By Michael Clarke, Friday 9 September 2022.
I was lecturing at the RCDS this morning. I was all done by 12.00 and I spoke with the Commandant for a while and then was back on my way to Hyde Park Tube. But I found myself joining droves of people converging on Hyde Park entrance and I realised that as we finished early that day I was in time to witness the 96-gun death salute due to begin at 13.00.
So I joined the throng and made my way into the park where people were already lining the main pathway, 9 or 10 deep. The crowd was quietly chatting and smiling; no laughter or horseplay. Office workers and many casual passers-by, all ages, all ethnicities, children on Dad’s shoulders and tourists of course, always tourists.
They entered the park gates about five to one, the King’s Troop, Royal Horse Artillery – oldest regiment in the Army. I counted six First World War field guns as they went past. Six horses each, and a ton and a half of gun and limber, harnesses jingling and wheels ringing on the road as they went at a brisk trot in front of us all. Troopers, about the same number of males and females as far as I could see, sitting very upright in the saddle, all magnificent and proud as they swept past.
They seemed to unlimber very quickly. I couldn’t see where the teams of horses were led to. But then the six field guns were ready, troopers kneeling beside them, officers standing behind. I checked my watch. It was two minutes to one. There seemed to be total silence. The troopers were completely still and the crowd waited – people towards the back quietly filing through the crush to find better vantage points. Quiet expectation all round the parkland.
As the clock struck one the first shell was fired. That first one seemed inordinately loud. It shattered the silence and then after every ten seconds came another. They worked along the line of six guns, then back to the first – shots exactly ten second apart. Every shot sent out a brief flame and a great gout of white-grey smoke – no recoil. The gunners hardly seemed to move at all. Each spent shell was put aside, each fresh shell rammed into the breach, then arm in the air ready to fire again. From a distance it seemed the kneeling figures were completely still, so little movement was made for each reload.
The crowd was still too. No firework night gasps or shrieks. Camera phones in the air everywhere, but still complete silence in the fifteen minutes or so it took to fire 96 rounds. Like me, I guess they were counting – and thinking. The ten-second pace between each crash of a gun breaking the silence was like a funeral rhythm meant to be heard in the heavens.
Then it was done. The crowd broke into long and gentle applause. Were they applauding the troopers or the occasion? By the time the applause had died away, astonishingly, the limbers were harnessed up again and ready to move off. And just as before, they trotted briskly out of the park, jingling and ringing, upright and proud. Job done. The crowd applauded again as they reached the gates. This time it definitely was for the King’s Troop.
Like everyone else I drifted away, glad I had decided to witness the solemn spectacle. In the coming days before the state funeral I don’t know where I’ll be or quite what I might find myself doing. But I decided that if this was my own personal way of saying goodbye, then it was as good as any. So I made my way home – quite slowly for me – thoughtful, sad. And grateful.
Photograph Copyright: UK MOD © Crown copyright 2022. Photographer: Sgt Donald C Todd RLC Photographer. Image accessible here.