BRIDPORT turned out in force to welcome The Rifles who were exercising their right today to the freedom of the town for the first time since it was granted in 2011.

Many who came to watch did so because they had loved ones connected with the old Devon and Dorset regiments before they became the Rifles or were in the regiment themselves.

Rebecca Taylor came to watch her 86-year-old grandfather Eric Bowditch march as an old comrade.

He joined the Dorset regiment just as the Second World War was finishing.

Wendy Wallington and Angela Bulled came to honour their father William Hardy and his brothers who were in the regiment in the First World War.

John Gale, 76, from Pymore, came to pay respects to his former regiment and remember a time when he marched in Germany when the regiment was given the freedom on Hamlyn in 1958.

The freedom of Bridport was originally granted to the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment in 1967 and extended to the Rifles in 2011.

Addressing the parade Brigadier Rupert Jones, who commands the 1st Mechanised Brigade, just returned from operations in Afghanistan, said: “The regiment has a long and proud association with Dorset.

“The Rifles, unlike our forebears are a national regiment but our strengths come form the counties we represent and from which we draw our riflemen.

“I can say with absolute certainty the traditions and ethos of our forming regiments continue to give us great strengths and shape us very directly today.

“We the Rifles remain your county regiments.”

He said all five pillars of the regiment were represented - the five regular battalions represented by B company from 1 Rifles, the reserves with 6th Rifles based in the south west with C company based in Dorchester, the cadets and the regimental association of the Devon and Dorsets.

“We are a young regiment with a rich history but we are also a regiment which has been forged in the face of the enemy.

“It is a harsh reality that the Rifles have suffered more casualties killed and injured in Iraq and Afghanistan than any other regiment of any other part of the armed forces.

“Sixty two of our brother riflemen have been killed in action since our formation seven years ago.

“And a great many more will bear the scars of these conflicts for the rest of their lives.

“They will need our support for the decades ahead.”

He told the crowds that 5 Rifles were currently back in Afghanistan as part of the final deployment and 2 Rifles are going to Kabul shortly.

“The public show great pride in the courage and sacrifice of the armed forces but I would say they should take equal pride in their achievements.”

He said those achievements were not always obvious from press reports but enormous progress has been achieved in Afghanistan.

“I had the great privilege of commanding the task force in Helmand last summer. The country is transformed the population has aspirations now that would have been inconceivable a decade ago.”

Major Jamie Edwards commanding officer of B Company 1 Rifles took the salute in front of the town Mayor Maggie Ray.

He told the Bridport News: “Being given the freedom means a huge amount to us. Only a very select handful get an opportunity to do something like this and to have one in one of our key recruiting areas is hugely important and the guys are looking forward to it and we have worked quite hard towards it.

“It makes a pleasant change from our other duties. It is really nice for us to finally be able to keep our end of the bargain.

“This is my fourth freedom march but each one is special in its own way.”

Major Edwards, 31, said it was watching the Devon and Dorsets doing a warrior display at the Devon County Show when he was 15 that made him want to follow in his father's footsteps.

His father Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Evans, Rifles Colonel for Dorset added: "It is a huge honour to be here. We are really thrilled.

“To be able to do this is a real honour and to go back to our roots and where we get our soldiers from. This is a huge compliment and I know how much effort and expense has gone into it.”

He thanked the Cafe Royal for giving all the soldiers a free bacon butty and Mayor Maggie Ray and Councillor Geoff Ackerman.

“Geoff Ackerman started the ball rolling and there was as lot of his personal drive and effort has gone into allowing us to have the freedom and we are all very grateful.”

A former Devon and Dorset man, Cllr Ackerman said he was very proud to be part of the day and that the Rifles had honoured their promise to come.

Mayor Cllr Maggie Ray welcomed the soldiers and visiting dignitaries.

She said: “Bridport has a long and proud association with the Devon and Dorsets, which was amalgamated to form the Rifles in 1967.

“Today is undoubtedly a celebration of the links between our town and the regiment but it is also an opportunity to show our gratitude and give thanks to our armed forces and the troops here today for their service on behalf of the country.”

Among those marching was Private Harriet Stewart from Bridport. A former pupil of Colyton grammar school the 20-year-old is now training to be an army combat medic.

She said: “My dad is in the Rifles and I joined for a bit of excitement and to do something different.

“I am quite proud to be here. A lot of my friends and family are coming to watch.”

Also marching were town organisations, including the scouts, sea scouts, brownies and teh naval association.

The soldiers were accompanied by the Salamanca and Waterloo bands.