The empty scarlet ceremonial tunic of a Grenadier guardsman hung from a post above the crowd massed in Wootton Bassett yesterday. As the church bells began tolling, thousands fell silent. Only the agonised sobbing of one woman could be heard.
As the cortège bearing the coffins of six soldiers killed in Afghanistan last week passed through the small Wiltshire town, after they were flown back to nearby RAF Lyneham, the grief was as palpable as ever – but this time it seemed laced with anger.
The fact that five of the six had been "cowardly struck down" by an Afghan policeman they were mentoring, and the other by a roadside bomb, was for many a source of fury and frustration. "It was not a battle, it was not a firefight, it was cold-blooded murder," said Paul Jones, a former lance-corporal.
Two of the coffins bore the bodies of a warrant officer with 23 years' service, as well as a young guardsman who would have turned 19 tomorrow. Many had come to pay their respects to Regimental Sergeant-Major Darren Chant, 40, a legend in the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, who was being considered for the post of sergeant-major at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst – the most senior role for any non-commissioned officer.
Brian Lyons, an old soldier who served with the Grenadiers, said: "My grandson is out there now. The battalion chaplain said the boys are just about holding it together. You don't expect to lose the sergeant-major. They will never be forgotten."
But for Guardsman Maari Bah, 24, it was James Major – the youngest of the three Grenadiers shot alongside two military policemen on 3 November – that he would miss most. His friend, less than a year out of basic training, was killed alongside RSM Chant and the man who recruited him, Sgt Matthew Telford, 37. Guardsmen Major and Bah recovered together at Headley Court rehabilitation centre in Surrey after a training injury, but the former was declared fit first and sent to Afghanistan.
"I am really, really, really gutted," said Guardsman Bah, who heads to Helmand at the end of the month. "We were meant to be out together. Until I see his coffin, I will not believe he is gone."
Corporal Simon Creamer, of the Royal Military Police, had come to remember his colleagues Cpl Steven Boote, 22, and Cpl Nicholas Webster-Smith, 24. "It is horrendous. It is like losing a brother. Everyone is crushed," he said.
Serjeant Michael Gibbons could barely contain his emotions as he spoke of his friend Serjeant Phillip Scott, 30, of 3rd Battalion The Rifles, who was killed in an explosion two days after the shootings. "It is heart-wrenching," he said. "Scotty had the most amazingly hideous, infectious laugh."
The BNP leader Nick Griffin was in the crowd, insisting he was not there to make political statements. While the serving soldiers spoke of grief, it was veterans from the three regiments who turned up in force to mark the day and vent their anger on behalf of the men fighting in Afghanistan today.
"Bring them back, they are never going to solve the situation," said Norman Best, 67, who served in the RMP for 25 years. "Gordon Brown should serve out there. If politicians went out on patrol with the lads they would soon change their minds. People are becoming more disillusioned by what is happening there. It's bad enough to hear of people killed in a firefight – that is war – but they were murdered."
Steve Vaughn, 65, a former Grenadier, added: "So many people are against the war anyway. The more [soldiers] come back like this, the more they are going to get charred off with it."Reuse content