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The weapon-less warrior

William Coltman Burton upon Trent, UK 1891 – 1974

Recent years have seen an appreciation for the fortitude shown by those whose beliefs and morals prevented them from taking up arms during the great conflagration of the First World War. Sadly for these conscientious objectors, they were met with abuse, accusations of cowardice and even imprisonment at the time for refusing to fight or even be involved in the conflict.

While not a conscientious objector in the plainest sense, William Coltman’s Christian beliefs nonetheless prevented him from taking up arms in the service that he volunteered for in 1915. Not only was this willingness to serve proof of his adherence to the cause, but his feats of bravery without firing a shot were underlined when he ended the war as one of Britain’s most decorated soldiers.

Becoming a private in the 1/6th battalion of the North Staffordshire Regiment in June 1915, Burton-born William travelled with his unit to France, serving as a stretch bearer and carrying his wounded comrades back to friendly positions during devastating battles such as Loos, the Somme and the St Quentin Canal.

During 1917 he was twice awarded the Military Medal for his deeds of bravery. The first was for retrieving an officer wounded in No Man’s Land during a night-time action, the second for three separate incidents of gallantry: removing flares from a shelled artillery dump, tending casualties after a headquarters was hit, and organising the relief of men in a collapsed tunnel. It was also in mid-1917 that he earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal, having helped to dress and evacuate wounded men during ferocious fighting. A second bar would be added to his DCM for similar bravery in 1918.

But it was one act above all that sealed his place as Britain’s most decorated non-commissioned officer. Just days after storming the Riqueval Bridge and taking the formidable defensive position of the St Quentin Canal on 29th September, the 1/6th battalion were forced to retreat during the subsequent attack on the supporting Beaurevoir Line. Such was the ferocity of the fire and counter attacks, the survivors were forced to flee without their wounded.

Hearing of his abandoned comrades, Coltman set out alone to the positions that were still under heavy artillery fire from the higher ground. Not only was he able to evade the hail of bullets and shells pouring down from the enemy, but moments later Coltman reappeared, heading back to his own lines with a wounded soldier on his back. Once delivered to the British stretcher bearers, remarkably, the diminutive lance corporal headed straight back into the hellfire. He retrieved another injured soldier, and then another, bringing them back and tending to their wounds. According to his military citation “In that action alone, this very gallant non-commissioned officer dressed and carried wounded for four hours without rest; his efforts did not cease until the last wounded man had been attended to.”

The war would end just a few weeks later, but Coltman’s monumental effort would not be forgotten.  After being recommended by his commanding officer, Coltman’s list of decorations grew again, when in May 1919 he was awarded the Victoria Cross by King George V. A soldier who did not once take the life of another, but instead went above and beyond to save the lives of many, was decorated with Britain’s highest award for bravery.

We will remember them

William Coltman Burton upon Trent, UK 1891 – 1974
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