Riqueval Bridge May 2011

Many have seen this iconic image  of British soldiers lining the bank of the St. Quentin Canal in France, listening to the words of their Brig. J.V. Campbell, who must have had quite a loud voice, especially considering that after long exposure to artillery the soldiers probably didn’t have keen ears.

The story is not as familiar as the photograph. The canal was a part of the Siegfriedstellung, called by the Allies the Hindenburg Line.

British engineers inspect the bridge after capture

On September 29th, 1918 this brigade, a part of the 46th (North Midlands) Division, had the task of protecting the left flank of the American-Australian attack over the canal tunnel, but when they observed that the Germans were slow in demolishing the bridge over the canal at Riqueval they saw an opportunity and captured the bridge intact (it’s still intact today).

Who were these guys? Experienced but not elite, they were all Territorial Force soldiers from the County of Staffordshire, who had arrived on the Western Front just in time for the Loos offensive in the fall of 1915, where they took heavy casualties in a futile attack against a German strong point. Later, at the Somme on July 1st 1916, they once again suffered greatly and failed to capture their objective at Gommecourt, thereby being tagged by the General Staff as a ‘poor’ formation. On this day in 1918, though, they were superstars.

The infantry battalions of the 137th Brigade were: 1/5th and 1/6th South Staffordshire Regiment and1/6th Prince of Wales’s (North Staffordshire) Regiment.

The South Staffs were raised in 1705 and the North Staffs in 1758. Both regimental  insignia bear the curious symbol known as ‘The Staffordshire Knot’ which is ancient in origin but mysterious as to significance.  Both regiments passed from existence in 1959 in the first of several amalgamations and today their heritage is with The Mercian Regiment.

James (“Jim”) Patton BS BA MPA is a retired state official from Shawnee, Kansas and a frequent contributor to several WW1 e-publications, including "Roads to the Great War," "St. Mihiel Tripwire," "Over the Top" and "Medicine in the First World War." He has spent many hours walking the WW1 battlefields, and is also an authority on British regiments and a collector of their badges. An Army Engineer during the Vietnam War, he does work for the US World War 1 Centennial Commission and is affiliated with the WW1 Historical Association, the Western Front Association, the Salonika Campaign Society and the Gallipoli Association.