Terri Judd: Mourners in their thousands weep for the returning dead

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By the time the cortege passed, many mourners had been standing there for eight hours. Some had come because of the searing pain of recent loss, others simply to show solidarity with strangers.

Cap badges of recently formed regiments mingled with the insignia of long past units, uniforms with suits, veterans in blazers with builders in shorts and toddlers with great-grandparents.

Then the slow, eerie toll of the church bells resounded across Wootton Bassett High Street and thousands of people fell silent.

Behind a human cordon of soldiers standing to attention, the crowd strained to catch a glimpse as the poignant procession bearing the flag-draped coffins of eight soldiers – three just teenagers – passed by. A few applauded, some threw flowers but most just watched watery-eyed in an atmosphere of dignified solemnity.

What had started two years ago as a spontaneous mark of respect by two dozen old men grew to a mass gathering after the bloodiest 24 hours for the Army in Helmand meant that the bodies of eight of its men were being repatriated to RAF Lyneham.

Yesterday residents of Wootton Bassett, who have increasingly come out to honour the dead, expressed amazement at the hundreds of outsiders who had made their town a focus for national grief. By the time a C17 plane bringing home Cpl Jonathan Horne, 28, and Riflemen Daniel Simpson, 20, Joseph Murphy, 18, William Aldridge, 18, and James Backhouse, 18, all of the 2nd Battalion The Rifles; Rifleman Daniel Hume, 22, of the 4th Battalion The Rifles; Corporal Lee Scott, 26, of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, and Private John Brackpool, 27, of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, flew low over the town shortly after 11am, groups had already formed along the route. Normal life ground to a halt as more and more added to their number.

Alice Aldridge, among the first to arrive, explained that she had come to pay her respects to her nephew William. "I am so numb from the loss," she said. "However it has made such a difference being welcomed by people young and old."

Nearby Leslie Yeaman, 64, who had travelled from Yorkshire, did his best to comfort her. He said: "We need to do more of this. The Americans do it so well. We need to show that people care."

For Robin and Helena Thatcher, it was their third trip to Wootton Bassett since their son Rifleman Cyrus Thatcher, 19, of 2 Rifles, was killed five weeks ago. "It is very very important to support the families and other families still dreading that knock on the door," said Mrs Thatcher.

Mr Thatcher remained adamant that their son had died in a valiant cause. "The reason they are out there today is to stop the Taliban and al-Qa'ida having a free training ground in Afghanistan," he said. "Our troops are there for a good reason."

But their steadfast belief in the ideals of the missions was not echoed by all yesterday. Among the sorrow and the pride there was also anger, much of it aimed at the Government.

Percy Miles, a former Royal Army Ordnance Corps soldier and Mayor of Wootton Bassett, who began the tradition of the town paying its respects back in April 2007 when he gathered some fellow old soldiers together, said his pride and grief was mixed with fury. "I think this sends a message to the Government that we are wrong to be out there in Afghanistan. What the devil are we doing out there? I think they are just downright rogues, this government, sending our lads out there," said the 76-year-old.

Mr Miles's original impromptu mark of respect has now become an all-too frequent event and the Wiltshire town, which is three miles away from RAF Lyneham, has an effective network to let everyone know when the next cortege will pass through.

Yesterday among the hundreds of soldiers who had volunteered to line the procession route were numerous members of the 3rd Battalion Rifles, who will deploy to Helmand this autumn.

Serjeant Major Paul Kelly said the public show of support had meant a lot to his soldiers. "I don't think the general public should underestimate the impact it has on the lads," he said.

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