Britain’s military plays key and colourful role in royal send-off | Military

Four thousand military personnel from the UK and Commonwealth countries were involved in the Queen’s funeral and parade, the most prominent ceremonial display by the UK armed forces since the death of George VI.

The most delicate task fell to eight soldiers from the Queen’s Company, 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, who at first had to lift the coffin with precision from its resting place at Westminster Hall and transplant it on to the gun carriage.

A few minutes later, they had to do so again, raising the coffin from the carriage outside Westminster Abbey, elevating it to their shoulders and bearing it into the heart of the ancient church while navigating around the tomb of the Unknown Warrior in the nave.

But the most exacting task came in the afternoon, when the bearer party had to carry the coffin up three short flights of steps to enter St George’s chapel in Windsor, aided by a single steadying hand from a ninth soldier at the rear, the closest to a moment of tension on a day when events unfolded as timetabled.

The Ministry of Defence said it was not releasing the names of those entrusted to bear the coffin, although they are drawn from the company that has specific duties for protecting the body of the monarch in both life and death. At some point in the future, King Charles will order a change of the unit’s name.

Royal Navy sailors walk ahead and behind the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II as it travels from Westminster Abbey to Wellington Arch in London
Royal Navy sailors walk ahead and behind the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II as it travels from Westminster Abbey to Wellington Arch in London. Photograph: Reuters

The task of pulling and steadying the coffin by a system of white ropes while it was atop the 300kg gun carriage on the journey to the abbey and beyond towards Buckingham Palace, was carried out by 142 naval ratings and six officers marching at a special funereal pace of 75 paces to the minute.

Sailors drawn from naval bases around the UK have had the task of pulling the gun carriage ever since Queen Victoria’s funeral in 1901. Panicking horses reared up and threatened to topple the coffin, prompting a prince to suggest to King Edward VII that sailors take on the task instead. The improvisation of the day stuck.

A total of 1,500 British personnel took part in the procession from the abbey to Constitution Hill, although it was led by Royal Canadian Mounted Police and 175 soldiers from New Zealand, Australia and Canada. Divided into seven parts, each with its own band, it included representatives from the army, navy and air force.

Canadian Royal Mounted Police were at the head of the funeral procession to Wellington Arch
Royal Canadian Mounted Police were at the head of the funeral procession to Wellington Arch. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Among those marching were Sir Tony Radakin, the chief of defence staff, and the country’s three service chiefs. “Our role,” the head of the armed forces said last week in an interview, is “in offering reassurance and stability”, highlighting that the change of monarch had come only two days after the arrival of a new prime minister.

Three thousand military personnel were involved in the ceremonies in London, including 1,000 lining the routes and 380 in providing guards of honour or other bands. A further 1,000 were involved in receiving the Queen’s coffin at Windsor – and nearly 200 horses in both locations, whose daily diet should consist of 12 to 15lbs of hay.

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