The brave military heroes who paid the ultimate price fighting and dying for their country will never be forgotten – with stories of their wartime exploits told over and over again to new generations.
The Staffordshire Regiment Museum, based in Whittington, near Lichfield, plays a key role in preserving their memory, with tributes to heroes dating back to 1705.
As the country prepares to mark 100 years since the end of the First World War, the museum offers a rare insight into the stories of a few of the brave military personnel who went above and beyond duty to help comrades when they needed them most.
Museum curator Danielle Crozier started at the site as a volunteer worker eight years ago, having just completed a museum post-graduate course.
It is now home to eight closely guarded Victoria Crosses, won mostly by members of the South and North Staffordshire Regiment.
Three were donated to the museum by the soldiers themselves while others have been purchased. The regiment itself earned 12 Victoria Crosses from different battles.
One held at the museum belonged to Winshill war hero William Coltman and the other to Robert Cain, who was awarded the medal in the Second World War when he was part of the South Staffordshire Regiment.
More First World War stories
Both men were quite private about their heroics in earning the award. Coltman’s family knew about the medal but only Cain’s wife was aware.
Danielle Crozier said: “It was nothing they set out to earn or achieve and I don’t think they felt like they earned it.
“They are an inspiration to all of the new recruits. The training depot is next door so the young recruits would come through the museum.”
How the museum began
The museum was opened in the early 1960s with the amalgamation of the former South and North Staffordshire Regiment, becoming known as the Staffordshire Regiment.
The collection dates from 1705, from the First 38 Regiment on Foot formed in Lichfield by Colonel Luke Lillingston up to collections from the present day with the Staffordshire Regiment becoming part of the Mercian Regiment.
During the First World War the South regiment had 17 battalions while the North had 18.
They served from the beginning of the conflict in France and Belgium, at the Easter rising in Northern Ireland in 1916, and were involved in the majority of the battles.
Initially the regiment was made up of men from Staffordshire but as the conflict progressed men were drafted in to wherever they were needed the most to help the war effort.
What you will find at the museum
Danielle said: “A lot of people come back to the museum as there is a large collection of items and it was felt important for the regiment to keep for information and education purposes.
“The collections tell the stories of soldiers themselves, their rank and background and the service they have given to educate and inspire people.
“We are a very family-orientated regiment and it is that feeling you get from here.
“We are consistently making that personal connection with the soldier, that is the most special part of working in the museum.
“We are creating a place of remembrance for those who did not come back and bring people together who have come back to create that community feel.
“We are trying to include the Mercian Regiment as the modern Army is being reflected in everything we do.
“We have Gareth Bellingham’s bedspread and his black hip bag from Afghanistan in 2011.” Private Bellingham died in the conflict in 2011.
“We have had funding from the Heritage Lottery and Armed Forces Community Covenant Grant. Currently we are starting up a new project which is an outside play area around the Three Mercians and the team in Afghanistan with Petty Warrant Officer Second Class Ian Fisher.”
However, visitors do not only get a flavour of the past, they can also step back into it by exploring the Coltman Trench and surviving an air raid by getting in the shelter.
The curator said: “There is a trench system outside which is fantastic for the schools. It brings it alive for the kids. It is really immersive with the Coltman Trench.
“There is also the public air raid shelter experience. They experience what is was like to be in a terraced street and go down into the shelter altogether as a community.
“Then when the air raid is over we tell them that when they would have gone out they may not see their house. This is what real life was like.
“Some of the volunteers were in the blitz and give first-hand experience of what it was like.
“With the trench, a First World War veteran did the first cutting for the opening of the trench.
“We are now losing that first-hand connection which is why the museum is so important to keep the memories alive.
“We work with the veterans with the memorials. It is about education and remembering a large part of our history.”
All of the vehicles outside the museum are genuine Army vehicles, all with a connection to the history of the regiment.
The building welcomes around 12,000 to 13,000 visitors on average a year, 8,000 are school children.
Lest we forget
Danielle said those who fought for king and country in the First World War needed to be remembered.
She said: “For me the First World War was a large-scale conflict that involved people from so many different avenues of life – both male and female – and brought about a social change and upheaval across the globe.
“It is not right to not remember and just forget.
“There are so many unique stories that people cannot fully take it in and comprehend.
“The two world wars have that big pull as they were mainly civilian armies. They did this without question.
“The courage and the bravery of these people astounds me and a lot of people are still proud, honoured and thankful for them.
“Youngsters died fighting in the First World War – one was as young as 13. We could not imagine sending them off to fight now. You almost forget that innocence that they lost.
“I don’t think there was a mad rush of people signing up, I think a lot enrolled and got in while they still had the choice.
“There was censorship of how horrific the war was in the beginning, with the full reality not being explained.
“However, from the casualty figure coming back I think it was evident it was not going to be an easy ride and victory that everyone was expecting.
“Once that happened that feeling of doing one’s service was a lot stronger and pulled people in. There was also the social pressures with the white feathers – it was quite hard to bear. They would have struggled to fit in and fully shunned.
“They also imprisoned some of the conscientious objectors.
“Please come down to the museum. We are warm and friendly and as interactive as we can be. We want people to learn about the history of the Staffordshire Regiment and all of the antecedents.
“We want to help promote the Army and the work that is done through the history and what they are still doing today.
“We have a brilliant team of volunteers and they are all fantastic at keeping us going. However, we are always desperate for new recruits.”
Admission funds go back into collections and keeping the doors open.
All of the eight Victoria Crosses will be on display at Lichfield Cathedral on Sunday, November 11, along with a poppy art installation.
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