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Wootton Bassett repatriations end
A moving ceremony has marked the end of repatriations through Wootton Bassett, as the Union flag on the town's high street was lowered for the last time.
Hundreds of people attended the ceremony, which took place at sunset on Wednesday, reflecting the simple and dignified nature of the military repatriations which have passed through the town for the last four years.
It signalled the end of an era for the small Wiltshire market town, which has seen the coffins of 345 service personnel pass through the town and thousands of people line its main street to pay their respects.
The road was closed for the 10-minute ceremony as people packed the street to watch as the same standard bearers that have attended so many repatriations lowered their standards for the last time.
People stood in silence as the bell of St Bartholomew's Church sounded through the town, echoing the familiar tolls of the repatriations themselves.
As the flag was lowered mixed emotions were painted across the faces of those so familiar with the repatriations - pride at what the town had achieved but also a sadness, drawing tears from some, that it will no longer be able to show its support and respect in the way it is used to.
The ceremony was led by Wootton Bassett's mayor, councillor Paul Heaphy, and Canon Thomas Woodhouse, chaplain of the local branch of the Royal British Legion (RBL).
As the sun set the flag was lowered to a solemn performance by the Wootton Bassett Brass Band and the moving words of The Exhortation were recited by the president of the Wootton Bassett branch of the RBL.
The flag was blessed and folded before being laid overnight on the altar of St Bartholomew's Church.
As the ceremony ended people cheered and applauded whilst others wiped tears from their cheeks and embraced those around them.
The flagpole will remain bare until 11am on Friday, when a new flag will go up in Wootton Bassett as the Union flag given to Oxfordshire is raised at the new memorial garden at RAF Brize Norton.
Standing silently on the high street started as an impromptu act which saw a handful of local people stop and bow their heads as the funeral cortege passed by the town's war memorial, which is emblazoned with the words "lest we forget".
Before long the repatriations grew larger than anyone in the town could have imagined, drawing international recognition - including from American President Barack Obama.
Wootton Bassett had become a place where families and friends of fallen servicemen shared their grief as the cortege headed to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxfordshire.
For the people of the town, the sorrow etched on their faces will be one of the enduring memories of the repatriations.
Maurice Baker, president of the local branch of the Royal British Legion, has been parade marshal for around 160 of the 167 repatriations.
The 81-year-old said he would look back on what he and the people of Wootton Bassett had done with pride.
"For four-and-a-half years we have been here and come out here and paid our respects, probably once a week, virtually, and it will take some time to get used to the fact that we don't put Thursdays aside for repatriations," he said.
"We shall miss it, but we know that Carterton and Brize Norton are going to do a similar thing that we do.
"They will pay their respects in the way they want to do it and hope that the families and forces agree that they are doing the right thing as well."
He continued: "It wasn't anything really that we did in the first place, it's just we felt that it was the right thing to do.
"It's only when people keep on telling us that we weren't just standing here for ourselves, we were standing there for everybody else, not only in this country but all over the world. That has made us very proud."
Addressing the people of Wootton Bassett, the mayor, Paul Heaphy, said: "As a repatriation arrives in our town so the silence is broken by the sound of the bell from St Bartholomew's church and so we thought it fitting tonight to start our ceremony in the same way.
"This marks the end of Wootton Bassett's involvement in the repatriation of fallen service personnel. Brave young men and women who have given what is often described as the last full measure of devotion.
"It is their devotion to duty that commands our respect, it is their devotion of duty that we honour and it is their devotion of duty that we will remember long after we leave this place tonight."
Speaking after the ceremony, Mr Heaphy added there would be a lasting sense of pride in the town, in the way it had come together and the support given to the servicemen and women.
Zena Barker, 65, lives in Wootton Bassett and said she attended as many repatriations as she could get to.
She said: "To me it's a sad day today to think the people of Wootton Bassett, it will be no more, because I feel the people of Wootton Bassett have given so much to this. It's a sad loss to the town.
"On the other hand the people of Wootton Bassett would like those fallen to march up that hill and we would like to shake their hands instead of the way they come through."
On August 18 the town fell silent for the last military cortege to pass through Wootton Bassett when the body of Lieutenant Daniel Clack, 24, of 1st Battalion The Rifles, was brought back to UK soil.
That was the 167th and final repatriation to draw members of the Royal British Legion, local people and friends and family out on to Wootton Bassett's high street.
RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire has been the official landing ground for repatriations since April 2007 when RAF Brize Norton was closed for runway repairs.
Former paratrooper Dave Soane has been to 158 repatriations. He said they were all about respect and to show the families they are with them at what will be one of the worst moments of their lives.
"I will remember the silence," he added.
"The silence sometimes extends to seven or eight minutes, but the silence at the moment when the cortege stops, the tolling of the bell and the town goes dead quiet.
"Even the birds don't sing, that is how quiet it goes, it's almost as if they feel it and they respect it as well and you can't buy that, you can't order it, you can't plan it ... you can just feel it in the air, that immense respect - it's like a curtain that layered itself over Wootton Bassett."
Earlier on Wednesday, David Cameron added his tribute to the town, offering a "heartfelt thank you" to the people.
He added the residents "have done our country proud with the respect and admiration and passion they have shown for our Armed Forces and those who have tragically fallen in battle in Afghanistan and elsewhere".
"I think they have done a magnificent job," he said.
On Thursday, the honour passes back to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire when the Union flag will be transported to the county. There it will be handed over by the mayor of Wootton Bassett as a symbolic gesture from the people of the town to the people of Oxfordshire.
The town of Carterton, near Brize Norton, is to continue the tradition with the creation of a purpose-built repatriation centre.
It is expected to be used for the first time next week when the body of a Royal Marine serving with 42 Commando who was killed on Tuesday is flown home from Afghanistan.
In October, in recognition of its role in marking such flights, the town will be renamed Royal Wootton Bassett.