100th day of tears: Wootton Bassett welcomes home soldiers who fell in Afghanistan

On the road they call the Highway of Heroes, this was a milestone nobody wanted to pass.

They had been here so many times before. Seen so many tears, witnessed so much public grief.

But when the Wiltshire market town of Wootton Bassett turned out for the 100th time to honour the latest homecoming dead from Afghanistan, they already knew they'd be here again.

Wootton Bassett

Sombre: Wootton Bassett came to a standstill today as hearses carrying the coffins of Rifleman Andrew Ian Fentiman and Corporal Loren Owen Christopher Marlton-Thomas passed through the town.

Two young men in two flag-draped coffins were the focus of attention yesterday.

Meanwhile 3,500 miles away in the dust of the desert, preparations were being made to repatriate yet another casualty of the war, killed in a gun battle in Helmand province on Thursday.

Silence was all that could be offered in Wootton Bassett yesterday, coupled with deep respect and sobbing. After so many such repatriations, and so much sacrifice, it spoke just as loudly as words anyway.

Woman
Corporal Loren Marlton-Thomas' widow Nicola

A woman sobs as she hugs a soldier during the traumatic day, while Corporal Loren Marlton-Thomas' widow Nicola waits for her husband's coffin to pass by

For the past 32 months, this poignant snapshot of dignity has hallmarked the return to nearby RAF Lyneham of every coffin carrying servicemen and women on route to John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, where post-mortem examinations are conducted.

Ninety-nine processions had travelled this road before, bearing most of the war's 235 dead.

Yesterday the two young soldiers had the desperately tragic role of making it 100.

Significantly, perhaps, most people you talked to in the crowd yesterday had taken the trouble to learn their names. Many also knew how they died.

Territorial Army Rifleman Andrew Fentiman, 23, of 7th Battalion The Rifles, and Corporal Loren Marlton-Thomas, 28, of 33 Engineer Regiment, were killed in separate incidents in Helmand Province in Sunday.

Corporal Loren Marlton-Thomas's wife Nicola steps forward to lay a flower on the hearse

Heartbroken: Corporal Loren Marlton-Thomas's wife Nicola steps forward to lay a flower on the hearse

Enlarge    The friends and family of Cpl Marlton-Thomas

Distraught: The soldier's younger brother Fraser (second right), who is the Queen's senior footman, turns his face away as the cortege comes into view

Erin Smout

Too much to bear: Erin Smout, nine, breaks down in tears as she waits for the cortege to arrive

Rifleman Fentiman was shot while on a foot patrol near Sangin in Helmand.

Two weeks earlier he had posted an internet blog in which he wrote: 'We are still waiting on these new body armour and helmets that were promised to us.'

Bomb disposal expert Corporal Marlton-Thomas was killed by an improvised explosive device while clearing a route in Gereshk in Helmand, one of the most perilous tasks a soldier can undertake in this war.

His wife Nicola was there yesterday to honour her husband at the kind of homecoming every service wife dreads.

On Wednesday his younger brother Fraser, a senior footman to the Queen, bravely steeled himself to carry out his duties in the traditional procession before the State Opening of Parliament.

Yesterday his face was among those contorted with grief as he saw his brother home.

All along the route, tears were shed by at least three generations - the old soldier with his medals gleaming in the low winter sun . . . the corporal on crutches with his left leg in a brace . . . children among both family groups, dressed in black and holding red roses.

By the time the two hearses were ready to leave their brief resting point by the town's war memorial, the roof of each was bedecked in flowers from the crowd.


Coffin

Fraser Marlton-Thomas and the brother of Corporal Loren Marlton-Thomas place flowers on the roof of the hearse carrying his coffin.

This has become the sad routine for homecoming casualties and yesterday was little different from the first time it happened spontaneously, in April 2007.

Two Royal British Legion members heard that some hearses were about to arrive in the town, and stood to attention in preparation. Other locals asked them what they were doing - and joined them in a salute. Since then, not a single coffin has been driven up the High Street without being marked by the same sombre ceremony.

Fraser Marlton-Thomas waits for the coffin of his brother Loren
Fraser Marlton-Thomas

Grief: Fraser looks on as the cortege arrives but soon the emotion is too much

It is a scene that has become depressingly familiar as shopkeepers, bystanders, schoolchildren and visitors join servicemen and women to stop what they are doing and throng on both sides of the road. It isn't rehearsed - but some of the regulars are getting uncomfortably good at it.

No senior politicians were here yesterday but opinion is divided about whether the Government should even be represented. Some fear that Gordon Brown's attendance could turn a sombre occasion into a political circus.

Enlarge   RAF Lyneham

Return: The body of Corporal Loren Christopher Marlton-Thomas arrives back at RAF Lyneham

The body of Corporal Loren Christopher Marlton-Thomas

Home: Cpl. Marlton-Thomas and Rifleman Andrew Fentiman both died in Helmand last Sunday

One local tradesman - a former RAF mechanic - told me: 'It would be like having your son knocked down by a car, and then inviting the driver to the funeral. Some things are best left as they are.'

Royal British Legion county chairman Dennis Compton, who says he has 'only been to 52' ceremonies, said: 'I don't think it's right for the likes of Gordon Brown to be here. This is a personal mark of respect, not a national glorification.

'The fact that it's reached 100 isn't significant to the people of Wootton Bassett. There will be another one next Tuesday, and probably more after that - and they will be no different.

