years ago with only the humblest organization. Local shops spread the word by posting notices in their windows, and the local branch of the Royal British Legion made phone calls and sent emails to let people know when a procession was expected.

The local pub started setting aside a room each time so that family and friends of the slain troops could have privacy while they waited for the cortege to make its sad journey.

Officials said bereaved families would make use of a newly built repatriation center at the air force base in Oxfordshire.

"This center has been designed with the needs of the families and loved ones of those being repatriated at its heart," Brize Norton Station Commander Dom Stamp said. "All along this has been of paramount importance and I am confident that the facilities we now have will assist us in our efforts to ensure we provide the maximum support at what is an extremely traumatic time."