2019-11-11 Armistice Day - Cantoria
Armistice Day Service at Cantoria.
How incredible is the power of the internet! Whilst preparing this service I tried a search for the most decorated British soldier of all time. The information provided was almost overwhelming as medals appeared to vary to some extent according to year and conflict, but one name kept coming forward – a soldier who in the first World War had received the Victoria Cross, the Distinguished Conduct Medal and bar and the Military Medal and bar as well as the Croix de Guerre and several “Mentioned in Dispatches”. Certainly the most decorated soldier in that conflict and probably of all time too, William Harold Coltman was an amazingly brave and very special man.
Born 17th November 1891 in Burton on Trent, Bill Coltman absolutely reflected the ethos of this 2019 Armistice Service. We have all, I’m sure been moved by the song “Let there be Peace on Earth” sung a few minute ago by Sandy, Lynne and Doreen, as we were also by the very emotive poems read by our chairman Filip of the suffering and devotion to duty of those involved in the D-day landings – two qualities, peace-seeking and devotion to duty that may seem utterly incompatible. But Coltman exemplified both to an incredible extent, as in January 1915, he along with many others from his home town, volunteered to join the North Staffordshire Regiment, but on witnessing the true horror of trench warfare, asked to re-train as a stretcher bearer, to save, rather than take lives. One can only imagine the contempt of his peers, doubtless considering him a coward – a despised Conscientious Objector, but his service record proves him to have been anything but a coward, absolutely devoted to duty and brave beyond belief. Time and again, throughout the war, Bill Coltman risked his life crossing into no-man’s land under heavy fire to attend and evacuate the wounded, often carrying them out on his back. The citation for his DCM in July 1917 concluded that his “absolute indifference to danger had a most inspiring effect upon the rest of his men”, whilst just two months later, a further citation stated “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 the sector was clear of wounded. He set the highest example of fearlessness and devotion to duty to those with him.”
And it was just 2 weeks later that this incredible man was awarded the Victoria Cross, the citation on this occasion reading as follows: “For most conspicuous bravery, initiative and devotion to duty. During the operations at Mannequin Hill, north-east of Sequehart, on the 3rd and 4th of Oct. 1918, L.-Corp. Coltman, a stretcher bearer, hearing that wounded had been left behind during a retirement, 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.”
And all this from a man who never fired a shot, who instead had dedicated himself to saving, rather than taking lives, a man for whom that well-known scripture we heard earlier so well described: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” But in fact of course, as I have no doubt William Coltman would have readily agreed, his love, his devotion to duty and his commitment to peace were but a faint shadow of the real subject of this scripture – Jesus Christ himself. For beyond anything, Bill Coltman was a very committed Christian, who spent much of his subsequent years pointing to Jesus as his inspiration and guide throughout all these adventures, who regularly made light of his own achievements as compared with those of his Lord, who had taken on far greater enemies at far greater cost to rescue a far greater number of people from the consequences of God’s righteous judgement.
How much we each have to learn from this. We may not have the same extreme calls to service, but we can still care for others, seeing their needs and being prepared to sacrifice our comforts for the sake of others. We can still, as Bill Coltman did, see our life here as one dedicated to the service of God, seeking what He would have us do. And we can still recognise and thank God for the love of Christ, shown to us in his extreme sacrifice to himself clear the penalty incurred by all our wrong. Indeed nobody has greater lave than that, to freely surrender his life on our behalf.
As a footnote, many at the service commented afterwards on the similarity between the story of Bill Coltman and the film Hacksaw Ridge, which related to an American Conscientious Objector in the Second World War.