'We'll afford them precisely the same level of respect as this one, and all the others.' "

Corporal Loren Christopher Marlton-Thomas
Rifleman Andrew Fentiman

Fallen: Corporal Loren Marlton-Thomas (L) and Rifleman Andrew Fentiman (R) both died in Helmand last Sunday

A website been set up for the public to show their appreciation for British troops risking their lives in Afghanistan. Until now, there was no one place where supporters could record their gratitude.

But www.wearegrateful.org.uk will allow people to post messages on a virtual noticeboard which can be read by servicemen and women everywhere.

It was created by Clare Crean, a London mother and businesswoman, after she found that such a website existed only for U.S. troops.

The site is supported by leading military charities.

'I hate Blair... it's all his fault'

Aaron Lincoln, just 18, and Danny Wilson, 28, were the first soldiers to be repatriated through Wootton Bassett in April 2007. Here, their mothers tell Victoria Moore of their lasting grief

Today, Karen Lincoln will make the lonely journey to the cemetery at Cheveley Park in Belmont, County Durham. It is 964 days since her son Aaron died on duty in Iraq - and she still visits his grave every day.

She spent yesterday's visit on her hands and knees on the wet grass, tidying up. 'With all this wind and rain, it gets messy - and I like it to look nice,' she says. Despite her loss, Karen counts herself one of the lucky ones. 'At least when I go to his grave I know he's there. Some mams get nothing back.'

Aaron Lincoln
Danny Wilson

Aaron Lincoln (l) and Danny Wilson (r) were the first two soldiers to be repatriated through Wootton Bassett

As she tended the grave, 230 miles away in Wootton Bassett quiet crowds turned out for the 100th repatriation ceremony since the town first took on the melancholy duty in April 2007.

No one knows better than Karen Lincoln, 45, how hard the coming months will be for the relatives of the men honoured yesterday. For her son Aaron, an 18-year-old rifleman, was the first to be repatriated through RAF Lyneham.

Karen can hardly bear to recollect the day that she, her husband Peter, her sister, brother-in-law and father, travelled to Wiltshire for a homecoming they had hoped never to experience.

Aaron was shot on patrol in Basra. He died eight months after his passing out parade and five months after his 18th birthday - making him one of the youngest soldiers to die in the conflict.

One image that will not leave his mother is of her son's comrades acting as pall-bearers at RAF Lyneham.

'It was horrible to see him getting off the plane,' she says. 'Just awful. I don't want to see any more lads dying out there. Some mums say, "Pull them out". Well, I don't agree because I don't want to think that my lad died for nothing.

'But the truth is that I hate Tony Blair. It's his fault we're in this mess. If he was standing next to me now, I wouldn't be responsible for what I did.'

The Lincolns were - and remain - a tight-knit family. And the passage of time has done little to dull their pain.

Aaron was the third of four children, all close in age, who had grown up together in their small home on an estate in the centre of Durham.

Despite the lack of space, his parents have been unable to stomach moving anything in their son's bedroom. His clothes still hang in the wardrobe.

His brother Craig, 21, says: 'There was only ten months between us. When we were kids, my mam used to buy us the same clothes and have our hair cut in the same way.

'We used to go swimming together and I even shared a bed with him for 18 years. Now he's gone.

'His death has turned my life upside down. You have absolutely no idea. If it wasn't for my girlfriend Katie I would have had a breakdown.'

Craig describes Aaron as 'the smart one' of the family and says he was in to music and art. They expected him to study art at a higher level.

But one day when he was 17, Aaron announced he was going to become a soldier. He was clutching the parental consent papers. His father refused to sign, feeling that his son was too young to learn to kill or be sent into conflict.

Yet his mother, persuaded by Aaron's insistence that he wanted to make something of himself by becoming a gunner like his great-grandfather, reluctantly agreed.

Aaron had six months of basic training and then, the Christmas after he turned 18, he was sent to Iraq.

Only once did he write or speak of the experience - on a visit home, the first time he had leave at the end of March.

Even then, it took a couple of drinks in the pub before his tongue was loosened.

'We stepped outside,' says Karen, 'and he broke down crying. He said, "I've seen things you'll never see. I don't want to go back." I didn't know what to say, so I just cuddled him. We both cried.'

Five days later, Aaron was dead, killed by a bullet from the same gun - possibly operated by a sniper - that shot Kingsman Danny Wilson when he stepped out of his vehicle to check roadside bombs.

Danny met his death the day before Aaron, and both were repatriated through RAF Lyneham on April 5, 2007.

Like Karen Lincoln, Danny's mother Paulina is still in shock. Tears fill her eyes at her house in Workington, Cumbria, as she says: 'The repatriation was a terrible experience.

'Danny was the first, and it was before the parades had started - I don't think I could have gone through all that with all those people. I'm still so upset.'

Danny and wife Tracey, 28, lived with their son Leo on the same street as his mother.

His wife had given him the Army application papers as a Christmas present in 2003 - she knew he wanted to be a soldier but that he also felt guilty about exposing his new young family to a life of long absences and potential loss.

He died the day after their sixth wedding anniversary. Tracey, a support worker for people with learning difficulties, is still trying to rebuild her life.

Now Leo is five, explaining where his father has gone has not been easy. At first Tracey told him: 'Daddy has gone to the angels.'

But, she says: 'Now he's older he's starting to ask a lot more questions.'

Her own terrible sense of loss is still great. 'I'm going through a really hard time with it,' she says. 'People think it is easy to move on. But it's not.'

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