Alphen, the Netherlands. 1 September, 2011. Every now and then politics is full of painful symmetries. Today saw the start of the long-heralded cuts in personnel of the British armed forces. Some 22,000 posts will be cut over the next four years with more possible on top. This represents over 10% of the force, with more likely to come.
Last night the people of a small, dignified Wiltshire town turned out for the last time in Sunset Service to mark their role in respecting Britain’s fallen soldiers. Since April 2007 Wootton Bassett has paid its respects to 345 fallen servicemen and women who have passed through the town on the return of their bodies from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Some 2,000 people turned out on 18 August to pay silent tribute to Lt Daniel Clack of the 1st Battalion, The Rifles; the last body of a serving British soldier to be repatriated via neighbouring RAF Lyneham which will shortly close due to the cuts. Henceforth, Britain’s dead will return via RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire where the town of Carterton will take up the vigil.
The town’s mayor, Paul Heaphy, said last night that the service was the “last full measure of devotion” to those who had died.
In June President Obama said the people of Wootton Bassett marked the “best of British character”. From this October the title Royal Wootton Bassett is to be conferred upon the town by Her Majesty the Queen as a mark of royal respect. Yesterday the Union Flag was lowered one last time before being taken to the memorial garden at Brize Norton.
The wife of one servicemen when asked about the cuts said, “I don’t believe Mt Cameron and those involved in making the decision to cut the Armed Forces are fully aware of the true cost and impact that the stroke of their pens will have on those who served them so proudly”. I am sure the people of Wootton Bassett are, as are the rest of us who think about these things. But that is perhaps for another day.
Thank you, Royal Wootton Bassett. You are indeed the best of British; already royal to my mind in both spirit and generosity.