Saddest homecoming as Bristol honours fallen soldier Lieutenant Andrew Chesterman
THE harsh desert landscape in which Lieutenant Andrew Chesterman lost his life, amid the raw brutality of an Afghan firefight, seemed a world away, as the 26-year-old's coffin, borne on the shoulders of his fellow Riflemen beneath the serene gaze of alabaster angels, was embraced by the nave of Bristol Cathedral.
The city yesterday welcomed home the first Bristol soldier to be killed in the current conflict in Afghanistan with a dignified funeral, conducted with full military honours.
Around 1,000 mourners crowded into the cathedral to pay tribute to the young officer, who was killed while "leading from the front" during a firefight in the Nad 'Ali district of Helmand province on August 9.
Lt Chesterman's Union Flag- draped coffin bore his gleaming cap and belt – a reminder of the pride he had felt at serving as a platoon leader with the city-based 3rd Battalion, The Rifles.
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After the first hymn, Thine Be The Glory, Lt Chesterman's cousin, Philip Dawber, gave the first reading – verses from Isaiah, which gave a nod to his military leadership:
"Who created the stars you see? The one who leads them out like an army, he knows how many there are and calls each one by name."
Andrew's father, Paul Chesterman – a well-loved member of the congregation at St Mary Magdalene Church, close to the family home in Stoke Bishop – then gave a moving personal eulogy, filled with pride in the son he had lost.
Mr Chesterman, who also lost his wife Julia to cancer just five years ago, addressed the coffin as he said: "It is impossible for any father to have greater pride in his son than that which I have for you."
He told the congregation stories of his son's strong capacity for compassionate leadership, a talent that had been first pointed out by his physics teacher, during Andrew's childhood in Guildford.
The family later relocated to Stoke Bishop, and Andrew enrolled at the University of Southampton to study mechanical engineering, but was drawn to the responsibility of a military life. He went on to study at the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, but changed his direction towards the Army, a service in which he felt he could take on the responsibility of leadership sooner.
After graduating from the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, he was commissioned into The Rifles in December 2010 and after completing the Platoon Commanders' Battle Course joined the 3rd Battalion.
Mr Chesterman recalled "a very special, very precious last memory of Andrew" at a fathers' dinner held by the battalion in Edinburgh in February, days before his son's departure to Afghanistan.
"I saw the way he was accepted and respected by fellow officers, and I returned home, happy, proud, content, confident that he was on the right path.
"Andrew died secure and confident in the love and pride in which his family held him," Mr Chesterman added. "The photograph of Andrew in today's order of service is for me a picture of a brigadier in waiting."
Major Ian Cameron, commanding officer of the 3rd Battalion, The Rifles, described Lt Chesterman as "confident, articulate, passionate and a real gentleman" who was "an outstanding leader who epitomised what it is to be a Rifleman."
"He set the benchmark ever higher in his ruthless pursuit of the highest standards," he said. "Andrew paid the ultimate sacrifice to serve a cause he passionately believed in. His death has made us more determined to complete the mission."
He added: "We miss him terribly, and he leaves an irreplaceable hole in the battalion."
The 26-year-old was commanding a patrol when the lead vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb. As Lt Chesterman moved forward to take control of the situation, insurgents opened fire and he was shot. He was taken to hospital at the main British base, Camp Bastion, but could not be saved. His body was flown into RAF Brize Norton, in Oxfordshire, on August 21, along with those of Lance Corporal Matthew Smith and Guardsman Jamie Shadrake.
The Dean of Bristol Cathedral, the Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle, said it was impossible to imagine what life was like for a serving soldier in Afghanistan.
"It is impossible for us to imagine, we who have not had those responsibilities in those unforgiving places," he said. "Our servicemen and women are trained so well because they have to retrain their instincts, away from protecting one's self, to a new instinct to protect someone else. It's about the complete commitment to your relationships in times of greatest danger. Lt Chesterman was good with people to the point of a complete selflessness that cost him his life.
"But his influence, words and character will shape his family and friends for the rest of their lives."
He added that Bristol was a city "justly proud of its relationship with The Rifles."
The Last Post was played in the cathedral, followed by an immaculately observed one minute's silence.
Following prayers of committal, the young officer's coffin was borne once more on to the shoulders of his fellow Riflemen. Once outside a fusillade – a traditional military salute – was fired, with three rounds of rifles fired across College Green – a poignant echo of the battlefield environment in which Lt Chesterman proudly served and lost his life.