They emerged from the early-morning mist: 200 soldiers marching smartly across the parade ground to the sound of bagpipes. Called to attention in front of their commanding officer, the order they had all been waiting six months to hear was finally shouted across the freezing air - "Fall out!"
With that, soldiers of the Black Watch rushed to embrace their wives, girlfriends, and children. After a tour of Iraq that began in June, and was extended to include their controversial deployment in the country's "triangle of death", the Black Watch were finally home. And as the Prime Minister promised, they made it in time for Christmas. Most of them. Five soldiers died in the five weeks the Black Watch spent in central Iraq, securing escape routes during the American assault on Fallujah, and one, Private Mark Ferns, in Basra before that deployment.
"It's a real shame we're here today and they're not," said 32-year-old Captain Robert Duncan of his dead comrades as he hugged his wife for the first time in six months on the parade ground at Battlesbury Barracks in Warminster, Wiltshire. "It's really hard when you know them - you can't stop thinking about them."
Capt Duncan was not alone in thinking first and foremost of the soldiers who had not made it back. Among them was Sergeant Stuart Gray, 31, killed by a suicide bomber along with two colleagues and their Iraqi interpreter at a checkpoint on 4 November.
Sgt Gray's close friend, 31-year-old Platoon Sergeant Allan Dunn, was yesterday met by his wife Elaine and new-born baby daughter Caitlin - one of 15 babies born to the regiment during its tour. Platoon Sergeant Dunn, who joined the Black Watch at the same time as Sgt Gray, said his joy at seeing his wife and daughter was tainted by the loss of his friend.
"Stuart and I grew up together," said Platoon Sergeant Dunn, cradling his eight-week-old daughter in his arms. "He was a very popular man, all the young guys looked up to him. We're planning a wake for him this week."
Elaine Dunn spoke of the agony of waiting at home, watching the news as her husband's battalion was moved from Basra to Camp Dogwood in central Iraq at the end of October. "We were just praying there were no more casualties and thinking about the families who had lost someone," she said. "I'm just so excited to have Allan home: it's like meeting him for the first time again."
Corporal Eddie Nichol, a 32-year-old from Dundee, was also mourning the loss of one of his companions, Private Scott McArdle, 22, who died alongside Sgt Gray. "We did not just lose colleagues out there, we lost friends," said Cpl Nichol, as he hugged his wife Sharon and two young daughters. "Scott McArdle - what a great bloke. To lose him was devastating. We heard the news over the radio in one of the Warriors. We just had to concentrate and get on with the job, and it didn't really sink in properly for three days."
The commanding officer of the Black Watch, Lieutenant-Colonel James Cowan, had earlier referred to the intense media interest in his battalion's deployment north to support the US troops.
"Arriving here is like coming back from a rather lethal version of Big Brother," he said. "As a battalion we've never actually sought the limelight: we've had it thrust upon us. We've always thought of ourselves as one of the Army's best-kept secrets and we'd like to return to serving our country in our own quiet way for as long as we are allowed."
Lt-Col Cowan went on to pay tribute to the men who had lost their lives. "The pleasure of homecoming is marred by the fact that some of our men have not come home," he said.
"This is particularly poignant at this time of year. This Christmas we must rally around the families."Reuse content