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date: 18 October 2019

Coltman, William Haroldfree

(1891–1974)
  • Erik Blakeley

William Harold Coltman (1891–1974)

by unknown photographer

The Staffordshire Regiment Museum

Coltman, William Harold (1891–1974), soldier and gardener, was born at The Common, Tatenhill, Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire, on 17 November 1891, the fourth son of Charles Coltman (1851/2–1903), gardener's labourer, and his wife, Annie, née Gopsill. He left school aged thirteen, and helped his mother to support the family after his father's death, working as a journeyman market gardener. On 8 January 1913 he married, at Burton upon Trent record office, Eleanor May Dolman (b. 1893), a domestic servant, daughter of Henry Dolman, jobbing gardener; they had two children. Religion was important to him and influenced his military career. Throughout his adult life he was involved with the Plymouth Brethren, who met regularly in the meeting room in the village of Winshill, on the outskirts of Burton, where he taught in the Sunday school.

Coltman was an early volunteer for the army, joining up in January 1915 as an ordinary rifleman in the 2nd company of the 6th battalion of the North Staffordshire regiment. He was transferred to the 1st company of the battalion and was with them from October 1915. The horrors of the battle of Gommecourt in July 1916 convinced him to apply to become a stretcher-bearer. In this role he faced the same perils as his colleagues without any means of defending himself, carrying men from places of danger. This took a special kind of courage and he had the added challenge that, at only 5 feet 4 inches tall and slightly built, he was not best placed to handle the dead weight of a larger casualty. He nevertheless recovered wounded men on his own, carrying them on his back, though he was not above ‘persuading’ German prisoners of war to assist in recovering the wounded. Nor was he averse to providing very useful information to his battalion officers, gained as he worked in no man's land. Once, when he ran out of wounded to rescue, he brought in a machine-gun.

Coltman, who held the rank of lance-corporal, became the most decorated British other-rank soldier of the First World War. The outstanding feature of his record was his unwillingness to give up until all the wounded had been brought in, which often meant that he and his team of bearers were working long after the rest of the battalion had been relieved and retired to rest. He was mentioned in dispatches for work in the trenches near Ransart and gained the Military Medal for rescuing a wounded officer from no man's land near Monchy in February 1917. He received a bar to the medal in June 1917 for work behind the front lines. He risked obliteration removing stocks of hand grenades from a mixed store of grenades and flares that had been set alight by mortar fire and he acted promptly with initiative in rescuing men from a collapsed tunnel. At the end of July 1917 he won the Distinguished Conduct Medal; over a period of five days he struggled to clear no man's land in an area south-west of Lens. It was a similar story of sustained effort and disregard for his own safety that won him the bar to the medal in September 1918 near Bellenglise.

Coltman was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery over the course of two days, 3–4 October 1918, at Mannequin Hill, near Sequehart, during the allies' advance in the last stages of the war. As well as tending the wounded without a break, he made three separate trips into no man's land, on his own initiative, unaided, and under fierce enfilade fire, to dress the wounds of injured men, whom he then carried on his back to safety.

Coltman was reticent about his achievements and after receiving his Victoria Cross from the king at Buckingham Palace in May 1919 was said to have made a detour on his return home in order to avoid a civic reception in his honour at Burton upon Trent. On demobilization he returned to his occupation as a gardener employed in the parks department of Burton corporation, and was latterly responsible for a recreation ground adjacent to his home. During the Second World War he was a captain in the cadet force. He died of bronchopneumonia and Parkinson's disease at Outwoods Hospital, Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire, on 29 June 1974, and was buried in the churchyard of St Mark's, Winshill. He had 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.

Sources

  • ‘Burton's V. C. Hero’, Burton Observer
  • J. Devonport, Military Illustrated Past and Present (1991)
  • ‘War hero honoured at Burton-on-Trent’, Staffordshire Magazine (1977)
  • J. B. Cave, ‘Captain Coltman, V. C.: a Staffordshire hero’, Staffordshire Magazine (1980)
  • census returns, 1901
  • private information (2008) [Coltman family]
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.

Likenesses

  • photograph, Staffordshire Regiment Museum, Lichfield, Staffordshire [see illus.]
  • photographs, Staffordshire Regiment Museum, Lichfield, Staffordshire

Wealth at Death

£7995: probate, 15 Aug 1974, CGPLA Eng. & Wales