At Mannequin Hill
For courage in the face of carnage,
On Bill they pinned a Victoria Cross
For bringing back our boys at Mannequin Hill.
Creating the Centena
When I was offered the opportunity to get involved with this project I decided to explore the role of conscientious objectors. I particularly wanted to examine bravery, cowardice and the, to my mind, ironic juxtaposition the two acts create – are they in fact two versions of the same truth?
My research into conscientious objectors threw up many worthwhile examples. However, I kept returning to a young man in the North Staffordshire Regiment, a religious man who, until enlisting in the 6th battalion of the North Staffordshire Regiment in 1915, had led an ordinary life as a gardener near Burton-on-Trent. A man called William Coltman. A man who was to achieve extraordinary things.
When I spoke to Danielle Crozier, at the Staffordshire Regiment Museum, she quickly clarified that William Coltman was not a conscientious objector; after all, conscientious objectors didn’t volunteer. Coltman had enlisted, would have trained with a gun, but later realised his religious convictions did not allow him to kill. He asked for a transfer to the regimental stretcher bearers. My focus had now shifted to a man who became the most decorated non-commissioned soldier of the First World War without ever carrying a gun. A man who couldn’t kill but needed to contribute to the fight.
Where to start? I began by trying to imagine the sights and sounds, thoughts and fears, and the sheer human sacrifice that surrounded a First World War battleground – difficult to imagine something so unimaginable?
I then researched the Internet. This gave me an insight into Coltman and his exploits, but it also made me aware of Anthony Tideswell’s excellent book about Coltman entitled The Story of Two Crosses – a fascinating read that saved a lot of legwork. Add to this the support from Danielle Crozier at the Staffordshire Regiment Museum, who supplied me with valuable insight and information, and my task was made somewhat easier than it might otherwise have been.
Fittingly, the Staffordshire Regiment Museum will commemorate Coltman’s achievements later this year. The museum will run a Coltman exhibition starting in August. Coltman’s Victoria Cross commemorative plaque will be laid in Burton-on-Trent on 4 October (the one-hundredth anniversary of the events that led to Coltman’s Victoria Cross). Finally, representatives from the museum will visit St Quentin Canal on 28 and 29 September to lay a wreath at the site where the North Staffordshire Regiment helped to smash the Hindenburg Line; the subsequent action at Mannequin Hill a few days later was where Coltman would earn his Victoria Cross.
Unquestionably, William Coltman deserves his place in the 26 Armistice Project. However, it seems odd that Coltman isn’t already better known. This may be because of his unassuming nature: he didn’t brag about his exploits and, on returning home, he simply resumed his life as a gardener. He has arguably become more celebrated since his death; hopefully, this project will bring William Coltman the wider recognition he deserves.
Lives of the First World War
You can find out more about William Coltman here at Lives of the First World War