U3A Syston – Talk by Tim Coltman

William Coltman VC : A Story of Two Crosses – by Tim Coltman, Great Grandson
The talk at the U3A’s February meeting was felt by many who had the privilege to hear it to be the best talk yet. The remarkable story was of a selfless and determined man who served during World War 1 and was awarded the Victoria Cross, Distinguished Conduct Medal and Bar, and Military Medal and Bar without ever lifting a rifle. This was the story of one of the bravest men people have never heard of. This was William Coltman, the most decorated non-commissioned soldier in WW1.
Born in 1891 near Burton on Trent, the youngest of 9 children. After school he became a gardener and, like many others, volunteered after war broke out to join the North Staffs Regiment. A deeply religious man, his faith prevented him from carrying arms; he served as a Stretcher Bearer and spent the war on the front line, saving many lives.
What’s remarkable about Bill Coltman is that he worked alone. He believed that working with another man would put two lives in danger, not just his own. Unable to use a stretcher to carry the wounded he carried them over his shoulders. This was some achievement as he was slightly built, only 5’4” tall. What’s also remarkable is that he was never injured, and gassed only once.
In 1917 he was awarded the Military Medal and Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery. In 1918 he was awarded a Bar for each medal – in effect winning both again. He displayed a remarkable indifference to danger and put other men’s lives before his own. In October 1918, during the final assault on the Hindenburg Line, for two days he treated and rescued many injured men, carrying them back to safety. For this he was awarded the Victoria Cross.
Conditions were grim – he worked in mud, on open ground, bringing back men who had been left behind when troops retreated or attempts to secure ground failed. Trench warfare meant unbearable heat in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. There was the constant fear of being buried alive or drowning in the mud. Shell and machine gun fire, gas, Cholera, Trench Foot, Lice, and rats were a constant threat.
He frequently disobeyed orders and collected name tags from dead colleagues in ‘No Man’s Land’; this was so they could be returned to their families who could then claim a Death in Service grant from the Government. Without proof, no grant would be given.
At the end of the war he deliberately missed a reception party thrown in his honour by leaving his train at an earlier stop. After the war ended he returned to Burton on Trent and worked as a Groundsman. He retired in 1963 and died in 1974 at the age of 82. A modest man by all accounts, he put his medals in a drawer and never talked about them.
For more information on this remarkable man go to https://livesofthefirstworldwar.org/lifestory/911644