Much has been written about Captain Noel Chavasse being the most decorated officer of the First World War, and many of you will have joined me as we stood by his grave and tried to understand what drove him to achieve such levels, normally with one of the group reading his citation. As a reminder he was unique in World War One for earning a Victoria Cross and Bar, in essence, two Victoria Crosses; in addition to the Military Cross. I find this all the more amazing when you consider he never fired a single shot in anger for he was a Medical Officer or Doctor.
But what about the most decorated soldier of World War One? Would you be surprised to read that Captain Noel Chavasse also came from the medical services, not a doctor or medic, but a stretcher bearer, and like Captain Noel Chavasse he never fired a shot in anger; his name? William Harold Coltman VC, DCM and Bar, MM and Bar.
That is The Victoria Cross for actions on the 3rd & 4th of October 1918 when Lance Corporal Coltman
‘ … 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 …’
The Distinguished Conduct Medal was awarded just a week earlier
‘ … on the 28th September 1918, near the St. Quentin Canal, near Bellenglise, 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 …’
His Military Medal was awarded in February 1917, Coltman was still a private at the time of this award, which was for rescuing a wounded officer from no man’s land, and The Bar was awarded in August of the same year.
William Harold Coltman was born on 17 November 1891 at Tatenhill Common, Burton upon Trent and was just 22 when World War One broke out and just 26 when he was awarded the Victoria Cross. But if World War One was not enough he went on to serve in World War Two as a Captain in the Territorial Army commanded the Burton on Trent Army Cadet Force. Other awards included A Mention in Dispatches, prior to any other award, and he received the Croix de Guerre by the French Army.
After the First World War William Coltman returned to Burton on Trent and worked for the Parks Department as a groundskeeper, after such a full and rewarding life he retired from his job in 1963 and sadly died at Outwoods Hospital in 1974 at the age of 82. He lies buried with his wife Eleanor in the churchyard of St Mark’s parish church in Winshill. His medals, including his Victoria Cross, are on display at the Staffordshire Regiment Museum, Whittington Barracks, Lichfield, Staffordshire, England.
No matter how many times I try I still feel absolute admiration for both Noel Chavasse and William Coltman, neither of them soldiers in the combat sense, but both pushing themselves into no-man’s land bringing relief and comfort to the wounded.
To quote a phrase I heard recently; ‘ .. the likes of which we rarely see today … but I believe they are both best summed up by the lines in William Coltman’s DCM citation … set the highest example of fearlessness and devotion to duty to those with him …’
Knowing that people like Noel Chavasse and William Coltman are around gives great comfort and confidence to any soldier on the battlefield.