Let’s hope Army bosses use common sense and spare The Staffords

The first paragraph of the correspondence from the nice man at the Metropolitan Police is wonderfully quaint and reassuring.

‘Hello Ma’am, Your application to deliver a petition by hand to the door of number 10 Downing Street has been booked in for Thursday, November 1, at 1.15pm.’

After months of campaigning Sentinel journalists including yours truly together with Staffordshire Regimental Association representatives will be calling in on the Prime Minister later this week.

We will be presenting a 17,000-name petition calling for the name of the name of our county regiment to be preserved amid brutal Army cutbacks.

Our campaign was prompted by the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) decision to remove 3 Mercian (the Staffords) from the Order of Battle (ORBAT) – thus ending the county’s 297-year link with the British Army.

It is part of a huge reduction in the Army which will diminish its fighting strength from 102,000 to just 82,000 over the next few years and place a much heavier reliance on the Territorial Army.

Of course, it isn’t just the Staffords who have the axe hanging over them and other proud units are facing oblivion too.

But here in North Staffordshire feelings are running high and veterans and their relatives, serving soldiers and their families and the general public have united to oppose the MoD’s proposal.

We can’t speak for other areas or other units, but what can definitely say is that the Staffords are hugely important to local people.

Since the beginning of July The Sentinel has published more than 100 stories detailing the courage and selflessness of those who have served with the Staffordshire Regiment from the Great War to the present day.

Of course, this newspaper has been able to trawl its archives for reports on the breaching of the Hindenberg Line in 1918, the Battle of Arnhem in 1944 and the infamous raid on the Al Jameat Police Station in Iraq on Christmas Day in 2006.

But the vast majority of the articles The Sentinel has published in recent months have been prompted by readers who have written in with personal stories to tell of their association with the Staffordshire Regiment.

Some were former Staffords telling of their service during WWII, in Northern Ireland or more recent conflicts.

But many more were relatives of those who wore the cap badge and distinguished themselves all over the world.

These tales have shown just how proud the people of North Staffordshire are of their links with the military and of the Staffordshire Regiment’s battle honours.

That’s why they were sending goodwill parcels to Our Boys out in Iraq as part of this newspaper’s Operation Christmas Cheer campaign a full 12 months before General Sir Richard Dannatt was asking the British public to better support our Armed Forces personnel.

We don’t need to be told around here, you see. We’ve been doing it for years.

It was one thing to have the North and South Staffords merged. It was one thing for the regiment to become known as 3 Mercian (Staffords).

It is another thing entirely for the name ‘The Staffords’ be scrubbed from ORBAT altogether.

No-one involved with our campaign realistically expects the MoD to do a complete about-face and retain 3 Mercian.

But by the same token they have shown that the name The Mercian Regiment, derived from an ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom, means little or nothing to the people of Staffordshire.

It is a convenient construct which allowed Army chiefs to mash together the Staffordshire Regiment, Cheshire Regiment and Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters under one banner.

The truth is the people of Staffordshire and those with links to the Staffords have no great affiliation with the other counties or their respective regiments – and vice versa.

Any sense of pride for the Mercian Regiment relates instead to its antecedents, such as the Staffords, and their roles in various wars and conflicts over the centuries.

It is to be hoped that Army chiefs, when considering whether or not to retain the name The Staffords, and indeed the antecedents of The Mercian Regiment’s 1st and 2nd battalions, think long and hard about the consequences of making a clean break with tradition.

Let’s hope that common sense prevails and that future generations of young recruits from our neck of the woods will continue to want to follow in the footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers and serve with The Staffords – rather than opting instead for another unit with no links to our patch but equally good or perhaps better prospects.

Readers have until tomorrow (October 31) to sign our petition by logging on to: http://www.saveourstaffords.com or calling in at The Sentinel’s HQ in Etruria to sign the forms.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Staffords’ proud record echoes through the ages

The Sentinel’s campaign to save the name of the Staffords is going from strength to strength and it has prompted me to delve into the archives.

I was proud to discover that this newspaper’s association with the Staffordshire Regiment goes back a long, long way.

