Thousands of people lined the streets of Chepstow on Thursday 17 November as more than 500 members of 1st Battalion The Rifles (1 RIFLES) were granted the freedom of the historic town before receiving their operational medals for service in Afghanistan.
The ceremony took place just over a week after the last members of the battalion returned to Beachley Barracks in Gloucestershire after completing a successful six-and-a-half-month mission in Afghanistan on Operation HERRICK 14.
The 1 RIFLES Battle Group served as part of the 3 Commando Brigade-led Task Force Helmand on Op HERRICK 14. The battle group was made up of more than 1,300 servicemen and women from 21 different military units. Its mission was to bring stability and security to the Nahr-e Saraj (South) area of Helmand province.
During the mission, Riflemen from 1 RIFLES carried out more than 6,100 patrols and more than 200 company and battle group level operations in partnership with the Afghan National Security Forces.
Tragically, five Riflemen from 1 RIFLES were killed during the tour. Others have suffered life-changing injuries.
1 RIFLES continues to mourn the loss of the men it lost in action and, through the Rear Operations Group, continues to support those Riflemen who have been injured, as well as their families.
The Freedom of Chepstow ceremony took place just outside the gates of the town’s ancient castle and was presented by the Mayor of Chepstow, Councillor Henry Hodges. A Guard of Honour of 100 Riflemen symbolically received the honour on behalf of the whole battalion.
The Freedom bestows upon the battalion the right to march through the town, and, shortly after the ceremony, this right was exercised for the first time when more than 500 members of 1 RIFLES thundered down the sloping High Street in the heart of Chepstow at their distinctly fast speed of 140 paces per minute. They were accompanied by The Band and Bugles of The Rifles, who had entertained the huge crowd all morning with an eclectic mix of traditional military music and more recognisable tunes, such as the theme from ‘Austin Powers’; only eclipsed later with a superb rendition of a Lady Gaga song.
Under a brilliant blue sky, thousands of people - mums, dads, husbands, wives, schoolchildren and local people; some hanging out of windows to get a good look - erupted into loud, energetic cheers as each company from 1 RIFLES marched past.
The High Street became a multicoloured canvas, with hundreds of Union Flags being waved, complemented by vast stretches of bunting, which flickered in the bright sunlight above.
Councillor Hodges said:
As Mayor of Chepstow it was my privilege to confer the freedom of this historic town upon the Rifles Regiment.
They have shown the true spirit of dedication during their recent tour of duty in Afghanistan where some have paid the ultimate price. Our thoughts go out to their families and friends as we humbly welcome the regiment home when they march with honour through the Town Gate and down our streets.
It was no doubt a moving experience for all of the Riflemen; but especially for Corporal Dean Barnett, who grew up not far away in Gloucester:
It gives you butterflies,” said the 23-year-old, who served with B Company of 1 RIFLES on Op HERRICK 14.
It’s good to see the amount of support that the civilian population still gives you time and time again, whether it’s coming back to [Beachley Barracks] or marching through Chepstow… I spotted a few people I know in the crowd. Now I’ll be getting back to normal life and spending some time with the children and my wife.
Following the Freedom of Chepstow parade, the Riflemen received their Afghanistan Operational Service Medals during a ceremony held on the parade square at Beachley Barracks. Hundreds of family members looked on and took treasured photographs as His Royal Highness The Duke of Kent, the Royal Colonel of 1st Battalion The Rifles, and General Sir Nick Parker, Colonel Commandant The Rifles and Commander Land Forces, presented medals to the proud servicemen and women:
Chepstow plays a huge role in supporting our families and our Riflemen, and more recently has been instrumental in drumming up support for our efforts in Afghanistan,” said Lieutenant Colonel James de Labilliere, Commanding Officer of 1 RIFLES.
The day of celebration and commemoration was rounded off in traditional style with a Sounding of the Retreat, performed by The Band and Bugles of The Rifles. This not only signified the official end of the battalion’s deployment, but the beginning of an extended period of leave before the men and women of 1 RIFLES return to duty in the New Year.