In my fourth of five posts looking at men with links to Sheffield and their experiences of the First World War, I look at William Barnsley Allen – a VC winner, doctor and almost certainly a PTSD sufferer.
William was born in 1892 in Ecclesall, Sheffield. He attended St Cuthberts College – now Worksop College and then studied medicine at the University of Sheffield, graduating in 1914 at the outbreak of war. He enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps becoming a Lieutenant.
In 1916 he was awarded the Military Cross for bravery – tending many wounded men whilst under fire. In September 1916 he was near the French village of Mesnil near Albert as part of the battle of the Somme. Troops were unloading ammunition from wagons when they came under heavy enemy shell fire. One of the shells hit one of the wagons detonating the explosives held there, killing and injuring many. Allen, with total disregard to his own safety, ran to where the wagon had exploded, whilst still under heavy shell fire, and tended to the wounded – saving many from bleeding to death. He was hit himself four times by shrapnel which broke two of his ribs but he never mentioned this. He went over to another battery and tended to a wounded officer. Only when he’d done all he could, he returned to the casualty station and had his own wounds tended. For these actions he was awarded the Victoria Cross.
He was to be awarded two further medals for bravery – a bar to his Military Cross in 1917 and a Distinguished Conduct Medal in October 1918 – in both cases for bravery whilst tending wounded soldiers.
William Allen survived the war and returned to England to practice as a doctor but he was never the person he was before he’d gone to war. His war time experiences had severely damaged him not just physically but mentally as well. He eventually took to drink and drugs to try to blank out his demons. In 1933 he accidentally overdosed on drugs and died. Almost certainly he was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which of course wasn’t really known about at the time but is now. Of course treatment for this in the 1920s and 30s did not exist. A brave man died because mental illness was not really known about.