In actual fact, Sentinel writers were reporting on the exploits of soldiers from our neck of the woods as far back as the Zulu War of 1879.

At the time it was known as the 80th Regiment of Foot (the Staffordshire Volunteers).

Our lads formed the front of the British square at the decisive Battle of Ulundi – with two of its soldiers, Private S. Wassall and Colour Sergeant A. Booth winning Victoria Crosses during the campaign.

Fast forward 100 years because I was particularly interested in what the Staffords were up to during the Eighties.

At the decade came to a close the 1st Battalion, The Staffordshire Regiment, as it was, was described ‘as a standard infantry unit of 650 men’.

Within the British Army in Germany it was known as an Armoured Infantry Battalion as every soldier was part of the crew of an Armoured Fighting Vehicle.

They completed two tours of Northern during the 1980s.

Indeed, that is how the decade began for the boys with the Staffordshire knot on their cap badges.

In September 1979 the First Battalion moved to Londonderry for sixteen months, accompanied by their families.

It was during this tour, on January 20, 1981, that Private Christopher Shenton was killed by an IRA sniper in the Bogside area of Londonderry.

In July of that year the Battalion and its families moved to Gibraltar for a two year tour which had to be reduced to 20 months because the Falklands Crisis and the Spanish elections limited the training opportunities.

The highlight of the tour to The Rock was the role played by the Battalion in the evacuation of British nationals from The Gambia.

After receiving new colours from the Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire in 1983, the Battalion went on a training exercise to Canada to make up for training lost in Gibraltar.

The Battalion then returned to Northern Ireland in February 1984 and was deployed in South Armagh until June and during that time suffered another tragic loss.

On May 29, 1984, Lance Corporal Stephen Anderson was killed by an IRA landmine in Crossmaglen.

It was then off to Germany for our boys in the autumn for Exercise Lionheart – the biggest post-war exercise undertaken by the British Army.

The following year saw the Battalion deploy to Seattle in the U.S. for training and, on its return, it received the new Saxon Wheeled Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC).

The autumn of that year was dominated by exercises; Exercise Brave Defender saw the Battalion deployed to northern Scotland and this was followed by Exercise Purple Warrior when the Battalion played enemy to 5 Airborne Brigade at Otterburn in Northumberland.

In January 1987, the Battalion deployed to Fallingbostel, West Germany as part of 7 Armoured Brigade. During the first three years of its tour, it repeatedly trained at BATUS (British Army Training Unit Suffield) in Alberta, Canada.

By late 1988 the Staffords had been re-equipped as an Armoured Infantry Battalion using the new Warrior Armoured Fighting Vehicle.

In April 1988, the 3rd (Volunteer) Battalion of the Staffordshire Regiment was formed from the 1 Mercian Volunteers who were disbanded.

They were the direct descendant of the old 5 South and 5 North Territorial Army battalions who were disbanded in the 1960s to form the Mercian Volunteers.

1988 was also the year that the 1st Battalion were named the Army’s Grade 3 boxing champions.

In April of 1989, Her Majesty The Queen appointed her second son, His Royal Highness The Duke of York, as Colonel in Chief of the Regiment.

He visited the Battalion in Fallingbostel in Germany in July of that year.

Whatever decade I researched the stories were the same – reflecting gallantry and unstinting service which echoed the Staffords’ motto of ‘Stand Firm, Strike Hard’.

I would suggest the lads currently serving with 3 Mercian and the thousands who went before them, many of whom gave their lives for this country, deserve better than to be wiped from history at the stroke of a civil servant’s pen.

*If you agree with Martin you can sign our petition to save the name of the Staffords by logging on to: http://www.saveourstaffords.com

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

We must stop tinkering with our Armed Forces right now

The injuries suffered by Staffordshire Moorlands soldier Anthony Lownds are a grim reminder that, on a daily basis, somewhere in a foreign field there is generally a British serviceman or woman risking life and limb for Queen and country.

The 24-year-old Grenadier Guard was caught in the blast of an improvised explosive device (IED) planted by the Taliban.

He is currently receiving treatment at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham and has so far had four operations for injuries to his right hand and legs.

My thoughts are with Anthony and his family and friends and I wish him a speedy recovery.

