Decorated veterans attend Queen’s funeral

Prior to her passing, Queen Elizabeth II made it clear she wanted recipients of the Victoria Cross and George Cross from across the Commonwealth to attend her funeral. It was her father King George VI who instituted the George Cross in 1940 and her great-great grandmother who instituted the Victoria Cross in 1856. Queen Elizabeth herself was the patron of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association from 1956 until her death.

So it was that Mark Donaldson VC, Daniel Keighran VC, Keith Payne VC AM, Michael Pratt GC and Ben Roberts-Smith VC MG flew to London to attend The Queen’s funeral in September.

Mark Donaldson and Keith Payne had the additional privilege of taking part in the Procession of the Holders of The Victoria Cross, The George Cross and the Orders of Chivalry, which comprised representatives from various Commonwealth countries. Allan Sparkes CV OAM also took part in the procession, representing recipients of the Cross of Valour – Australia’s highest civilian award for bravery.

‘Taking part in the procession was a huge honour,’ says Mark (pictured). ‘I was exceptionally proud to be able to do that. And it was an honour to do it with all the recipients from across the globe. But I was representing all Australia’s VC recipients, alive and dead. And the 1,361 people who’ve received them across the Commonwealth. As well as the Australian Defence Force as a whole, whether they’ve received bravery medals or not. It’s about contribution, not just combat.’

Mark first met The Queen in 2009, shortly after he was awarded the Victoria Cross for Australia by then Governor-General Quentin Bryce. The decoration was a recognition of his actions the previous year in Afghanistan, when he rescued a badly wounded Afghan interpreter under intense fire from the Taliban.

Man in combat fatigues in desert

The Queen received him at Windsor Castle and the two met on many occasions after that.

Mark was struck by how there were two sides to her: the regal, public-facing Elizabeth, and the much more everyday human being he encountered.

‘She was an absolutely amazing woman,’ he says. ‘She was devoted to service and had a dedication to humanity. She was genuinely lovely, kind, compassionate and even very humble. She had this very human quality and always knew what to say and how to put you at your ease. She’d obviously had decades of practice but I think it was her natural ability as well.’

Mark relates in his memoir The Crossroad that The Queen said to him at Windsor Castle: ‘I remember signing off on [your VC] on Christmas Eve. I read through [the citation] twice with all the family around. I was so amazed.’

‘If you look at the number of people who were at the funeral, and the particular people who were there, plus the four billion people who tuned in, that speaks volumes,’ says Mark. ‘There was a collective sadness around the world that was to do with how she made people feel, how she did things. She touched so many hearts. The funeral was a very special moment – a fitting way to send Her Majesty off.’

Mark found that catching up with other recipients of the Victoria Cross and George Cross from across the Commonwealth provided a lighter moment during his trip to the UK. They all stayed at the Union Jack Club, which Mark describes as a kind of spiritual home to VC and GC recipients.

‘You’re in safe company, so to speak,’ he says. ‘You’re on common ground. All of us understand what it’s like to carry the burden of such an award.’

One of these was Keith Payne, whose trip to London was supported by DVA. Keith earned his VC as a company commander in Vietnam when he rescued around 40 of his men who had been cut off by the enemy. Many of them had been wounded.

A young Queen pins the Victoria Cross on Keith Payne

Keith had also met The Queen on many occasions, the first time in 1970 when he became the last Australian to be awarded the Imperial Victoria Cross (pictured). The ceremony took place on the Royal Yacht Britannia when it was docked at Brisbane. They met around 25 times after that and The Queen described Keith as an ‘old friend’.

‘I was deeply saddened at the loss of The Queen who during her reign has covered and endured many worldly problems with grace and dignity,’ says Keith.

‘People would find it hard to believe that our friendship was compounded over the many years we knew each other. We had a long friendship of over fifty years. That was time to really know each other. Her Majesty gave me and my family the respect equal to what I had shown to her … She was a gracious and caring young lady when I first met her and remained the same through her life.’ 

At 89, Keith was determined to make the trip to London.

‘I wanted to honour Her Majesty’s request that the VC and GC recipients attend her funeral. It meant a lot to us. The feeling of sorrow and grief was amongst all members of the VC and GC Association, primarily as Her Majesty was our Patron over those many years and always welcomed us to the Palace and other places where she chose to hold reunions.’

As Sovereign, The Queen was Head of the British Armed Forces, as well as being the wife, mother and grandmother of individuals who served in the Forces. The Queen’s relationship with the Armed Forces began when, as Princess Elizabeth, she joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) in 1945, becoming the first female member of the Royal Family to join the Armed Forces as a full-time active member. During her time in the ATS, the Princess learnt to drive and trained as a mechanic.

Her Majesty was the Captain-General and Colonel-in-Chief of several Australian Defence Force units.

Vale Queen Elizabeth II, may she rest in peace.

About 15 men in suits, one in a wheelchair, posing out the front of the Union Jack Club

Left: The 17 members of the VC and GC Association from across the Commonwealth who attended The Queen’s funeral. The Australians are: Ben Roberts-Smith VC MG (extreme left); Michael Pratt, Australia's last living GC (fourth left); Keith Payne, Australia’s oldest living VC AM (centre); Mark Donaldson VC (in blue suit); and Daniel Keighran VC (fourth from right). © VC and GC Association.


Eight soldiers carry the Queen's coffin in Westminster Abbey watched on by hundred of mourners

Below left: The Queen's funeral at Westminster Abbey.

Two young women in overalls working on car


Below: Princess Elizabeth in the Auxiliary Territorial Service in 1945.