The people of Wootton Bassett have stood in silence 79 times, but yesterday thousands of mourners spontaneously clapped home eight British soldiers who fell on Britain’s bloodiest day in Afghanistan.
Friends, family, veterans and complete strangers stood side by side to mark the arrival of the longest cortege to pass through the sleepy North Wiltshire market town.
The chiming of the town’s church bells marked the arrival of the eight brave young soldiers, including three from the Midlands.
The ritual of welcoming back fallen soldiers began two years ago when six veterans spontaneously saluted a passing hearse from nearby RAF Lynham.
The gatherings are not organised, but 4,000 people brought the town to a halt again yesterday as shops shut early, the High Street was closed and mourners spilled onto the street.
The young and old stood patiently in heavy showers and blazing sunshine – some for more than seven hours – to welcome back the line of flag-draped coffins that had been met by family members at RAF Lynham.
Flowers were thrown at the hearses as mourners fought back tears and some family members raced to touch the cars in emotional scenes.
Birmingham soldier Joe Murphy, from Castle Bromwich, died while trying to save a comrade.
His dad, Brian, said: “He’s a hero and so are all the other lads.” His aunt, Annette Ryan, said: “He was too young. “There were three of them that were 18 and perhaps they shouldn’t have been there.”
The soldier, who served with the 2nd Battalion The Rifles, was carrying his wounded “battle buddy”, 20-year-old Daniel Simpson, from the scene of an earlier blast when they were both killed with a second explosion in Sangin, Helmand, on Friday. He was posted to Afghanistan just a month after his 18th birthday.
Walsall soldier, Corporal Jonathan Horne, aged 28, was also killed as he tried to help his wounded colleagues.
The dad-of-two, who was also a member of the Rifles and had served in Iraq and Kosovo, was described by his widow as “the most caring, thoughtful, funniest, loving and generous person I have ever known.”
Corporal Horne leaves behind Rachel, his children Frankie and Jessica, his parents and three brothers.
Three months ago he was back home when his wife, Rachel, gave birth to his second child, Jessica.
Rachel was at RAF Lynham, but Jonathan’s aunt, brother and friends, lined the route in Wootton Bassett.
Barbara Lowe, his aunt, travelled from Walsall in a car with a Union Flag bearing his name across the rear window. The 58-year-old said: “It’s great that so many people are turning out for our JJ. More than 50 of his friends have travelled down from Walsall and we all just want to be close to him.”
Friend Stewart Hartshorne took a day off work to see his friend return home. The 24-year-old from Walsall said: “JJ was just one of those people who could turn a dull moment into a bright spark. He was talking about joining the police so that he could be closer to his family. I went to his wedding and he had only spent a few weeks with Jessica.”
Rifleman William Aldridge, aged 18, from Bromyard, in Herefordshire, was the third Midland soldier to die over the weekend.
He was said to be “fiercely proud” of being one of the very youngest British soldiers in Helmand.
His mother, Lucy, described him as the “perfect” son.
Holding back tears yesterday, his aunt, Alison Aldridge, from Bristol, said she was proud of her nephew.
The 40-year-old arrived seven hours early in Wootton Bassett to set up a mini memorial for William with flowers and bunting.
She added: “My parents are at the base and I would have loved to have been there, but I have to be here for William and this is the next best thing.”
There were also dozens of floral tributes around the town’s official war memorial. One read: “Our dear magnificent boys, we will never repay the debt we owe you. A Wootton family.”