Warrant Officer Andrew “Vern” Stokes
It will be the biggest ceremonial event to be staged in Britain, with more than 17,000 service personnel on duty, of which 4,000 will be directly involved. And it is Garrison Sergeant Major Stokes’ responsibility to ensure every soldier, sailor and aviator knows their role and delivers a perfect parade.
Roadworks have been halted and he was part of the decision-making team who decided to scrap plans to bring the late Queen back to London on the Royal train.
As the “King’s Sergeant Major” he will also monitor the precise positioning of the Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, and his chiefs of staff, making sure they are happy with their plan for the day, while also giving quiet assurance to the sailors who will haul the Queen’s gun carriage through London in a spectacle certainly never seen before.
Since rising through the ranks, he has overseen the Trooping of the Colour, planned state visits and given presentations at the Pentagon on ceremonial planning.
He was awarded the Royal Victorian Order after planning the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral during Covid restrictions.
“I sometimes have to pinch myself, and this has been happening a lot over the last few days,” said GSM Stokes, 50, speaking on his way to brief King Charles on Thursday.
“I left school at 16 and just needed to get away from home. I was brought up in a council estate in Telford, Shropshire, in lots of poverty.
“My parents had split up and I just sensed if I didn’t do anything meaningful there wouldn’t be much of a future ahead of me.”
After taking advice from a family friend, who had served with the Coldstream Guards in Malaya in the 1950s, he decided to join the 370-year-old regiment.
“He was like a surrogate father to me and I grew up on his tales of his time with the Coldstream Guards.”
“It had clearly influenced his entire life and he must have influenced me because, subconsciously, I knew it was the right path to take. But I never imagined I’d get this far.”
In fact, during a former role as Academy Sergeant Major at RMA Sandhurst, he was offered and earned a commission and now holds the rank of Major
But when the opportunity to become Garrison Sergeant Major came along in 2015, he took it.
“There have been 17 PMs during the Queen’s reign, but only six Garrison Sergeant Majors, because we tend to do it for 10-15 years,” he said.
“It’s about being the Queen’s – now the King’s – Sergeant Major, leading ceremonial occasions with DCMS or Cabinet office.”
“It has a much wider responsibility that one may expect a Warrant Officer to have, and, in some ways, wider responsibilities than a Major. It’s a far-reaching job and I feel very privileged to have it.”
Sergeant and his team of guards will be responsible for the parade
Speaking about the mammoth task he has undertaken over recent days, he said: “I’m exhausted. It has been a relentless set of activities since the sad announcement of the Queen’s passing was made, and of course, even though she passed away in Scotland, we’ve had to support operations Spring Tide (the King’s tour of the United Kingdom) and London Bridge which has meant events going on every day. It has been massive.”
“It is my job to deliver all the training and all the briefings – not just to members of the military but other participants too, like heralds.”
And today his 30-strong team from the Brigade of Guards will make a final pass to ensure that every formation taking part in the parade will know exactly what they are required to do, when to do it and what action to take if something goes wrong.
This will include walking the route for a final time using pace sticks – a long cane tool used to mark the exact distance between each member of the armed forces who will line the streets tomorrow.
There have been snags, he said, such as sudden roadworks which he has had to stop. “The ceremonial plan, which we have been working on for many years, has survived almost intact, but there were other issues,” he said.
“We were always planning to use the Royal train from Scotland to London. But there were issues with the strength of the railway bridges, and we weren’t sure they could support all those members of the public.
“So a few months ago we decided the RAF’s Operation Overstudy was a better plan.”
Though he will walk alongside the Royal Family tomorrow, he will not attend the service at Westminster Abbey.
“I will be involved in all ceremonial duties but I won’t be in the funeral service. In a sense, my job will be over by then,” he said.
Instead, he will watch it on television at Vicar’s Hall, at Windsor Castle where, later, the Queen will be buried in a quiet ceremony.
“I have a quiet corner inside Windsor castle, where I will take the bearer party who will have worked so hard to that point,” he said.
“It has been so fast and furious that there has been no time for reflection.
“We will certainly toast the Queen with a small sherry when it’s all over.”