a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Wootton Bassett

Posted by Thomas Nephew on April 4th, 2010

The English town of Wootton Bassett, pop. 11,000, has become synonymous with the costs of war in Afghanistan for the United Kingdom. Each time dead British soldiers are returned to the nearby RAF airbase in Lyneham, they are eventually moved in hearses in a funeral cortege along the town’s main street — and in a moving display of citizenship and humanity, the people of Wootton Bassett line the streets of the town in their silent hundreds.

This BBC broadcast is from March of this year; it and Wootton Bassett were honoring Stephen Thompson, Richard Green, Tom Keogh, Jonathon Allott, and Liam Maughan:

Audrey Gillan of the Daily Telegraph reports that the ritual came about by chance; repatriated dead soldiers had been flown in to a different airbase, but that airbase’s runways required repairs in 2007, and the flights were re-routed to Lyneham.  At first there were no vigils along the route hearses took from Lyneham through town, but then

…one afternoon that summer, local members of the Royal British Legion happened to be on the high street when a union flag-draped coffin caught their eye. “The legion had a meeting,” Scott recalls, “and it was decided that we would find out when these soldiers were being repatriated – then we would salute them as they passed through the town.”

And so it grew. Now, there are never fewer than a few hundred people on the high street, and often more than a thousand. Because of this, the legion has appointed a repatriations officer: after almost three years of attending the drive-throughs, Anne Bevis has a list of 150 people she notifies by email and 70 more she calls on the phone.

“People call it a parade but it is not a parade. It’s not organised, it just happens. I ring all these people and it’s up to them if they turn up. That’s the beauty of it; because it’s unorganised, people feel at ease,” Bevis says. “It’s a gathering to pay tribute with a few moments of our lives – a few moments of our lives is nothing compared with what they have given.”

A British friend tells me that the Wootton Bassett phenomenon has taken on a life of its own, with British TV all but compelled to cut away to cover the procession and the townspeople each time a repatriation occurs — and there have been 121 servicemen honored by the town so far.

The townspeople and town leadership are by all accounts acutely resistant to political and media exploitation; the town mayor even requested the Queen not honor the town with royal status.  (Recently, an Islamic group called off an anti-war march through town at the last minute, after strong opposition by the town and in the press.)

Certainly the Wootton Bassett processions have brought the war front and center in the U.K. — along with debates about the premises of that war.  Press coverage of the procession in the video above, for example, was accompanied by a quarrel in the press between Prime Minister Gordon Brown and defense officials about whether Brown had underestimated the cost of the war.

Yet while — perhaps even because — no demonstrations disrupt the processions, no honors are sought, and politicians have learned their presence is not welcome either, my friend suggests the cumulative impact of the processions is all the greater: they silently but relentlessly drive home the human cost of the war.  It may be that by insisting on fully, ceremonially, and very movingly honoring the dead of the Afghanistan war, the people of Wootton Bassett are helping end that war.  At least for the United Kingdom.

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