Military Repatriation Research

Wootton Bassett
A military funeral cortege passing through Royal Wootton Bassett High Street

Exploring the social phenomenon of public mourning during the repatriation of military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since 2010, Professor Sandra Walklate, Professor Gabe Mythen and Dr Ross McGarry from the Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology have been investigating the public mourning of British military personnel in the UK. The team wanted to get behind the media headlines of these events and investigate their sociological significance and complexity.

Royal Wootton Bassett

Funded by locally awarded research grants from the University of Liverpool, the main focus of their research to-date has been on the town of Royal Wootton Bassett in Oxfordshire. Here the funeral corteges of British military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan were driven from RAF Lyneham to the coroner’s office at St John Radcliffe Hospital via the town’s High Street. Between 2007 and 2011, as the deaths of British military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan became more frequent, local people began turning out onto the High Street to pay their respects. As the years progressed the public footprint changed from being local members of the community to others from across the UK and, in some instances, around the world.

Getting behind the headlines

By first analysing photographs by professional photographer Stuart Griffiths using visual methods, the team proposed in a published article in the international journal Crime, Media Culture that the repatriation of British military personnel presented circumstances demonstrating a compression of private and public grief, an emergence of ‘dark tourism’ and public displays of resistance against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In this paper we have been concerned, not with the distant suffering of others, but with the suffering of those close to home.

Following this, assisted by Royal Wootton Bassett Town Council, they conducted fieldwork with members of the local ‘Bassett’ community, including interviews and focus groups. 

The team found that the attendees at military repatriations developed a ‘politics of respect’ for how to mourn appropriately which were in turn managed through implicit rules of conduct. They also discovered that through being faced with death on a frequent basis, these events were difficult to reconcile for those attending regularly.

…expressions of mourning and exposure to death, added to silence and the politics of respect, offer a sense of how these repatriation events were socially shared, constructed and understood, and, moreover, what kind of meanings and impact they had for local people.

These initial findings have been published in the journal Palgrave Communications and reported to the public on BBC Radio Wiltshire, in the Swindon Advertiser and on the television programme BBC Points West.

Sandra, Gabe and Ross are now developing two further journal articles reporting additional findings from this fieldwork, exploring the use and meanings of symbols at military repatriations in addition to the significance of these events on civil-military relations.

Beyond ‘Bassett’

The team are pursuing collaboration with national and international academics to begin researching military repatriations in comparison to similar experiences in Canada on a stretch of public motorway now officially know as the ‘Highway of Heroes’. They are also continuing to work with Royal Wootton Bassett Town Council to archive public memorabilia sent into the town during the course of the military repatriations as historically significant artefacts.