THE two-year-old son of murdered soldier Lee Rigby joined thousands of mourners yesterday for a poignant funeral service that paid tribute to a “gentle soul” and a “larger-than-life character”.
Jack Rigby, who stood outside Bury Parish Church holding his mother’s hand, wore a T-shirt bearing the words “My Daddy, My Hero”.
The family were greeted by loud applause, which grew even louder when the crowds saw Jack’s shirt.
About 800 family and friends packed the church for the military funeral of Fusilier Rigby, 25, who was stabbed to death in the street as he returned to Woolwich barracks in south-east London, on 22 May. Prime Minister David Cameron and Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, were in attendance at the service which was relayed to crowds outside via loudspeakers.
Many of the thousands who attended to pay their respects brought single roses, while others wore T-shirts bearing messages of tribute to the drummer. One read: “In memory of Lee Rigby, never forgotten.” Another bore the phrase “Hero Lee”.
The crowds of people who had lined the streets in the searing heat to honour Fusilier Rigby applauded the drummer’s comrades in the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers as they carried the coffin into the church. The same comrades had guarded his body overnight in a vigil.
THE service heard from Fusilier Rigby’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Jim Taylor, who delivered an eulogy for an “extremely popular soldier” known as “Riggers” to his friends.
He said: “A larger-than-life personality, he loved to perform and belonged in the Second Fusiliers’ Corps of Drums. He was truly charismatic.
“To be with Lee was to be where it was most fun – the centre of good times and much mischief. People fell quickly under his spell. Whether it was in work or off duty, at a ceremonial engagement or on operations, Lee just knew how to lighten the mood.”
Lt Col Taylor said Fusilier Rigby joined the army in 2006 at his third attempt, fulfilling his lifelong ambition, and it was “an early indication of how doggedly determined he was when he set his mind to something”.
Despite a passion for Westlife and other boybands, he had no musical background and no musical skills but went on to become one of the best drummers in the battalion.
With the Fusiliers, he performed ceremonial duties outside Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and the Tower of London.
His commanding officer said: “As a drummer, the pace of life for Lee was relentless. Through it all, Lee wore his scarlet tunic with pride. He loved entertaining the crowds outside the royal palaces.”
In April 2009, he put his drum down and picked up his machine gun when the Second Fusiliers deployed to Afghanistan, mourners heard. It was a “gruelling tour” for the battalion with seven soldiers killed in six months.
Lt Col Taylor said Fusilier Rigby was “under relentless pressure from the insurgents”.
“Lee proved himself to be dedicated, professional and incredibly brave,” he said.
“He took part in numerous firefights with the enemy and regularly had to patrol across ground strewn with improvised explosive devices. His courage was tested every day. He was not found wanting.”
The soldier’s final challenge in the army was with the recruiting group in London, where he also assisted with duties at regimental headquarters in the Tower of London.
“The recruiting post was one that required just the characteristics that Lee possessed and had shown in spades in the short time he had served with the Fusiliers – namely, soldiering ability and charisma coupled with a cheeky outgoing personality that naturally endeared him to potential recruits.
“Based out of Woolwich, he helped to inspire many young people to join the armed forces. Tragically, it was while Lee was performing these duties that he was so cruelly taken from us.”
Ending his eulogy, the commanding officer said: “We have a saying in our regiment that ‘Once a Fusilier, always a Fusilier’.
“Today we, his regimental family, salute a fallen comrade. A talented soldier and musician. A larger-than-life character. A loyal friend and brother-in-arms. A gentle soul.
“Above all, a true Fusilier – daring in all things. We all feel his loss keenly. We will remember him with pride always. Today we stand shoulder to shoulder with his family and friends. We will continue to do so in the years to come.
“So, thanks be to God for Lee Rigby – father, husband, son, brother, friend, Fusilier. We will remember him.”
Friend and ex-Fusilier Sean Sheer also delivered a tribute which brought laughter from mourners.
Mr Sheer said he met Fusilier Rigby when he was posted to the Fusiliers in 2008 and found him the “most annoying, campest man I have ever met”, citing his singing and love of Westlife as the reason.
Mr Sheer said his comrade’s young son came “crashing” into his life but Lee “took to fatherhood instantly”.
“Everywhere Lee went, Jack went with him,” he said.
“Lee’s time on this earth was tragically cut short” but he was a “loving father and devoted husband”.
Fusilier Rigby’s coffin, draped in the Union flag and with his bearskin on top, was borne out of the church by six pallbearers in ceremonial scarlet tunics and placed in a hearse for his final journey.
His wife Rebecca, 30, mother Lyn, 46, stepfather Ian, 54, and Rebecca’s mother, Susan Metcalfe, 60, watched from the steps, while his son Jack clutched his mother’s hand.
Fusilier Rigby’s mother fought back tears, and spontaneous applause rang out as the family left and the hearse drove away.
Three of his four sisters – Sara, 24, Chelsea, 21, and 12-year-old Courtney – also attended the service as did the soldier’s girlfriend, Aimee West, who was in army uniform.
The town of Bury, which has strong links to the army, was full of old and not-so-old former soldiers in regimental ties, blazers and caps, proudly wearing their campaign medals as the cortege passed.
Flags along the funeral route were at half-mast.
“People were shocked at what happened on the streets of Britain,” said Dennis McCormick, a 65-year-old veteran from the Parachute Regiment who had travelled from Glasgow to be one of the first to arrive at the church near Manchester.
“It’s horrendous. I couldn’t believe it at the time. It’s sad that it’s got to come to that,” he said.
A private committal at a local cemetery which was attended only by close family and friends followed yesterday’s service.
Michael Adebolajo, 28, and Michael Adebowale, 22, have been charged with the murder of Fusilier Rigby and are due to stand trial at the Old Bailey on 18 November.