While most of us have been enjoying the patriotic fervour generated by the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and, to a lesser extent, the Olympic Torch Relay, Anthony and his comrades have been unable to relax and join in the celebrations.

As we settle down to watch England’s exploits in Euro 2012, spare a thought for the almost 10,000 members of the British Armed Forces who are demonstrating incredible bravery and commitment day-in, day-out in Afghanistan.

To date, since 2001, 417 British personnel have been killed in operations in the place they called the ‘Graveyard of Empires’.

It is a total that, heart-breakingly, is as sure to rise as the sun over that troubled land.

There are, of course, some who would argue that we should never have sent troops to Afghanistan in the first place – in the same way that we should have kept our noses out of Iraq’s business.

But Britain’s Services personnel don’t have that luxury and always deploy and do their duty, regardless of any personal misgivings they may have, which is what makes them such remarkable people.

That is exactly what they are doing right now in Afghanistan and we should be immensely proud of their efforts in the most difficult of circumstances.

But I wonder how Anthony Lownds and his mates felt when they learned a few days ago of more proposed cutbacks to the regular Army?

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond spoke of ‘difficult decisions’ ahead as the standing Army is reduced from 102,000 personnel to just 82,000.

If you know your military history then you will know that this is significant because an Army used to be defined as being 100,000 strong. Anything less than that figure wasn’t considered an Army.

While the regimental system will not be abolished, Mr Hammond said it was inevitable that some units would be lost or forced to merge.

If the national papers are to believed, one of those units could be our own 3 Mercian – or the Staffordshire Regiment in old money – along with such prestigious names as The Coldstream Guards.

I have to say that, for me, enough really is enough.

For years now I have watched Defence Secretaries slash and burn as they have wittered on about making our Armed Forces more ‘mobile’ and ‘adaptable’.

Always the end result is the same: Fewer boots on the ground; Less hardware; More reliance on reservists or other nations; And, ultimately, less ability to react to crises around the world.

Britannia once ruled the waves. Now we will have to hope we don’t need an aircraft carrier until 2020.

The RAF was once the only thing preventing the whole of Europe from falling under Nazi occupation.

But in Afghanistan it was a chronic shortage of helicopters which actually added to the number of UK casualties.

I could go on. The bottom line is that penny-pinching at the MoD over the last two decades, at the behest of various administrations, has significantly undermined the ability of the UK’s Armed Forces to do its job.

This has happened at a time when the actual number of global conflicts involving British Services personnel has risen.

Where is the logic in that?

Whatever we think of the so-called ‘War on Terror’, there is no denying the world is becoming a more dangerous place – with revolutions and the rise of extremism fanning the flames of conflict.

Add to this the ever-increasing economic uncertainty and inevitable shortage of natural resources such as fuel, food and water in the coming years, and you have a recipe for decades of instability.

So what does Whitehall do? Continue to reduce the number of Army, Navy and RAF personnel.

This is madness.

I believe caution should be the watch-word with regard to the future of our military. We only have to look to history for guidance.

Infantry battalions that were mothballed after the end of the Cold War had to be reconstituted for service in Northern Ireland.

Having scrapped Harrier Jump Jets and the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal we realised both would actually have been quite handy for the Libyan crisis.

Yes, times are tough and each Government department has to make savings and each will plead it deserves protection.

But the MoD really is a special case involving tens of thousands of special people who do a very special and specialised job.

The UK’s Armed Forces personnel are our ‘go-to’ guys and gals at home and overseas for everything from industrial unrest and disaster relief to frontline warfare and their importance simply cannot be over-stated.

I firmly believe that for Britain to remain safe and secure and for our country to retain its position as an effective, relevant and respected player on the global stage then we must stop tinkering with our Armed Forces right now.

My local heroes and Villains of 2011…

As the year draws to a close it is a time to reflect on the good and the bad of the last 12 months.

As I’m a bloke (and we love lists) here, in no particular order, are my local heroes and villains for 2011…

*First up its the lads and lasses of the Third Battalion, The Mercian Regiment (Staffords) who are HEROES – despite what my columnist colleague Mike Wolfe may think – for completing their tour of duty to Afghanistan. Private Gareth Bellingham, aged 22, of Clayton, was shot while on patrol in June and paid the ultimate sacrifice. We can’t have anything but admiration for the job our Armed Forces do.

