Military Precision: One Telford soldier’s key role in the coronation

Matthew Panter caught up with Garrison Sergeant Major Vernon Stokes about plans for the historic event.

For the majority of us, I’d imagine there would be some nerves. And it would be more than a few butterflies floating softly and delicately in the stomach. They be flapping furiously.

To play a key role in the coronation of King Charles III, for example, organising its military and ceremonial aspects – with the eyes of the world on you – seems pretty terrifying. But, for Garrison Sergeant Major Andrew ‘Vern’ Stokes, originally from Madeley and now living in Coalbrookdale, involvement in such royal occasions is becoming the ‘norm’. In fact, he must wonder what a ‘normal year’ feels like right now. Since taking on his role eight years ago, he has played a leading role in the Platinum Jubilee, Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday and royal weddings to name but a few momentous occasions. And, of course, on a more sombre note, he was a key figure in Her Majesty’s funeral and that of the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, before. Vern no doubt still has nerves, but they are superseded by a determination to make sure the military aspects of such grandiose affairs run like clockwork.Such vast experience means, you know, the coronation is in safe hands. But even someone as organised and disciplined as GSM Stokes admits every new event is a challenge.“We are showcasing the country, the Commonwealth as well,” he says. “It all has to be right. There is an awful amount of pressure in making it right. “But,” he adds, with a steely resolve, “in typical British fashion, we will pull it off and it will be absolutely fantastic.” The King’s coronation procession will stretch to just 1.3 miles – around a quarter of the length of the late Queen’s five-mile celebratory journey. A newly crowned Charles and Queen Consort will make their way back from Westminster Abbey via the tried and tested route of Parliament Square, along Whitehall, around Trafalgar Square, through Admiralty Arch and down The Mall back to Buckingham Palace. The grand procession in 1953 took two hours and featured tens of thousands of participants, with the two-and-a-half mile cavalcade taking 45 minutes to pass any given point. “We received the date for the Coronation in November,” Vern explains. “We were given a small brief and the aim is for the coronation to be reflective of what society is – a celebration but also to explain the constitution, the historical and spiritual significance of the occasion. “Obviously, there are changes compared to the Queen’s coronation. The Armed Forces are only about 180,000 in number now whereas in 1953, the number stood at almost 900,000. “There were 29,000 troops on parade in 1953 and we can’t do that today but we are still following precedents and we will have about 10,000 people on duty on May 6. “We will fill London with military music and marching troops and there will be gun salutes in London and across the country, as well as ships placed abroad as well as a flypast. “It will be spectacular, a fantastic day and it all culminates on the Sunday with an incredible concert in the grounds of Windsor Castle where the military will be providing the orchestra, playing the backing music for some of Britain and the world’s best-known artists.” 

For GSM Stokes – a BAFTA winner – the opportunity to play a major role in another key moment in British and world history is something he’s immensely honoured by. “I was the sixth Garrison Sergeant Major in The Queen’s 70-year reign,” he reflects. “For context, that compares to 15 Prime Ministers. “Those other Garrison Sergeant Majors would have all wished to have the sort of exposure I have. In fact, they’d have just wanted one of the events. I have managed to capture all of those moments in my eight years of service so it’s been the job that kept on giving in many ways. “It’s kept me incredibly busy and I’m not sure what life looks like after the coronation in terms of a normal year, because I don’t think I have had one in this job. 

“But I have been incredibly blessed and privileged to have been part of all those massive national occasions. It’s something I am proud of.”

 Something which must make the planning of such occasions a challenge, is the whole gamut of emotions organisers go through. Some events – weddings, the coronation, the Jubilee – are joyous. Others – Remembrance Day and funerals – are reflective. “It’s difficult to manage our emotions,” Vern says. “When it comes to all of them, whether happy, sad or celebratory, you invest so much time and effort into the planning and the delivery of the events that you are completely in the zone. “It’s only afterwards that you take a step back and think ‘that was something quite special’. Then you can allow your brain to catch up and understand the emotion of what happened. “You have to be in that mindset to make sure that these events go as they should. You are in a position to influence and you can’t get tied up in the emotions at the time.” That was certainly the case with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral in September. Now he has had chance to reflect fully, the Garrison Sergeant Major says he looks back with ‘intense pride’.“Not because of what was achieved,” he adds. “But I think pride over what The Queen represented and how those 11 days unfolded. “As sad as it was and as incredible as it was, it was also a moment where the nation – in fact the world – stood still and respectfully mourned and celebrated the life of an incredible Queen. “To be a part of that made me feel proud but also to assist in the nation’s ability to reflect and mourn was special. “It wasn’t just a tearful mourning but a celebratory mourning and it was really something. It will live with me for a long time.” It was another incredible chapter in GSM Stokes’ military career.

Now his focus is on his next monumental event, delivering the kind of ceremonial splendour we have become accustomed to witnessing.

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