The Shropshire lad who went from young soldier to Queen's Sergeant Major

The stirring sound of the brass band, the rhythmical drumming of marching feet on the parade ground, the waving of flags among an expectant crowd.

Garrison Sergeant Major Andrew Stokes
Garrison Sergeant Major Andrew Stokes

There is something joyous and rousing about the ceremonial splendour of events such as the Trooping of the Colour or a Royal wedding.

Seeing such pageantry and spectacle, carried out in immaculate and precise fashion, can leave the viewing public with a huge sense of pride.

By equal measure, the elegant and touching way in which the faultlessly choreographed ceremony of the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral was conducted, or the way in which we reflect on Remembrance Day, can be quite spine-tingling, leaving you filled with emotion.

No-one does such events of celebration or solemnity better than the British, they say.

And making sure those incredible standards are maintained, while formulating plans for such grand occasions is Garrison Sergeant Major Andrew ‘Vern’ Stokes.

In essence, Andrew, a member of the Coldstream Guards, is Her Majesty The Queen’s Sergeant Major and has been since 2015.

Garrison Sergeant Major Andrew Stokes

Mixing in Royal circles and being based in the grand surroundings of Horseguards in Whitehall are a far cry from home, having been brought up in Madeley.

And Andrew admits: “You pinch yourself at times. In my mind I’m still this 16-year-old lad from Madeley who went to the BRJ School in Wellington and then joined the army.

"In recent years I found myself lecturing people in The Pentagon or a NATO HQ across Europe. It’s bizarre.”

Andrew joined the British Army in June 1988 and, after basic infantry training at the Guards Depot in Pirbright, joined the 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards in Cyprus.

“I have served all over the world,” says Andrew, including a tour of Northern Ireland and overseas exercises in Belize and Kenya while also being deployed to Bosnia for a six-month operational tour with the United Nations.

Further operational tours of Northern Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan, and an overseas exercise in Canada followed.

He trained future officers at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst as a Colour Sergeant Instructor and then as Company Sergeant Major.

In 2010, he was promoted to be the Regimental Sergeant Major of the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, the pinnacle of regimental service as a soldier.

A year later, he was appointed as the Academy Sergeant Major of Sandhurst and his role included advising both the Chief of Defence Staff and the Chief of General Staff on issues relating to Non Commissioned Officers and soldiers, while briefing other NATO countries in the development of leadership.

The Rt Hon Theresa May PM with Major General Benjamin John Bathurst and London Garrison Sergeant Major Andrew 'Vern' Stokes, Coldstream Guards

“I went from the youngest soldier to the most senior position,” he says. “Then the role I am in now became available and I jumped at the chance knowing the high profile nature of it.

“I have been Garrison Sergeant Major for six years and feel really lucky and hugely privileged. It’s a once in a career opportunity and I just happened to have the right qualities at the right time to take on the role.”

Now a senior member of the Household Division, he is responsible for designing and implementing ceremonial elements of many occasions.

“One of my roles is to design, develop, brief, rehearse, and deliver state ceremonies, whether in London, across the UK or national World War One commemorations in Belgium, France, Italy or Turkey.

“The Household Division take an idea from concept or the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will come up with an idea and ask me to design an event that will surround that.

“I will take it to delivery, making sure it’s in Her Majesty The Queen’s wishes, as well as those of Number Ten and the cabinet office. It is a non-fail role and when we deliver such occasions, it has got to be exemplary.

"Everything we do is televised and scrutinised. The Queen’s Birthday Parade, for example, is watched by 10 million people over the weekend, whether on the red button or live in the UK.

"And it is a ceremony which has a phenomenal following across the Commonwealth and it’s shown live across the world. The biggest take-up for watching is in Germany, believe it or not, followed closely by the United States.”

A BAFTA nominee – “I was nominated for choreographing the Festival of Remembrance two years ago but was beaten at the last minute by Strictly!” – the pandemic has certainly brought its challenges, Andrew admits.

Andrew was honoured by BAFTA

He was also part of a team faced with designing and delivering the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh, at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, after his sad passing, at the age of 99 in April.

As a result of his involvement, he received a special honour from Her Majesty The Queen and was awarded a Member of the Royal Victorian Order.

“There was a lot of pressure on the Duke’s funeral, because everything had changed due to Covid and the previous plan was totally different,” Andrew says.

“It needed a keen eye for detail and we couldn’t afford to leave any stone unturned. The service started at a certain time and there was to be a national one-minute silence at the top of the west steps to St George’s Chapel.

"We had four hours of activity, getting soldiers transported into Windsor, moving the coffin from a private chapel and placing it onto the specially designed Land Rover.

"We had to get onto the steps ten seconds before the guns in the distance started the national silence. There’s was a lot of pressure on that and you only get those things right by a combination of experience and eye for detail.

“It was a huge privilege to take part in it and to work alongside the Palace and be fully immersed in it,” he admits.

Andrew sees members of the Royal family on a regular basis, in a work capacity. And one particular story still resonates, making him emotional as he recalls his mother Diane’s passing.

“My mother passed away in the first year I took the job on,” he explains. “She was poorly with cancer and went into Severn Hospice in Telford. While there, she got creative and made a couple of knitted poppies.

“She asked me if I could give one of them to the Duchess of Cambridge, which I did. The Duchess kindly wore it at the Festival of Remembrance.

"My mother died two months after but saw her poppy worn by a member of the Royal Family which was delightful.”

Andrew is now deep into planning for several monumental events, including next year’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations, while also having one eye on the Festival of Remembrance and Cenotaph Parade.

“The Platinum Jubilee will, of course, be huge and it’s a collaboration across Whitehall so I work closely with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the Cabinet Office, Ministry of Defence and Buckingham Palace,” he explains.

Andrew Stokes

“We are designing a four-day weekend and we are in a good place with it. There’s a lot going on with that. I’m looking forward to getting back to business and delivering a full-scale Queen’s Birthday Parade at Horseguards.

"It will open the Platinum Jubilee weekend and we are expecting thousands to flock to London.

"The Birthday Parade is one of my favourite things to arrange because it’s a celebration whereas Remembrance is a commemoration.

"I stand directly behind the Queen and it’s always nice to see the smile on her face and her foot tapping to the music. She came over to me after this year’s event, which was lesser in scale, and said she enjoyed it.

"Those comments go down to all of the soldiers on parade because it’s a team effort.”

Joyous events also include weddings and Andrew adds: “The wedding of the Sussexes was a really special occasion. That was massive and the media interest was incredible. It was just a privilege to take part because it spread a lot of happiness across the country.”

Despite reaching such heady heights though, Andrew admits there’s no place like home and he still has a home in Coalbrookdale, though work keeps him away for long spells.

“I’m a proud Salopian and enjoy being back,” he adds.”When I am away I miss home. When I come back I get those butterflies in my stomach when I am driving up the motorway. I love it, it’s a great place.”

You can take the Garrison Sergeant Major out of Shropshire but, for all the grandeur of his position, you can’t take Shropshire out of the Garrison Sergeant Major.

Most Read

Most Read

Sorry, we are not accepting comments on this article.

Top Stories

More from the Shropshire Star

UK & International News