Here I am Winshill village in Staffordshire to look for the grave of William Coltman, another Victoria Cross recipient. William was born not far from where his brave bones lie now.
Itís strange that he ever fought as he came from a profoundly religious family who followed the Plymouth Brethren (considered to be the stricter side of the Christian Brethren church.) They were wholly opposed to war and killing. Itís a mystery why in 1915 the 16-year-old boy volunteered to fight with the British Army in the First World War. He began as a lowly rifleman but rose to lance corporal. Oddly his Christian beliefs exempted him from taking up arms so he became a stretcher bearer and won all his medals without firing a single bullet.
A decade after joining up he was still alive. On Saturday 28th September 1918 he was fighting near Bellenglise in northern France. Many wounded comrades kept getting left behind on No Manís Land as the two nations fought bloodily. Some had been shot by machine guns and others felled by explosions. Against walls of perpetual gunfire William went forward alone found casualties, dressed them and brought them back to safety. His fearlessness and devotion heralded a Victoria Cross medal.
Less than week later he gained another medal for bravery - the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM). He was fighting in Mannequin Hill near Sequehart in Northern France.† On 3rd and 4th October 1918 he saw men from his regiment from getting left behind as they retreated. He was having none of it and saved injured men, on three successive occasions carrying comrades on his back to safety. For the next 48 hours he tended the wounded unceasingly without sleep or rest.
This man was invincible Ė heíd already gained two medals for acts of selfless bravery in 1917 (a) rescuing a wounded officer from no manís land in February 1917, (b) removing lights from an ammunitions dump to prevent more mortar bombs, (c) tending injured men when a company headquarters was mortared and (d) organising a rescue digging party when a trench tunnel collapsed trapping many men.
He was invested with his Victoria Cross by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 22nd May 1919. When the First World War ended he returned home to Burton on Trent and took a job as a groundskeeper with the town's Parks Department. As the Second World War raged he commanded the Burton on Trent Army Cadet Force as captain. He retired from his job in 1963 and died aged 82.
I found his grave was in the churchyard behind St Markís parish church. The red wreath pulled me across the grass. Williamís buried here with his wife Eleanor. Despite relentless soldiering and almost suicidal acts of bravery the Plymouth Brethren church refuse to recognise awards gained from conflict and The Victoria Cross Trust look after the grave. Strangely his wife died quite early and William had twenty-six years on his own. Iíve visited lots of these VC soldiers and their wives nearly always outlive them.
That Sunday afternoon I didnít see a single soul in the cemetery excepting a man passing with a dog. I hope the following day he stopped to observe the grave of the lad who was only 17-year-old when he witnessed boundless bloody horror on the fields in the battle of Gommecourt but was determined to be a stretcher-bearer. All those medals without firing a single shot, thatís pretty good work. A full line was carved in the headstone just to include his achievements, ďVC, DCM & Bar, MM & Bar.Ē Blimey.