The body of Lance Corporal Barry Buxton has been flown back to Britain. The 27-year-old Royal Engineer, from Meir, died in a road accident in Afghanistan after his vehicle rolled into a canal. Martin Tideswell headed to Wootton Bassett to witness his tragic homecoming…
Only by a quirk of fate has Wootton Bassett entered the public consciousness.
Until April 2007 the bodies of fallen British soldiers were repatriated to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.
But when renovation work began at Brize Norton, RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire took over the role.
That meant that, on their way to John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, the corteges had to pass through a sleepy, unremarkable market town which has become the focus for national mourning.
The chances are Wootton Bassett, located six miles south west of Swindon and with a population of around 11,000, would never have hit the national headlines.
It just happens to be the most notable population centre on this melancholy route.
In truth, the High Street boasts little evidence of the town’s special role. But the clues are there.
If you look closely, you may just spot the odd Help For Heroes poster in a shop window.
There are a few more Union flags and Crosses of Saint George than one would perhaps expect.
And, pinned to the door of the town council’s offices yesterday was a note informing locals of a repatriation ceremony ‘scheduled for 2pm’.
The town’s war memorial, erected in 2004 next to a pedestrian crossing on the main thoroughfare, is a simple affair.
It’s a stone pedestal topped by hands holding a globe, which was the vision of a local schoolgirl. Lying at the foot of the memorial, among the floral tributes, football scarves and military mementoes are two special letters of condolence from Royal visitors.
One reads: ‘In grateful and everlasting memory, Charles.’ The other reads: ‘With deepest gratitude, Camilla.’
It is this small edifice to which the crowds are drawn when the corteges pass through Wootton Bassett.
This is where the veterans of previous conflicts congregate to pay their respects – to give a salute only servicemen and women are entitled to give.
This is where the vehicles carrying the bodies of our brave lads and lasses briefly halt. It is a moment in time which bridges the gap between generations and unites all ages in sorrow and pride.
This was the homecoming for one of our own – Lance Corporal Barry Buxton, from Meir, and his comrades Corporal Harvey Alex Holmes and Sapper Daryn Roy.
Fully two hours before the cortege was due to arrive, the crowds started to form and the atmosphere began to change.
Subtly at first, a feeling of solemnity and anticipation settled over what had been a busy day in the market town.
Veterans stood shoulder-to-shoulder with cadets. Shopkeepers emerged to mingle with members of the public.
I saw the regalia of Normandy veterans, Falklands veterans, Korean veterans, Malayan veterans – to name but a few – as well as the dress uniforms of many a serving soldier. All ranks were represented from all branches of the Army, Royal Navy and RAF.
A young mum sheltered from the wind in a shop doorway, holding a boy of maybe three years in one arm while rocking her baby’s pram gently back and forth. An hour and a half she waited, determined to be part of the tribute.
Just like the elderly lady in the red jumper, supported by a walking frame, who grimaced with the effort of standing but refused to give up her space at the front of the crowd. The people of Wootton Bassett never asked for this responsibility but they bear the burden effortlessly.
In dribs and drabs the loved ones of the fallen arrived – three distinct groups of family and friends, some clutching flowers or carrying banners, and others wearing T-shirts bearing faces of their heroes.
The courage and dignity of these forlorn souls was immense and it lasted right up until the moment the church bells began to toll to herald the arrival of the cortege. Dark clouds which had threatened to rain on this parade suddenly abated and sunlight bathed the scene.
The sad convoy crept into view, led first by a police escort and then the solemn figure of a man clad in funereal top hat and tails and carrying a black cane.
The lead car carrying Lance Corporal Buxton’s coffin, draped in the Union flag, came to a halt at the war memorial.
At this point the families and friends of the three servicemen approached the cars – sobs and wails breaking the impeccably-observed silence.
Flowers were thrown on to the hearses as some mourners flung themselves at the vehicles to be close to those they had lost.
All the while the people of Wootton Bassett watched, the veterans held their shaky salutes and our hearts broke for those who grieved.
Our Barry and his comrades were home at last.