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'Humbled' West Mids firefighter's role in State Funeral

Invitation follows dedication to remembrance duties

By Dave Cross - Watch Commander, Kings Norton fire station

Having joined West Midlands Fire Service (WMFS) some 32 years ago, 19 September 2022 will likely be the stand-out point of my career.

I had the honour of being picked as one of 16 firefighters to represent the British fire service in the funeral procession of HM Queen Elizabeth II, alongside others chosen to form the Civilian Services Contingent.

I believe I was put forward because of my involvement throughout my WMFS career in the Birmingham Remembrance Parade. For the last decade or so I’ve organised our participation, but have now passed that baton on to a colleague.

 

Uniformed personnel standing smartly on steps to white stone building

As we approach this year’s Remembrance Sunday - when we especially remember family and loved ones who have given their lives for their country, and friends and colleagues who have died in service - I have been asked to write a few words to reflect on my role in this year’s State Funeral. I am sure that many people will this weekend also be remembering HM The Queen and her service to the country.

My involvement began back in May 2019, when I was invited to attend a day’s marching training in London. It transpired that they were drawing up a list of personnel who could be called upon in the event of ‘Operation London Bridge’ being enacted following the death of Her Majesty.

The fire service is, by tradition, a naval organisation. All of our ‘drill’ - including how we march and salute - stems from the navy. However, as the Civilian Services Contingent would be made up of numerous organisations including the police and ambulance services, prisons, coastguard, etc it was decided, for the sake of uniformity, that we would all march to army standard.

Fast forward three years to when I, along with so many across the country, was watching the news with growing concern for The Queen’s health. I was also wondering whether I would soon be contacted.

The email arrived the day after The Queen’s death. I was to be in London that Wednesday, ready for four days of procession rehearsals.

The Civilian Services Contingent was approximately 80-strong. We arrived at around 15:00hrs. Home Office staff informed us there would be a briefing and meal at 19:00hrs and to ‘rest, because you’ll need it’.

23:00hrs brought our first night-time rehearsal, starting at Wellington Barracks. Our actual involvement started four hours later, in the very early hours, when – without any practice – we were put straight on display in front of the military. It was clear, whilst not complete novices, that we had some ground to catch up.

For more than four hours we covered the complete procession route and back until about 06:30hrs. The centre of London was virtually locked down. It was incredibly strange to be in the capital, which seemed deserted but for people in uniform. But the enormity of the parade and sheer numbers involved really hit home. We finally returned to our hotel at 08:00hrs, with orders to be back for our next 19:00hrs briefing.

The next three days followed a similar routine. We were up at 05:00hrs each morning and bused to Pirbright barracks in Surrey. We would spend around an hour in our service detachments for more detailed training. Then we’d join the rest of the army participants and bands in the procession, totalling some 2,000 personnel including street liners and Commonwealth representatives.

A route had been marked out around the barracks to rehearse marching and spacing the street liners into position, and for the funeral procession. This exercise was repeated many times, and we became very familiar with the lay-out of Pirbright. The amount of rehearsing set us in good stead, though we were left with a strange feeling of both confidence and apprehension the night before the funeral.

We were up at 04:00hrs on the day itself, so we could be at Wellington Barracks before London was locked down by the Met Police.

Being backstage at such a massive global event was a total honour. There was ample opportunity for photographs and mingling with all sorts of different people from across the world. Watching contingents of the Navy, Army and Air Force, the accompanying bands and international services ‘form up’ and move off was a rare privilege.

Eventually, our contingent ‘fell in’ and took our place in the procession.

I’d like to be able to describe, in great detail, what being in the procession was like. The truth is, we were so concerned with maintaining our form, listening to the drum (and, by that, I mean the correct drum) and not losing step, that it was hard to take anything else in.

We were aware of the sheer volume of people who had turned out, and of the dignity and emotion they displayed. There were quite a few sustained periods of standing to attention which, when you can’t move at all, can be very uncomfortable.

We felt this most acutely when the procession formed into a parade at Wellington Arch for the transfer of Her Majesty from the gun carriage to the hearse that would take her to Windsor. When that process had been completed, the atmosphere lifted somewhat. The dispersal back to Wellington Barracks was done at quick march, to more buoyant music. Most importantly, we could now move our arms.

The UK has a justly-deserved global reputation for such ceremony – but it doesn’t come without a great deal of effort.

I was sceptical when we were told that we would get emotional. But I did. For me, it was when I saw the genuine pride of officers policing the event when they saw their colleagues process by.

To have been chosen to represent all firefighters, particularly the firefighters and staff of WMFS, was humbling.

I remain proud to put on my uniform and parade in remembrance, as I’ll do again on Sunday 13 November in Birmingham.

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