The Story of Two Crosses

Our meeting in June was a presentation by Tim Coltman. Tim is the great grandson of William Harold Coltman VC who served in the Great War (28th July 1914 to 11th November 1918) and became the most decorated non-commissioned officer in the army.

William's Christian faith was such that, while he was prepared to be a soldier, he would only serve as a non-combatant whose mission was to save life. Thus he chose the role of sole stretcher bearer, often carrying men on his back to safety; alone on the front line.

He seemed an unlikely candidate for this role, being only an inch over the required height for a soldier of 5ft 3 inches but, by the end of the war, he had been awarded 10 medals; including the Military Medal and Bar, the Distinguished Conduct Medal and Bar and the Victoria Cross.

William Coltman was born near Burton-on-Trent, attending the village school in Rangemoor and later teaching at the Sunday School in Winshill. He worked as a gardener with no intimation of the impending war. However, many young men enlisted, anticipating the glamour of fighting for a short time 'before the leaves fall'. William joined up in January 1915 and received basic medical training; at the front he would be armed only with a first aid kit and re-usable bandages.

Conditions in the British trenches were appalling with extremes of heat and cold, the stench of the living and the dead, trench foot, poison gas, cholera, lice and rats. The German trenches were superior to those of the British as the latter were partly composed of dead soldiers whose exposed hands would sometimes be shaken by soldiers before 'going over the top'. Appropriately some British trenches were named "Death Valley and Disappointment Street".

The battle of the Somme (1st July to 1st November, 1916) was the first experience of war for many teenage soldiers, the youngest to serve being only 12 years old. It is recorded that 57,000 died on the first day, with approximately 893 killed every day of this campaign.

William Coltman was 'mentioned in dispatches' for bravery many times, gaining a great reputation. He was awarded his first Military Medal in 1917 for saving his Captain's life. The equipment issued to men going to the trenches included a Bible and two identity tags with the soldier's name and regiment. At night William would go out alone into no-man's land to retrieve the I.D. tags. These were then passed to the authorities as proof of death and the Government would then provide a payment for the family of the deceased.

William's dedication to the injured almost landed him in serious trouble one day when he was detailed to guide Lt. Colonel Tomlinson around the trenches. He refused, putting his duty to care for an injured soldier first. Court Martial or death by shooting would normally have ensued for such insubordination. But the Colonel, impressed by this dedication to duty, said that he thought William the bravest man he had met and years later left him 25 in his will.

In October 1918, following the battle at Mannequin Hill near Sequehart, William Coltman was awarded the Victoria Cross; the citation espousing his conspicuous bravery, initiative and devotion to duty in saving lives on three occasions during enfilade fire.

After the war William returned to his gardening, probably returning home soon after his demob on March 3rd, 2019. An invitation to Buckingham Palace followed in May when, with other decorated soldiers, he was introduced to King George V. As a demonstration of his character he did not attend the welcome that was reported to be waiting at Burton station; but got off at the previous station and walked home!

Like other returning soldiers he was always reticent about his war experience. His son said that he had learned more from the army archives. The medals were left to the Mercian Regiment and now reside in a bank vault as, collectively, they are valued at well over a million pounds. William just left them casually in a drawer at home!

William died on the 29th June, 1974, and was buried a week later in Winshill cemetery, Burton-on-Trent. Ironically, a volley of three shots was fired over his grave - to honour a man who had never fired a shot himself.

Tim concluded his presentation with a brief account of the story of the tomb of the unknown soldier in Westminster Abbey.

William Coltman has been honoured in many ways; Coltman House, a TA Training Centre, a Coltman trench at the Staffordshire Regimental Museum, a planned peace wood and a plaque at the National Memorial Arboretum. There is also a Coltman Close in Boley Park, Lichfield.

For those who wish to know more, there is a book "William Coltman VC - The Story of Two Crosses" by Anthony Tideswell and a program about his life will be shown on the BBC in the autumn.

Lorna Bushell
June 2018