Fg Off Lis Foster
Standing at the top of a set of steps at the Royal Albert Hall in London alongside Warrant Officer Paul Hannon and with a contingent from the Royal Auxiliary Air Force (RAuxAF) behind us, I waited for the Garrison Sergeant Major (GSM) to count down our entrance to the arena for the Muster Parade during the Festival of Remembrance. My thoughts were focused totally on waiting for the words: “Left, right, stand by, quick march!” That would be our cue to start marching and I managed to put out of my mind any thoughts of being watched by Her Majesty The Queen, the Prime Minister – and the rest of the world, thanks to the television cameras pointing at us.
|Cpl Phil duley, Fg Off Lis Foster, SAC Mandy Mitchell and Sgt Darren Edwards from 606 Squadron, at London's Royal Albert Hall for the 2013 Festival of Remembrance|
It had been quite a week preparing for this moment. A telephone call from my squadron - 606 (Chiltern) Squadron - a couple of weeks before, had asked whether I could make the Remembrance weekend’s events, as well as the week of training beforehand. I didn’t have to think long and the previous Monday afternoon had found me at RAF Northolt and the headquarters of the Queen’s Colour Squadron (QCS) for training, along with many other slightly nervous looking officers and airmen and women from the RAF and RAuxAF. There were some familiar faces as well, as Sergeant Darren Edwards, Corporal Phil Duley and Senior Aircraftswoman Mandy Mitchell were also attending from 606 Squadron.
Following introductions and some basic administration, an inspection ensured everyone had remembered all their uniform and that it basically fitted. We then began with some foot drill and quickly on to marching. I don’t think I was alone in not having done any drill for several years, but like riding a bike, everything soon came back.
As the week went on we spent many hours practising marching down stairs without looking down – harder than it seems. We also practised our entrance to the Albert Hall on a plan painted onto the parade square – a bit like those games painted onto school playgrounds. Music on cue always helped, giving us a good beat to march to.
In addition to the Festival of Remembrance, the RAuxAF was also taking part in Sunday’s Act of Remembrance at the Cenotaph in London, so we also practised forming up and marching in our different sections – RAF Aircrew, Men of the RAF, Women of the RAF, RAF Police, RAF Nurses and RAuxAF. We even practised standing still, as we would have to stand for about more than 2 hours at the Cenotaph during the service and the veterans’ parade.
QCS made us all very welcome, with evening drinks in their bar as a way of winding down after polishing shoes and preparing uniform. On the morning of day two I thought I was trying to put the wrong shoes on – they were too small. My usually comfortable shoes were no longer so, since my feet had swollen from all the marching. I went through the ordeal of forcing my feet into my shoes every morning, but I was lucky not to suffer with blisters and after 20 minutes or so one’s feet became used to the shoes again - or maybe they just became numb.
On Friday afternoon we travelled to the Royal Albert Hall for our first look at the venue where we would be hitting the spotlights. Walking in to the auditorium for the first time and watching singer, Katie Melua practice, felt surreal. The lighting was magical and we were able to take in the atmosphere for a while. We also had the chance to practice on those steps – much different from what we had practised on at Northolt. Before our first full rehearsal I was as nervous as I would ever be - and, yes, I tripped. That got that out of the way.
The following morning we were back again for a dress rehearsal. Luckily we had plenty of time to watch most of the performance before getting into position for our entrance. I never did tire of watching the performance – The Dambusters, the Merchant Seamen, the Chelsea Pensioners, the Royal Marines Band and the Poppy Girls, to name but a few - the atmosphere was charged with emotion. Behind it all was the thought that we were there to remember those who died for us.
A couple more practices and time to watch singer, James Blunt, before lunch took my mind off the forthcoming performances.
Our next run through was the matinee in front of an audience. By now I was feeling more confident and this first performance went well.
By the time we were standing at the top of those steps for the evening performance with the world watching us, I was no longer particularly nervous – adrenaline-filled, yes, but not that terribly nervous, jelly-legged feeling that I dreaded would fix my feet to the spot.
The GSM called us forward to the top of the stairs and said:" It’s been nice knowing you…" We watched the RAF marching down the stairs either side of the arena. Then the RAF Nurses and the RAF Police – the music changed and it was our turn. “Left, right, standby, quick march – go!”
The rest of the performance was one of the most memorable events of my life. My apologies to those standing around me, but I sang my heart out to the hymns and cheered for Her Majesty as loudly as I could. Emotions were high and thoughts of my friends and RAuxAF colleagues SAC Chris Dunsmore and SAC Gary Thompson, killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan, were never far from my mind.
The following morning we were up early and taken to Wellington Barracks from where we would march to the Cenotaph in Central London. Another emotion-charged atmosphere – a breeze rustled the leaves on the trees as the two minutes silence began. The two hours we had to stand at the Cenotaph – dressed in beautifully warm greatcoats – seemed to pass quite quickly as we listened to the service and then watched the veterans march past us. A strange fact is that watching the sea of people marching past gives you a sort of motion sickness, so you have to keep looking away.
Marching back to Wellington Barracks through the streets of London, with people cheering made us all feel very proud to have had the opportunity to represent our service – the RAuxAF – on such a memorable weekend of events.