If the record of Noel Chevasse is impressive for his double Victoria Cross, even more so to my mind is that of William Coltman, the most decorated serviceman of the First World War.
Coltman was born in a village on the outskirts of Burton-on-Trent in 1891. Despite being a deeply religious man and a member of the Plymouth Brethren, he joined the North Staffordshire Regiment as a rifleman.
His beliefs were tested when he was trapped in a foxhole for a night under heavy fire listening to the cries of his comrades and the next day he requested a transfer as a stretcher-bearer.
Prior to winning his medals, Coltman was mentioned in despatches for his actions and was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French Army. Then in February 1917, he was awarded the Military Medal after he rescued an officer who had been wounded in the thigh in no man’s land while under fire.
Coltman was awarded a bar to his military Medal for his conduct in three separate incidents over a few days in June 1917. In the first, he took command to limit the damage when an ammunition dump was hit by mortar fire; in the second he tended men hit when the headquarters were mortared and; in the third he organised a rescue party when a trench tunnel collapsed, trapping a number of men.
In July 1917, Coltman was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for gallantry and the citation read:
Conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in evacuating wounded from the front line at great personal risk under shell fire. His gallant conduct undoubtedly saved many lives, and he continued throughout the night to search for wounded under shell and machine gun fire, and brought several in. His absolute indifference to danger had a most inspiring effect upon the rest of his men.
He received a bar to his Distinguished Conduct Medal in September 1918 when he:
…dressed and carried many wounded men under heavy artillery fire. During the advance on the following day he still remained at his work without rest or sleep, attending the wounded, taking no heed of either shell or machine-gun fire, and never resting until he was positive that our sector was clear of wounded. He set the highest example of fearlessness and devotion to duty to those with him.
But it was his actions in October 1918 that earned the twenty-six-year-old Coltman his Victoria Cross:
During the operations at Mannequin Hill, north-east of Sequehart, on the 3rd and 4th of Oct. 1918, L.-Corp. Coltman, a stretcher bearer, hearing that wounded had been left behind during a retirement, went forward alone in the face of fierce enfilade fire, found the casualties, dressed them and on three successive occasions, carried comrades on his back to safety, thus saving their lives. This very gallant NCO tended the wounded unceasingly for 48 hours.
Unsurprisingly, Coltman was regarded as a hero back home and a crowd waited to greet him on his return. However, ever the modest man, Coltman got off the train a stop early and walked the twenty miles home to avoid the limelight.
After the war, Coltman took a job as a groundskeeper with the town’s Parks Department, but during the Second World War he commanded the Burton on Trent Army Cadet Force with the rank of captain.
He died in 1974 at the age of 82 and his grave at St Mark’s parish church in Winshill is maintained by the Victoria Cross Trust. Ironically, the Plymouth Brethren church refuse to recognise such military awards, as they resulted from conflict and were not granted by God