Sunday 31 July 2011

Repatriation at Wootton Bassett

I really didn't know what to expect, I just knew I wanted to go. I wanted to take my dad, to fulfil a promise to my late husband, to remember the bravery of my late father in law, and perhaps most importantly to honour my husband and those he works alongside and all those who have served in all of our armed forces.

As we arrived the town was busy, smart older men proudly wearing their berets and medals milling around the coffee shops. Old friends embracing, their faces etched with the comfort of seeing one another but somehow also reflecting the strain of their joint experiences. Photos passed around, stories shared, the most tangible thing at that point was the camaraderie of these old servicemen who had served our country so well during the second world war and the following conflicts that our nation has been part of.

As I stood wearing my late father-in-laws medals I remembered the few things he had told me about his role, as a Sergeant Major in the Para’s. A modest man he never talked much about his experiences except during a couple of late evenings I shared with him and a glass or two of brandy. I love history and I think it is that the encouraged me to find out what is was like for him during those dark days. Like so many, Dave recalls his time in the army with much fondness but summed it up by saying that it was the best and the worst days of his life all rolled into one. He loved India and South Africa and I am honoured to have so many of his photos from that time in addition to his cards home. His dark days were fighting through Burma and liberating Japanese prisoner of war camps. What more can you say? We cannot even begin to possibly imagine the elation you must feel at finding and freeing these survivors but at the same time seeing the distressing conditions of their treatment. He had never applied for his medals, so a few years ago I did it for him. Upon receiving them he handed them straight to me and said they were to hand on the next generation of 'Prosser' boys. He died when I was 36 weeks pregnant with my eldest son....I felt a comfort that I could already tell Dave that the next little Prosser boy 'Sam' was on his way.

I had the medals on in the wrong order, they were not mounted, but I didn't care, it was the first time they had been out of the box and I wore them for Dave with immense pride.

David, my late husband, had always wanted to go to a repatriation at Wootton Bassett and pay his respects to the fallen. David and my father George planned that they would go together. Sadly David was too ill to go and passed away after a long battle with oesophageal cancer in October 2009. We talked shortly before his death and this is one of the things I promised to do in his place.

My father and I, as well as sharing an interest in history, have also always shared the view that all political considerations should be put well aside when it comes to supporting our armed forces. The young men and women who serve in any role make sacrifices that the rest of us can never comprehend, agree with or consider doing ourselves. Some of these sacrifices are day to day like being away from your family. The ultimate sacrifice is of course why 'Wootton Bassett' exists today. Young lives ended in the course of duty. From September repatriations into Royal Wootton Bassett will cease. This fact drove my father and I to finally do it. I have always been close to my dad, we just agree on stuff and we wanted to so share this experience together.

As the time neared we took our place on the side of the road. People were arriving by the minute. Locals and distant travellers alike, all there for one common reason, to pay respect to the fallen, of yesterday, today and sadly without doubt the future. Soldiers lined the street. Young men and women standing tall but with an edginess, trying to look calm and in control but you could somehow sense their stomach's churning at the prospect of forthcoming moments. A girl beside me, holding flowers, sobbed constantly. Eddie, a former Para I chatted to on the street, stood to the other side, well over 80, proud straight and tall. The number of old Para's was amazing, their berets very apparent in the crowds around me.

It was then my thoughts turned to my new husband, a serving member in the Royal Engineers for over 20 years. His entire adult life dedicated to serving queen and country. I have felt immensely proud to be an 'army wife' even if it is all new to me and I am not your 'atypical' army wag. His job affects our day to day life greatly and although they may be small sacrifices compared to some I can vouch for the fact that all members of the armed forces, their partners and children make them day in day out. And to me it seems whatever your role in the services the horrors of a current war and conflict are never far from your mind.

I felt proud to be British. All that this great nation embodies that is good was there to see. Loyalty, respect, pride and determination.

The bell began to toll.

A sweeping and rapid wave of silence travels through the crowd. The order goes out to the standard-bearers and the flags are raised. Stillness. The sad silhouette of the cortege begins to appear over the brow of the hill. The sobbing next to me grows intense and the girl's shoulders shake as the cars edge closer. As the first car reaches the standards they lower one by one in succession. Friends and family approach to lay flowers on the roof of the car.....only there are two cars today...two men tragically lost. The girl next to me is frozen. I urge her to go forward to lay her flowers, because that is why she is there. The cars pass carrying the coffins, each shrouded in the union flag. Somehow the silence deepens further as everyone takes a deep breath in. The cortege moves down the line until it is once again a sad silhouette in the distance.

The crowds gradually break up, the comrades hug and wish each other well, until the next time, until September that is.

The lump in my throat subsides as I hug my dad, take off the medals, accomplish my promise and feel a deep pride at being an Army wife.