MARCHING through Bicester town centre, immaculately dressed troops turned their heads to the right to salute town mayor Lynn Pratt, who stood on a podium alongside two officers with hands to their temples.
It was a moment of pride as soldiers and civilians acknowleged each other, with cheers, whistles and applause ringing in their ears.
That it was the last time 23 Pioneer Regiment would pass through these streets made the occasion all the more poignant, an emotion intensified as Mrs Pratt would later break down in tears on stage as she thanked the regiment for its contribution to Bicester. She said: “It’s part of the fabric of the town and involved in many aspects of town life.
Bicester mayor Lynn Pratt
“I felt a lump in my throat during the parade. When they saluted it was lovely but it was a bittersweet moment as it’s sad they are going.”
The day began with a service at St Edburg’s Church in Church Street at 11.30am, consisting of hymns, prayers, bible readings and the National Anthem. Regimental chaplain Rev Kevin Mentzel said he had attended the Didcot Power Station demolition in the morning and compared the “iconic” cooling towers with the regiment’s importance in Bicester.
He added: “They will be missed and so will the Pioneers, which had a long and proud association with Bicester. They have always been grafters doing important but not glamorous work like digging trenches, clearing the way for fighting troops, often unseen and unsung.”
About 150 serving soldiers then paraded behind the Army Reserves’ Combined Band of the Royal Signals Northern Band, the Royal Anglians and RAF Honington Voluntary Band.
They were followed by more than 100 regiment veterans and marched through Causeway, Market Square, London Road and Launton Road, ending outside the Bicester Town Council offices in Garth Park.
About 1,000 people of all ages lined the streets, applauding and hustling for the best position to catch the moment on their mobile phones or iPads, before following the tail end of the parade to the park, where a stage was set up for speeches and live music.
Bicester resident Nichala Vinson, 62, said: “It was a lovely parade with a great turnout, which showed how important the regiment is to the town. I will miss it because it provides inspiration to people in Bicester and it was quite emotional seeing it pass through.”
Mum-of-one Ruth Purbrick, 37, watched the parade with her family.
She said: “It has brought a sense of identity and pride to the town and it’s a real shame that they have to go because they’ve been part of the town for so many years.”
Commanding officer Lt Col David Clouston, who joined the regiment two years ago, said he was grateful to everyone who turned out and said it left him with a lump in his throat.
He said: “It’s an emotional time for everyone because a lot of the guys would call Bicester their home as they’ve grown up here.
“They feel a tremendous affinity to the town and it’s an amazing experience for them — they were sitting there with smiles on their faces.
“The military brings a unique sense of identity to a garrison town like Bicester and I think they welcome the soldiers’ presence.”
Oxfordshire Deputy Lieutenant, Brigadier Ian Inshaw, spent five years as garrison commander.
He said the regiment had actually been disbanded twice before, with foundations in the 19th century Crimean War and the Labour Corps in 1917.
Brig Inshaw added: “I would put a tenner on at 500/1 on it being reformed in the next 70 years.”
Perhaps it will be resurrected again one day but for everyone present, this felt like the end of the 23 Pioneer Regiment.
History of a noble regiment
The 23 Pioneer Regiment has been based at St David’s Barracks in Bicester since 1941. The regiment’s tasks often involved digging trenches and graves, building sheds, railway tracks and prisoner-of-war cages, as well as managing depots.
During the Second World War troops dug air raid shelters in Fritwell, building Bicester’s Graven Hill depot — now called the Defence Storage and Distribution Centre — and installing pipework in the English Channel to provide fuel for forces in the D-Day landings.
Soldiers have since been deployed in most of Britain’s major conflicts, including Iraq, Afghanistan, the Falkland Islands and Bosnia. The regiment lost three soldiers in Afghanistan, with Warrant Officer Class 2 Charles Wood killed in an explosion in December 2010 and Corporal Andrew Steven Roberts and Private Ratu Manasa Silibaravi killed in an indirect fire attack in May 2012. Its commitments in Afghanistan ended last October.
On April 22, 2006, the regiment was awarded the Liberty of Bicester by Bicester Town Council. Bicester’s £70m town centre redevelopment, opened in July last year, was named Pioneer Square to honour 23 Pioneer Regiment.
What lies ahead...
THE regiment will begin the process of formally disbanding in September, when the flag is removed from the barracks.
Soldiers learnt of their fate in 2012, when the Government announced it would reduce troops from 102,000 to 80,000. Some have already been reposted or taken redundancy.
Lt Col David Clouston said there were more than 500 soldiers when he joined in June 2012 but there are now about 250 left. Tasks conducted by 23 Pioneer will be picked up by other units.
Lt Col David Clouston
It will be replaced at the garrison by the 1 Close Support Regiment, currently based in Germany, next summer. The regiment, also affiliated with the Royal Logistics Corps, has about 500 soldiers serving on the frontline, with duties including providing equipment support. The 100-strong 21 Signal Squadron, which works with radio transmissions and information gathering, will also be based at the garrison from as early as this year.
About £10m will be invested at the base on new building work and refurbishing technical buildings, the MOD said.
'A big blow to us all'
SERVING and veteran soldiers said they will miss the 23 Pioneer Regiment. Former Sergeant Major Allen Batchelor, 46, from Bicester, spent three stints with the regiment between 1989 and 2007. The married dad-of-two, now a recruitment officer in St Giles, Oxford, said: “To me it was my trade — what we did was very important. It wasn’t glamorous but someone had to do it and we did it with pride and 110 per cent commitment. It’s sad to see it go. I’ve lived here most of my career, my children have grown up here.”
Former Sergeant Major Allen Batchelor
Cpl Jason Roome, 40, a member of 144 Squadron, has been in the regiment for 20 years but is being made redundant. He said: “This regiment has been my life for the past 20 years from being a private and working up to a corporal. When we’ve lost friends we’ve all felt it as a regiment. To be disbanded is a big blow to us all. We and the town feel part of one big family.”