Last salute to 300 years of Staffords

When the time came to say goodbye, it ended where it had started more than 300 years ago.

Nestled in the shadows of Lichfield Cathedral's three spires sits the Kings Head pub - the spiritual home of the Staffordshire Regiment and its many guises.

And when the soldiers of 3Mercian finished their final homecoming parade on Saturday it was to the Kings Head they headed - the spot where Colonel Luke Lillington formed his Regiment of Foot in 1705.

Ever since the people of Staffordshire and the Black Country have had a regiment to call their own with generations of the same families passing through its ranks.

But with Government cutbacks to the military, the battalion - fondly referred to as the Staffords - has now been consigned to history.

Commanding Officer Lt Col Chris Davies, who led the 3rd Battalion the Mercian Regiment on its recently completed nine month tour of duty on the front line in Afghanistan, confessed he was 'choked up' after final parades in Stafford, Wolverhampton, Walsall, Cannock, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Stoke-on-Trent, Tamworth, Burton-upon-Trent, and finally in Lichfield.

"It is emotional for any CO to relinquish command. You invest so much of your hopes, fears and dreams with the battalion that it is always going to be difficult to let go.

"But it adds a certain poignancy to the situation to be the last Commanding Officer of 3Mercian. It has been an honour and a privilege although I understand why it has to go."

3Mercian, that has a strength of around 550 troops, 380 of whom deployed to Afghanistan, will merge with the two other regular army battalions of the regiment - 1 and 2Mercian - as the overall strength of the regular army is cut by 20,000.

The troops are also being brought back to the UK from their German barracks. They will now be based with their new battalion at either Chester or Bulford near Salisbury.

On Saturday it was confirmed that Her Majesty the Queen had agreed that the official name of the Mercian Regiment will become The Mercian Regiment (Cheshire, Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters, and Staffords).

Lt Col Davies said: "The Mercian Regiment ensured that the pain was shared by all three battalions and I can walk away with my hand on my heart knowing that all my soldiers are placed with a good battalion. As the 3Mercian chapter closes, so another opens."

He admitted: "We were told in December 2012 that the battalion would fold and the tour of Afghanistan was the glue that held it together after that. Otherwise it would have turned in on itself following the news that it would fold.

"The tour gave us an operating focus and stopped us just withered on the vine in Germany. Now the soldiers have been able to march through the towns and cities with their colours unfurled and their head held high. They have gone out on a high."

At the pub soldiers past and present gathered for an almighty send off.

They presented a brass mortar shell that had been fired in Afghanistan to pub landlords John and Debbie Rackham as a sentimental gesture for their continued support of the troops.

Dudley-born Sgt Chris Williams, aged 33, signed up to the Staffords straight from school.

He has served for 15 years with tours of Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Now living in Burntwood with a daughter and a fiancee, he is joining 2Mercian in Chester and being promoted to Colour Sergeant.

He said: "It has been emotional. There is a lot of history behind us. A lot of people from this area signed up straight from school and my brother was also a Stafford. It is a very close family unit with close ties to its communities which is very rare for the Army in the modern day. It has been a sad day."

John Locke served in the Staffordshire Regiment (Prince of Wales') from 1981-1991 latterly as a Lance Corporal.

The 50-year-old from Stafford said: "Coming here today has been very nostalgic and has been about pride and history. It is a really sad day in terms of the regiment being disbanded after more than 300 years of service. It means so much to Staffordshire and what we lose is one of the proudest and eldest regiments in the country which maintains and cherishes close community links."

Private Matthew Nash, 35, from Lincoln, Private James Broomhall, 25, from Kidderminster, and Private Bruno Toth, 22, from Melton Mowbray, have just returned from their first tour of Afghanistan.

They all joined 3Mercian around two years ago and will now join 1Mercian in Bulford.

Private Broomhall said: "Marching all week has been an amazing experience but today was particularly emotional when we went passed the vets and they tipped their berets to us - that was a very special moment. It makes us feel very proud to know of patriotic the community is - we recognise how special the relationship with the Army has been in this region."

Colour Sergeant Morris Wilkes, 49, of Westcroft, Wolverhampton, served for 24 years and now assesses new recruits for the Army.

He said: "Today has a tint of sadness. There are people here who have not seen each other for years and it is just like old times. But the good thing is we will all continue to meet up and together all the good things and the bad things and be able to come here to the Kings Head."

Pub licensee Debbie Rackham added: "This is part of history and as the birthplace of the regiment it is special. The celebrations have just been fantastic - it is very emotional and was heart-wrenching seeing the streets packed as they marched through.

"I always say it is a good job Colonel Lillington came here as if he had stopped off at the top of the road the boys today would be in a cafe drinking team and biscuits."

Steven Ford signed up to the Staffords in 1980 and served to 1996 rising from Private to Sergeant.

He now lives in American and travelled from Chicago to join up with his former 'brothers'.

He said: "It means a lot of me to be here - I love the people who are here right now. I am disgusted at what the Government has done to this battalion. I can't put what I feel into words. We are all family - and we will always be a family. You can never disband brotherhood."