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NEWS > OA News > OA Focus: A year of celebration and mourning

OA Focus: A year of celebration and mourning

Read the main focus from the latest Versa magazine - speaking to two OAs involved in the Platinum Jubilee and the Queen's state funeral.
11 Jan 2023
OA News
OA Maj Andy Pilsworth marches past the Cenotaph during the Platinum Jubilee
OA Maj Andy Pilsworth marches past the Cenotaph during the Platinum Jubilee

2022 was a year in which the UK fully demonstrated its pageantry and sense of history, through the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations and then Her Majesty’s state funeral only three months later. Nowhere was this more evident than in the military demonstrations that were a key part of both events. Louise Barnes spoke to Major Andy Pilsworth (OA 2003) and Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Gilham (OA 2000) about their roles, highlighting the long history that St Albans School has with the CCF and the military.

St Albans School has one of the oldest Combined Cadet Forces (CCF) in the UK and, for many, undertaking CCF training and duties is a fond memory of their time at school. For some though, these activities form the basis of a longer-term relationship with the military, as was the case for OAs Maj Andy Pilsworth and Lt Col Anthony Gilham. Both OAs were privileged to take part in the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Pageant, as part of the weekend of celebrations in June, with Anthony then having a key role in Operation LONDON BRIDGE upon the death of the Queen.

Both OAs were part of the Platinum Jubilee Pageant, which was estimated to be viewed by 13.4 million people on the BBC alone. Andy – who is part of the Royal Tank Regiment – was then the Officer Commanding CYCLOPS Squadron, which was aligned to Op BRIDGE, the operational name for the death of a Royal, and therefore had ceremonial duties. “As context, Her Majesty was the Colonel-In-Chief of the Royal Tank Regiment, which was why the Regiment was involved at Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee. My role was to prepare and deploy a Marching Contingent of two Officers and 24 Soldiers from within CYCLOPS Squadron and then lead them on the Pageant phase of the Platinum Jubilee.”

The preparations were slightly different for Anthony, who is part of the Household Cavalry and so is dual trained in both operational and ceremonial duties. “My career that led me to command of the Household Cavalry Regiment [HCR] was a bit less traditional, and so I had never taken part in any State Ceremonial occasions until this year, which meant that Op PLATINUM and Op LONDON BRIDGE both had steep learning curves. Whilst Op PLATINUM, the name given by the MoD to the military part in the Jubilee celebrations, had been planned for some time in London, it only became a focus at the regiment in March or April, and was made more challenging by a good number of us having been deployed to Poland at short notice as the war in Ukraine began. In mid-May we had our marching detachments fitted for their ceremonial uniforms and the plan came together.” 

It is striking hearing how both OAs prepared for the Jubilee and it’s clear that there’s a reason for the phrase ‘military precision’ – nothing here was left to chance and both experiences involved many early-morning rehearsals. “Preparations began three weeks before the Pageant back at the Regiment in Tidworth, with the Marching Contingent conducting drill practice and preparing their kit (polishing boots etc.),” said Andy. “This culminated with a Drill Inspection, where I selected the final 24 Soldiers. We then all deployed to Pirbright Camp, where all those marching on the Pageant congregated for an intensive 10-day period to conduct rehearsals and further prepare our kit. This concluded with a full rehearsal in London, which began at 0400hrs in the morning.”

Anthony had similarly nocturnal rehearsals. “As with all military parades in London there was then an Early Morning Rehearsal (EMR) on the empty streets. The dismounted detachments were moved into Wellington Barracks around midnight on the Tuesday before the Jubilee weekend, ready to form up on parade at about 0300,” said Anthony. “It was slightly surreal to be riding through the closed off streets in the dark to start, but all went well and as always it proved a great opportunity to shake out any last details and refine timings - everything has to run like clockwork.” 

