The Tragic Story of Dr. William Barnsley Allen

William Barnsley Allen was born in Sheffield on the 8th of June 1892 to Parents Percy and Edith. He was educated at Worksop College before going to Sheffield university to study medicine, eventually earning himself a bachelor’s degree in Medicine. He proved to be a talented and knowledgeable physician, gaining a gold medal for pathology in 1913, three other medals, and a scholarship award.

William Allen

Four days after the outbreak of war, William decided that his talents would be invaluable at the front and joined the Royal Army Medical Corps as a territorial. This would take him right into the thick of the fighting, operating in the trenches on the front line, and dealing with the horrific injuries caused by German shells, bullets, and poison gas. He was attached to the West Riding Brigade, Royal Field Artillery and sent to France.

In August 1916 he was awarded the Military Cross for his actions near Nesnil at the Battle of the Somme. An artillery officer had been badly wounded, and William was called for at once. The ground between William’s dugout and the casualty was being shelled heavily by the enemy, but William grabbed his kit, braving the bombardment to reach and treat the wounded officer.

On the 3rd of September 1916 an artillery detachment was unloading high explosive shells for their guns when the Germans scored a lucky hit on one of the trucks. There followed a huge explosion as the ammunition went up. Witnessing the carnage William leapt into action running towards the scene despite the risk of more German shells and further explosion. He began dressing the wound of the injured men, doubtless saving many lives, he himself was hit four times during the action, including two shell splinters in the chest which fractured two of his ribs.

Action at the Front

Despite the pain he must have been in he never once mentioned his own injuries until his work was finished. When he had dressed the last man he finally returned to his own dugout, tired and in pain, to report his own injuries. The brave doctor had put the wellbeing of his patients ahead of his own, saving many lives in the process, and for his actions that day he was awarded the Victoria Cross, to add to the Military Cross he had been awarded earlier in the year for similarly brave actions near Nesnil.

On the 26th of September, a few weeks after his exertions in the German artillery attack, the Town in which he was staying came under an intense artillery attack consisting of both high explosive and gas shells. William left the advance dressing station to search for wounded men. He was informed that there were some wounded in a remote part of town, he made his way to their location and supervised their transfer to the dressing station. Despite now suffering from the effects of gas himself, he was about to set out to locate another party of men that had not returned, fortunately they appeared just as he was setting off. For this he was awarded a bar to his Military Cross.

After the war he was transferred to the regular Royal Army Medical Corps and promoted to acting Major. He would serve with the unit until he was placed on the reserve list due to illness. He became so ill that eventually he was retired on the grounds of ill health.  

During Better Days

In July 1933 William found himself in court on a charge of drink driving, the story told in his defence was a rather harrowing one, describing how he had been wounded multiple times during the war, including eye injuries that caused him to go blind for six months. He had then travelled to India after the war where he contracted malaria and dysentery. His return to England saw a brief upturn in his condition but this was to be short lived as he again suffered from malaria, dysentery, pleurisy, and bouts of insomnia. The insomnia drove William to drink and drugs, and although he was able to stop the drugs, the whisky took hold. He lost his licence for five years and received a fine for the drink driving, tragically he would not live long enough to get his licence back, as the heroic doctor was found dying in his bedroom by a maid on the 27th of August. At the time his wife Mary was not at home, she was ill in a nursing home.   Aged just 41 William Barnsley Allen had taken a fatal overdose of drugs and died in his bed. A tragic end for such a talented and courageous man.

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