'Is everything quiet in the headquarters?': HUGO VICKERS reveals

‘Is everything quiet in the headquarters?’: HUGO VICKERS reveals how one innocuous question sparked all the Queen’s men to race back from across the globe to prepare for the funeral we’ll never forget

At 12.20pm that Thursday, the Brigade Major of the Grenadier Guards received a phone message that sent a shiver of shock through him.

The Garrison Sergeant Major asked the deceptively simple question: ‘Is everything quiet in the headquarters?’

‘I knew instantly there was only one reason why he would ask that question,’ said Lieutenant Colonel J.N.E.B. Shaw. ‘And with that the most intense 11 days of my life began.’

The GSM’s words, though not official code, were enough to signal the impending death later that afternoon of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. What follows here are the astonishing stories from senior guardsmen who were at the heart of the preparations for the funeral of our beloved monarch a year ago: a state occasion for which no amount of planning could ever truly prepare them. Their voices are rarely heard beyond the parade ground and these anecdotes – reverential, urgent, often funny – are uniquely revealing.

As he put down the phone, Lt Col Shaw reached into the bottom right drawer of his desk and removed a folder which had lain in readiness for many years. It was labelled ‘Brigade Major’s Operation London Bridge’.

Sombre task: King Charles follows the Queen’s coffin as it is carried by Grenadier Guards

King Charles salutes his mother Queen Elizabeth’s coffin as he attends the Committal Service for Queen Elizabeth at St George’s Chapel, Windsor

His first move was to convene an emergency planning meeting at Headquarters London District, the immediate priority being the recall of essential troops.

These included The King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery, half of them still on summer leave, who needed to be present to fire the Death Gun Salute in Hyde Park within six hours of the monarch’s death.

Also required to make an immediate return were members of the Bearer Party from the Queen’s Company, Grenadier Guards, who were deployed on Operation Shader in Iraq.

Brigadier James Stopford of the Irish Guards was at his daughter Izzie’s wedding in Corfu, where his phone had been buzzing for several hours with warnings of an impending announcement.

While he was making his speech at the reception, his phone vibrated again in his pocket. The text message read: ‘You are commanded to return immediately to the United Kingdom to attend to your duties for Her Late Majesty’s Funeral as a member of The Honourable Corps of Gentlemen At Arms.’

The Brigadier invited guests to raise a glass to the bride and groom and another to The Late Queen and His Majesty.

The State Trumpeters of the Household Cavalry had landed in Canada only 24 hours earlier. They were obliged to turn back for a reverse flight across the Atlantic.

The coffin of Queen Elizabeth in the Ceremonial Procession following her State Funeral last year 

Logistical problems were both vast and minute, and all threatened the smooth running of the operation. Garrison Sergeant Major A.J. Stokes of the Coldstream Guards worked at his desk until 2am overseeing preparations, and walked past Buckingham Palace in the small hours, where throngs were gathering. ‘Respectful and sombre, there seemed to be a mix of emotions, sadness and appreciation wrapped into one,’ he said. 

READ MORE: Tears for their beloved Queen: Thousands of emotional mourners fall silent as Her Majesty’s coffin passes by in moment of history

He arrived at his flat to find his fiancee Sue waiting up, with a meal and a cup of tea: she had been tracking his progress via his iPhone. Ensuring he had a flask, sandwiches and clean clothes ready for the next day, she also reminded him that his orderly and driver, Lance Corporal Flint, was a single parent and that his children would need minding after school. She volunteered for those duties.

The Sergeant Major was responsible for training the Bearer Party on their return and noticed to his displeasure that some had allowed their hair to grow below the line of their berets. ‘I insisted they all had a haircut and carried a comb in their pockets over the coming days, using every chance to give themselves a quick groom.’

Lieutenant Colonel Commanding Household Cavalry Mark Berry, whose role was to oversee the Lying-in-State in Westminster Hall, had been in post for just one month. Known as the Silver Stick, his first job was to recall officers from as far afield as Bangladesh, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and America. One was on honeymoon.

The Regimental Sergeant Major, Warrant Officer Class 1 D. Snoxell, was tasked with getting the Household Cavalry gymnasium in Knightsbridge cleared so contractors could construct a mock-up of the catafalquea, a platform to hold the coffin, for rehearsals.

Over the weekend of September 10-11, saddlers and tailors in the regiment’s Full Dress storeroom worked flat out to fit uniforms, wax jackboots and polish spurs.

The Army School of Ceremonial sent its Drill Team to train the men to march and manoeuvre in cuirasses and thigh-length boots with pikes and swords.

The coffin arrived in procession with the King, Princess Royal, Duke of York and Earl of Wessex, soon to be Duke of Edinburgh 

‘Teaching drill to officers is never easy,’ remarked Lieutenant Colonel R.R.D. Griffin, ‘but teaching dismounted drill to mounted officers enters a whole new league.’

Not only did the steep steps on the north side of Westminster Hall prove a challenge for those unused to jackboots, it took longer than expected to deploy four officers into position simultaneously – since only three Household Cavalrymen in full regalia were able to fit into the lift.

Because the Queen died at Balmoral, ‘Operation Unicorn’ was also launched in Scotland to co-ordinate ten days of parades and the Lying-at-Rest.

For Brigadier Captain Jamie Fraser, Adjutant of the Grenadier Guards, there was an added complication: the Royal Company of Archers had just completed eight weeks of rehearsals for the Edinburgh Tattoo – and the Garrison Sergeant Major had lost his voice.

READ MORE: What will happen on the anniversary of the Queen’s death? Will there be any official Royal events on Accession Day?

On Sunday 11, at 4.30am, the Guard of Honour stepped off for rehearsals, marching in musical silence to the city’s Buccleuch Memorial to avoid waking local residents. ‘We marched down the Royal Mile to find police barriers blocking our path,’ recalled Captain Fraser. ‘Then, we found we could not wheel into the correct position in West Parliament Square because there were four BBC lorries parked in front of the cathedral. The Bearer Party hearse could not drive to the correct spot so neither they nor the Procession Escort of Archers could rehearse exactly what would be expected of them the following day.’

The Archers were commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Alistair Irwin, who was impeded by a problem of his own: he was required to carry his sword in his left hand and also to use that hand when removing and replacing his headdress to lead the Three Cheers for His Majesty King Charles III.

Unluckily, he had lost three fingers on his left hand in a gardening accident earlier that year. A stuffed glove, built specially, allowed him to carry out his duties.

As the crowds lined the Royal Mile ten deep that day, the Archers lined up at the cathedral’s West Door. The coffin arrived in procession with the King, Princess Royal, Duke of York and Earl of Wessex, soon to be Duke of Edinburgh.

The wind was gusting as the Guard of Honour delivered the Royal Salute. It plucked off the bonnet of the right-hand man on the Escort, then that of the front left soldier. The Guards watched as it rolled under the wheel of the hearse and was flattened.

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