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Most decorated soldier... who never fired a bullet; He was the Midlands' most decorated war hero, yet, as BOB HAYWOOD reports, Billy Coltman was a conscientious objector. As we mark Remembrance Sunday, the Mercury tells his amazing story.

THIS morning old soldier Ian Hingley was paying his own private homage to the man many regard as the Midlands' greatest war hero.

Ian slipped away at the end of a town's Remembrance Day service to lay a single poppy in poignant memory of Lance Corporal Billy Coltman.

Billy, from Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, is the most-decorated non-commissioned officer of either world war.

He was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest medal for gallantry; the Distinguished Conduct Medal (and Bar); and the Military Medal (and Bar) - and the Croix de Guerre by the French Army.

But what makes Billy's outstanding heroism all the more amazing is that he never fired a shot in anger because of his deeply held religious beliefs against killing.

As a conscientious objector, he became a stretcher bearer. And in that non-combat role, he saved the lives of countless wounded soldiers during World War I despite coming under withering fire from German snipers, machine guns and artillery.

Ian Hingley was a callow school leaver when he first met Billy Coltman, by then well into middle age.

Man and boy worked together as council gardeners and Billy showed he was just as inspirational in civilian life as in khaki, guiding Ian in the early stages of what was to be a successful career.

It was a friendship which was to last until Bill died.

Mentor But Ian has never forgotten the war hero, mentor and pal. So, every year on Remembrance Sunday, he lays his poppy on Billy's memorial stone at Burton Memorial Grounds. It is a tradition he continued today.

Billy Coltman, born in Burton-on-Trent in 1891, enlisted with the 1/6th Battalion of The North Staffordshire Regiment (The Prince of Wales's). SERVICE: Coltman Special in He was still a Private when he was awarded his first Military Medal for gallantry in February 1917. It was given after he rescued a wounded officer from No Man's Land on the battlefields of France.

The Bar - effectively a second Military Medal - was given six months later 'for conduct behind the front lines'.

Billy won his first Distinguished Conduct Medal in July 1917 for gallantry over a period of several days, and his second in September 1918.

By then a Lance Corporal and aged 26, he won the VC in October 1918 - 'for the most conspicuous bravery, initiative and devotion to duty' over two days - tending to wounded comrades under blistering enemy fire and carrying them to safety.

After being demobilised from the Army with the rank of Corporal, Billy returned to Burtonon-Trent and worked as a groundsman in the town's parks department.

He died in 1974 at the age of 82, and was buried in the graveyard of St Mark's Church, Winshill, Burton-on-Trent, following a funeral with full military honours.

The church was full to over-flowing.

Billy as a Constable Billy's medals, including the VC, are on display at Staffordshire Regimental Museum at Whittington Barracks, near Lichfield.

Ian, now 75, of Winshill, was a boy of 15 when he joined the local parks department and worked with Billy, then a senior gardener, approaching retirement.

"Billy was such a modest and shy man but he taught me such a lot, not only about gardening but about life," he recalled.

When he was 18, Ian joined the Army himself, serving in Jordan with the Tank Regiment (The 10th Hussars). He was one of the very few men to have enlisted with a VC holder as a reference.

After leaving the forces, Ian returned to horticulture and rose to become deputy parks superintendent in Burton-on-Trent before retiring.

"On Remembrance Sunday, the Staffordshire Regiment Colour Sergeant lays a wreath at Billy's memorial," he said "Afterwards, I quetly place my poppy there, too. It is the least I can do for such a brave and wonderful man."

Billy Coltman's gallant actions l VC citation For the most conspicuous bravery, initiative and devotion to duty.

During the operations at Mannequin Hill, north-east of Sequehart [in northern France], on the 3rd and 4th of October 18, L. Cpl, Coltman, a stretcher bearer, hearing that wounded had been left behind during a retirement [retreat], went forward alone in the face of fierce fire.

He found the casualties, dressed [their wounds] and, on three successive occasions, carried comrades back to safety, thus saving their lives. This very gallant NCO tended the wounded unceasingly for 48 hours.

l Distinguished Conduct Medal For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in evacuating wounded from the front line at great personal risk, under shellfire.

His gallant conduct undoubtedly saved many lives and he continued throughout the night to search for wounded under shell and machine gun fire, and brought several in.

For his absolute indifference to danger had a most inspiring effect upon the rest of his men.

l Second Distinguished Conduct Medal On the 28th September 1918, near the St Quentin Canal, near Bellenglise [northern France], he dressed [the wounds] and carried many wounded men under heavy artillery fire.

During the advance on the following day, he remained at his work without rest or sleep, attending the wounded, taking no heed of either shell or gunfire, and never resting until he was positive the sector was clear of wounded.

He set the highest example of fearlessness and devotion to duty to those with him.

l Other medals Oddly, there are no citations for either of Billy's Military Medals.

However, it is said the first medal 'was made for rescuing a wounded officer from No Man's Land in February 1917' - and the second merely 'for conduct behind the front line in June 17'.

Prior to winning any of his medals, Billy was Mentioned in Despatches for his brave and tireless work.


RECOGNITION: Billy Coltman's medals, and, left, the great man wearing them.

SERVICE: Billy Coltman as a Special Constable in 1940

MEMORIES: Ian Hingley, below, at the memorial of his great friend Billy Coltman, left, who was a highly decorated conscientious objector.

BRAVE: Stretcher bearers in the First World War.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Nov 11, 2012
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