Britain’s most decorated enlisted soldier in WW1 was a conscientious objector who never fired a shot

Britain’s most decorated enlisted soldier in WW1 was a conscientious objector who never fired a shot

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Lance-Corporal William Harold Coltman VC, DCM & Bar, MM & Bar volunteered for Army service in January 1915, but requested to serve as a non-combatant stretcher-bearer due to his religious beliefs.



When 23 year-old Coltman was sent to the Western Front as a rifleman with the North Staffordshire (Prince of Wales) Regiment, the horrors of battle convinced him that helping his wounded colleagues rather than taking the life of the enemy was the greater matter of conscience.

His decision actually placed him in far greater danger than that faced by his comrades.  Slightly built and just 5 feet 4 inches tall, he lugged the dead weight of casualties (sometimes on his own, carrying them on his back) across the quagmire of no-man’s-land without the means to defend himself.

His courage and his unwillingness to give up until all the wounded had been rescued, often long after his battalion had been relieved, began to earn recognition when he was mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French Army.

In February 1917 he was awarded the Military Medal (MM), a level 3 gallantry award, for rescuing a wounded officer from no-man’s-land.

He was awarded a bar to his MM for his conduct behind the front line in June 1917, when he removed stocks of hand grenades from a store which had been set alight by mortar fire, as well as rescuing men trapped in a collapsed tunnel.

He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), a level 2 gallantry award, for his actions over a period of days in July 1917.  He saved many lives at great personal risk by evacuating wounded from the front line under shell fire.  He continued to search for wounded throughout the night under shell and machine gun fire.

He was awarded a bar to his DCM for his conduct in late September 1918 when he treated and carried many wounded men under heavy artillery fire.  He continued his work through the following day without rest or sleep, indifferent to shell and machine-gun fire, and refused to stop until he was positive that his sector was clear of wounded.

A week later his actions earned him the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces.

During the allies’ advance in the last stages of the war, Coltman tended to the wounded without a break for 48 hours.  When he heard that more wounded men had been left behind during a retirement, he went forward alone in the face of fierce enfilade fire, found the casualties, treated them, and on three successive occasions carried his comrades on his back to safety, saving their lives.

Coltman never sought adulation for his courage.  After receiving his Victoria Cross from King George V at Buckingham Palace in May 1919, he went straight home to avoid a civic reception in his honour in his home town of Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire.

On demobilization, he quietly took a job as a groundskeeper with the Burton-on-Trent Parks Department, from which he retired in 1963.  During WW2, he commanded the Burton-on-Trent Army Cadet Force in the rank of Captain.

William Harold Coltman VC, DCM & Bar, MM & Bar, died in Burton-on-Trent in 1974 at the age of 82.  He once expressed the hope that future generations would know nothing of war, beyond what they read in books, and that there would come a time when no Victoria Cross could be won.

 

The medals of Lance-Corporal William Harold Coltman - image by the Staffordshire Regiment Museum
The medals of Lance-Corporal William Harold Coltman – image by the Staffordshire Regiment Museum

 

Sources: WikipediaOxford Dictionary of National BiographyStaffordshire Regiment Museum

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