The town of Warminster had not even had a chance to say goodbye. The parcels they were preparing had yet to be wrapped and the regiment's farewell parade was not until next Friday.
Before they were even able to steel themselves for the deployment of their local regiment, residents learned that five of the first unit of soldiers to head out had been killed in one of the bloodiest days for British forces in Afghanistan. The men of the 3rd Battalion, the Yorkshire Regiment, died alongside a soldier from the 1st Battalion, the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, when their Warrior armoured vehicle was blown up near Lashkar Gah on Tuesday.
Bathed in early spring sunshine yesterday, the idyllic Wiltshire market town of Warminster looked more like the setting for a period drama than a tragedy. Only the flags hanging limply at half-mast and the emotional paralysis of local people offered a clue to what had happened.
The mayor, Pip Ridout, was waiting to hear from Lieutenant-Colonel Zak Stenning, the commanding officer of the 3rd Yorks, whether they still wanted to go ahead with the farewell parade for the rest of the armoured infantry regiment. "There is an awful air of silence and shock around, and everybody is looking lost," she said. "The news is devastating for the town. They only left three weeks ago. I don't think it has sunk in yet."
In this garrison town of just over 17,000 people, almost a quarter are in the army or ex-forces. Yesterday, everyone The Independent spoke to knew a soldier from the regiment, worked with their wives or taught their children.
At the Minster Church of St Denys, the Reverend Harvey Gibbons prepared to gather together the grieving for prayer and contemplation. "There has been a stunned silence in the town," he said. "People are struggling to come to terms with the news, the enormity of it. But they are resilient and have a long-term connection with the military, so they will be there for them."
With the rest of the 3 Yorks – whose motto is "fortune favours the brave" – preparing to deploy, about 90 soldiers from Corunna Company had formed an advanced party, setting off on St Valentine's Day with their own resident celebrity, the X Factor contestant Jonjo Kerr. Five of them were among the six killed on Tuesday.
"I've met and served a few of the blokes who come in here and I feel pretty gutted, very upset," said Ben Uffindell, the barman at the Anchor Hotel.
Everyone's thoughts were with the grieving families, but also with those who have yet to bid farewell to their husbands, sons and brothers. The message from the military has been that this tour,despite being during the traditional Afghan "fighting season" – was all about a peaceful transition. This week's news served only as a reminder that the bloodshed is not over.
"My dad is going out and I am scared and worried. I just want him to come home safe," said Sasha Roarty, 21.
"It is absolutely horrendous and tragic," said Nancy Rivers, 57. "All the people I have spoken to today have said they still think it is a worthwhile cause – but not worth the loss of lives."
Outside Battlesbury Barracks, the battalion's flag, emblazoned with a gold lion and white rose, flew at half-mast as two soldiers re-lit a candle that was placed there when Corunna Company deployed three weeks ago. Beneath it, the text read: "It will be extinguished when the last soldier of the battalion returns safely to this base."
Yesterday, 3 Yorks and their home town were coming to terms with the fact that was not going to be the case.
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