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The soldiers return home

The soldiers return home - Harry Page, Daily Mirror staff photographer went to photograph the nation's grief for our soldiers.

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Wootton Bassett has become synonymous with the nation's grief for soldiers who have died abroad. This sleepy, unassuming town has become a focus for the countries grieving public when fallen servicemen and women are brought back to the UK after giving their lives in our overseas campaigns and peacekeeping missions. After being flown in to nearby RAF Lyneham the coffins are driven, sometimes in convoy, through this small Wiltshire town on the way back to their homes.
Over recent years, larger and larger crowds gather to pay their respects.

Last month, eight hearses were driven down the high street of this little market town as the bodies of Corporal Lee Scott, Rifleman James Backhouse, Corporal Jonathan Horne, Rifleman Daniel Simpson, Rifleman Joseph Murphy, Rifleman William Aldridge, Private John Brackpool and Rifleman Daniel Hume were taken back to their families.
Wootton Bassett repatriation
Photo by Harry Page.
One of the Daily Mirror’s top staff photographers, Harry Page, went to the town to provide picture coverage for our news pages. Knowing of the impending crowds expected in the town, Harry had made an inquiry as to the availability of a cherry picker, a portable platform that would allow an aerial view of the convoy and crowds below. The procession was expected in the town around 3.30pm so Harry arrived at 9am to find a suitable position for the platform. He selected a position that would allow a good photographic viewpoint without infringing on the event itself.

This impact of this image would be all about the eight hearses in convoy with the bodies of eight soldiers all killed within a 24 hour period, underlining the battle that was being fought by our forces in Afghanistan.

Hootton Bassett soldiers return home
Photo by Harry Page.
It was 250 pounds plus vat for the platform and an operator, far cheaper and less intrusive than a helicopter favoured by certain television crews. Harry had elevated the platform to about 10 meters above the road and had set up his Nikon D3 with a 28-70mm lens and waited for the procession to arrive. He had chosen the angle that would get all eight vehicles in a line with the crowds and the town in the background. Just as the hearses arrived he noticed mourners rushing to one of the vehicles to throw flowers onto it, leaning right out and shooting straight down, it made a poignant image illustrating the sorrow in the British public’s feelings towards their fallen.

The eight vehicle convoy viewed from the platform gave a real three-dimensional feel to the photograph. Images like this are shown time and time again and go on to be a valuable part of our national heritage.

Since operations began to the date of me writing this, 192 military personnel have died in Afghanistan and all have made their final journeys in repatriation ceremonies such as this one.

Harry Patch - ‘The Last Tommy’
We also saw an end to an era as WW1 veteran Harry Patch died. Harry was 111 years old and was the last living veteran who fought in the trenches of the First World War. Harry was well known to all of us in the media and had been nicknamed 'the Last Tommy'. Mirror photographer, Roger Allen attended his funeral in Wells Somerset.

There were 2 penned off 'fixed point' positions that had been organised for the photographers: A position for Harry's coffin arriving at the Cathedral and position two for the coffin leaving. There was a lot to record there as representatives from the Belgian, French and German governments all took part in the service to show Mr Patch's respect for soldiers on all sides of the war.

The main image for the Mirror was Harry’s coffin leaving the cathedral but filler pictures such as people dressed in WW1 uniforms and mourners with poppies would go to make up a Daily Mirror photo spread in honour of the veteran.

Words by James Vellacott.

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