This planning meant that the whole Pageant did indeed run like clockwork – and was a moment of intense pride for both OAs. “I was immensely honoured to parade for Her Majesty and to be a representative for my Regiment. I was also extremely proud of the Soldiers and my Second In Command that marched with me from the Royal Tank Regiment. They did a brilliant job and showcased the Regiment to the highest standard. This was a historic event, that will probably never happen again, so we were all delighted to be taking part,” said Andy.

“Riding out for the parade that afternoon was an incredible experience – gone were the quiet streets of the EMR, and the route from Knightsbridge to Wellington Barracks was already packed, with the procession route even busier, and the sheer wall of noise as we rode past was immense,” said Anthony. “The Mall itself was an experience that I will never forget – a whole raft of emotions were flowing through me: sheer pride to be part of a once in a lifetime parade that was being televised globally, the concentration of keeping my horse Isengard at the right speed and in the right position relevant to the others, nerves, as well as an overwhelming thirst (because adrenaline will dry the mouth, and because those about to sit on a horse for three or four hours dehydrate ourselves for obvious reasons).  

“All these thoughts and feelings whirring through me on The Mall were put out of my mind as we approached the Queen Victoria Memorial (known as ‘the birthday cake’) outside Buckingham Palace.  We turned right and simultaneously moved into a close order, needing everyone to ride well, before then providing a ‘Royal Salute, Eyes Right’ to the dais, with the salute being taken by the then Prince of Wales on behalf of his mother. The single moment that sticks in my mind from the whole Jubilee period was this instant; as I was looking up and to my right while saluting, seeing His Majesty returning the salute and looking down on us all, with just a split second of eye contact as he reviewed the troops. It was a huge privilege to have been there, marking 70 years of Her late Majesty’s most extraordinary and exemplary reign.”

It was therefore a shock for Anthony, having been celebrating Her Majesty’s reign only a few months beforehand, to then be part of Op LONDON BRIDGE. “As soon as the tragic news of Her late Majesty’s passing was broken the plan for Op LONDON BRIDGE was implemented. Being a Household Division commanding officer, I knew that I would be heavily involved, so I packed a multitude of uniforms, bade farewell to my family and moved into the Officers’ Mess at Hyde Park Barracks for a fortnight.”  

Due to a change in role, Andy wasn’t part of the funeral, but his reaction will resonate with many. “Like the rest of the nation, I was deeply saddened and in a bit of shock, Her Majesty was such a pillar in my life. My wife and I spent the whole evening watching the coverage on the TV the day that Her Majesty passed, just not really too sure what to do with ourselves.”

Anthony’s role in the funeral began with a crucial role in the Vigil. “The Household Cavalry provides the first Vigil for the late Sovereign on the catafalque in Westminster Hall, and I had the genuinely enormous honour of not only being in the 18 officers that provided the first Vigil, but was in fact one of the four to mount the first watch – marching down the north steps of Westminster Hall and taking up position on the catafalque as His Majesty, the Royal Family, the Lords, and the Commons looked on. I think this was probably the proudest moment of my 19-year career to date.”  

With the greatest change to the monarchy in 70 years, the UK is now in a moment of change both psychological and literal, changing the National Anthem, currency and – for Andy and Anthony – badges, buttons and flags to incorporate the cypher of His Majesty King Charles III. Andy said: “The Royal Tank Regiment cap badge has the Queen’s Crown on it, and I wear a Queen’s Crown to denote my rank, so there will be lots of change to move over to a King’s Crown.” 

There is also an emotional change to go through. During the period of national mourning, many members of the Armed Forces commented that the Queen was more than a figurehead, something Anthony agrees with. “Her Majesty was far more than just a distant figurehead, she was genuinely loved by those in Defence and when people said they did their job ‘for Queen and Country’ it was more than just an expression, it was how we all feel.”  

But as we look forward, there will be plenty of time to recalibrate, particularly with the upcoming Coronation in May 2023. Andy said, “I think the Coronation will be a fantastic opportunity to truly make that transition. As [the Queen was] our longest serving Monarch, it is only natural for us all to feel a bit unfamiliar. However, God Save The King!”

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