*Developer Realis may, in time, be viewed as a HERO for investing hundreds of millions of pounds in the city centre to replace the eyesore that is Hanley Bus Station with a huge new shopping centre. But they, and the city council, are firmly in the VILLAINS corner for ever thinking it was OK to name the complex ‘City Sentral’. Bad English. Bad idea.

*I’m swallowing my pride for this one and naming Stoke City’s team HEROES for their exploits in 2011. It would be churlish – even for a Vale fan like me – to deny our cousins down the A500 their moment in the sun after an FA Cup Final appearance, a continuing European odyssey and some very decent results of late in the Premier League. There, I’ve said it.

*Next comes Jim Gannon – the pantomime VILLAIN who almost single-handedly wrecked Port Vale’s chances of promotion last season by dropping the entire first-choice midfield and upsetting virtually every player. The manager’s bizarre behaviour (remember busgate?) alienated the entire club and its fanbase. Good riddance.

*I’m afraid the city council again earns the title of VILLAIN for its shocking lack of transparency and accountability over the Dimensions pool fiasco. Ultimately, local businessman Mo Chaudry dropped his threat of legal action against the authority and tens of thousands of pounds worth of taxpayers’ money was wasted because someone at the council dropped a clanger over a potential deal to shut the splash pool at Dimensions. Inevitably, no-one – neither councillors nor officers – has been punished. Quelle surprise!

*The various incarnations of Port Vale’s board of directors have proven to be VILLAINS whose self-interest and misguided view of what’s best for the club have been catastrophic. The Vale doesn’t appear to have two pennies to rub together and fans and shareholders have been properly led up the garden path with the issuing of ‘nil-paid’ shares and the spectacular failure of the Blue Sky deal. Time for a New Year Spring Clean methinks.

*Another sort of local HERO this year is Saul Hudson – AKA guitarist Slash – who returned to his native North Staffordshire for the first time to play a one-off gig at the Victoria Hall. His links to the city may be tenuous, but I’m still claiming him. Anyone who, like yours truly, was lucky enough to see him play live up Hanley in July knows they were in the presence of greatness. Rock on, Slash.

*Sticking with music I’d like to name Robert Williams esquire as a HERO of 2011. Firstly, he has earned it because he has given ordinary Vale fans a voice by allowing his shares to be used by the Supporters’ Club. Secondly, he deserves it because I saw him with Take That on the Progress Live tour at Manchester and can categorically say that there was only one superstar on the stage that night. Everything else was window dressing. Take a bow, Robbie.

*My next VILLAIN isn’t local but its actions have placed a priceless piece of our heritage in jeopardy. The High Court ruling that the Wedgwood Museum collection could be sold off to help plug a pension fund deficit linked to the collapse of the pottery giant was a disgrace. Mercifully, the stage is set for Stoke-on-Trent-born billionaire and philanthropist John Caudwell to become the HERO after he vowed to save the collection rather than seeing it broken up and lost to the Potteries. Nice one, John.

*Finally, a bit of festive cheer courtesy of a local firm which battened down the hatches in October 2008 in preparation for the global economic downturn. JCB is not only surviving but thriving and has to be seen as a HERO after awarding its workforce a 5.2 per cent pay rise and a £500 Christmas bonus. Other employers please take note.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Our armed forces personnel deserve better

Today I’m at a meeting down at the Civic Centre in Stoke to help organise this year’s Armed Forces Day event in Stoke-on-Trent (Saturday, June 25). I, personally, am proud to be a part of the process – and, of course, this kind of thing is exactly what any local newspaper worth its salt should be doing. What staggers me is that this small group of senior citizens is having to beg, borrow and steal (so to speak) in order to stage an event to honour our Armed Forces veterans and serving personnel. It may be no different in other cities but, as our lads in the Staffords (3 Mercian) prepare for deployment to Afghanistan, I can’t help but feel embarrassed that we are again scratching around for sponsors at this late stage. Our lads and lasses, past and present, deserve better.