News story

The sound of silence

As London stands silent on Sunday at the 11th hour for the remembrance ceremony at the Cenotaph, 2 men will be shouting as loud as they can.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Captain Michael Rose (left) and Staff Sergeant Neal Beer behind one of the clock faces of Big Ben (library image) [Picture: Sergeant Adrian Harlen, Crown copyright]
Captain Michael Rose (left) and Staff Sergeant Neal Beer inside Big Ben

Every year, the 2-minute’s silence for the remembrance service on Whitehall is conducted with military precision. On Horse Guards Parade, the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery fire their First World War guns to mark the start of the silence, and on Whitehall a Corps of Army Music bugler from the Household Division marks its end at precisely the same time that the guns fire again, 120 seconds later.

But how do they know when to do it? Neither can see the Big Ben clock from where they stand, and to react to the first strike of the Big Ben bell as it chimes the 11th hour would be a moment too late.

Captain Michael Rose (left) and Staff Sergeant Neal Beer inside the Elizabeth Tower
Captain Michael Rose (left) and Staff Sergeant Neal Beer inside the Elizabeth Tower (library image) [Picture: Sergeant Adrian Harlen, Crown copyright]

Last year, the responsibility for getting the most solemn moment in the calendar right lay on the shoulders of Captain Michael Rose, from Basingstoke, and Staff Sergeant Neal Beer, from Maidstone. Both men serve with 251 Signal Squadron in Aldershot.

On Remembrance Sunday the unit comes to London and 2 signallers spend the morning at the top of the Elizabeth Tower in the Palace of Westminster. Captain Rose was the timing control officer for the Cenotaph parade, and Staff Sergeant Beer was his back up. The 2 men controlled everything that happened on the ground from inside one of the clock faces of Big Ben itself.

There they stood next to the mechanism of the most famous clock in the world, watching the hands on the dial glide by. As the cogs turned and the escapement whirred into action Staff Sergeant Beer raised a white-gloved hand and motioned a countdown with his fingers while Captain Rose shouted the orders down his radio to the troops on the ground: “5, 4, 3, 2, 1, FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!”

And, as the 13-pounder field guns roared, Big Ben tolled…

The Elizabeth Tower
The Elizabeth Tower, which houses the Great Clock and the Great Bell, famously known as Big Ben, in Westminster, London (library image) [Picture: Sergeant Adrian Harlen, Crown copyright]

Captain Rose admits he was nervous beforehand:

It’s a huge responsibility. So many people are depending on us getting this right. But it’s a huge privilege too to be involved in something that affects the whole nation. To be up here in such a historic and significant location, a real piece of history, is just incredible.

The silence is a really special time and I can hear and feel it even all the way up here. Up to that point it’s cacophony in my earpiece; I can hear all the activity on the ground from a dozen locations. But as soon as I start to shout the orders, that changes.

Even though I must be the only person in the country who isn’t silent in that 2 minutes, I can hear the silence in my earpiece – maybe just a hint of breeze, the rustle of leaves – and it’s really quite eerie; the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

Published 8 November 2013