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William Collins' Interview

The content of a very moving interview, made in 1986 by The Imperial War Museum with William John Collins describes, amongst many other such experiences, his recollection of the evening when Robert Dunsire was brought in to his Ambulance Station, based near Vermelles, after being struck by shrapnel from a German trench mortar.

William Collins served as a stretcher bearer with the Royal Army Medical Corps attached to the 7th Brigade Royal Horse Artillery. He was on duty when Robert Dunsire and James Sproul of the 13th Battalion of the Royal Scots were brought into the 46th Ambulance Station from Hulluch Alley trenches on 3 January 1916.

On 30 January 1916 came a day which I shall remember as long as I'm alive: to my last breath I will remember this brave fellow, this unfortunate fellow. I was walking up Hulluch Alley and I came across a stretcher party of the 9th Division - Scottish regiments - and I saw them carrying a man on a stretcher; there were four of them carrying him low. I stopped them and said, ‘Is there anything I can do?’ and they looked at me and said, ‘Have a look at him.’

I looked at him and he was very badly wounded. I just turned him a bit and looked at his chest. I said, ‘Well, come down to our aid post because we’re the nearest point here’. It was not far off the bottom of the communication trench and I took them to our hole in the ground at Vermelles and we put him on the crate and I think it was Captain Graham who leaned over and looked at him. He took his jacket off and stripped him down and he’d got multiple wounds, he was literally like a pepper pot, and gave a little sigh and died. And then Captain Graham said, ‘Well, there’s nothing we can do,’ and he said to me, ‘You go through his pockets,’ and he told the chaps from this regiment, it was the Royal Scots, ‘Anything he has we’ll send them through to his next of kin. There’s sure to be a letter in his pockets. Tell your officer that we’re going to send these little things home to his next of kin.’

And I looked at his chest and I saw the ribbon there. I said ‘That’s the Victoria Cross, sir,’ and Captain Graham looked and said, ‘Yes, so it is. This is a VC.’ I took his documents out and he was Private Robert Dunsire VC, Royal Scots. There was a letter from home, so I got his address, and an envelope with a document telling him he’d just been promoted to lance corporal and in the envelope was his lance corporal stripes: he’d never had time to put them on his sleeve. It was the most tragic thing to me.

This fascinating and memorable interview brings an immediacy to the tragic death of Robert Dunsire VC. It occurred some seven weeks after he had returned to his battalion and frontline action, having been to Buckingham Palace to receive his medal from King George V. Robert would still have fresh memories of his journey home and all of the events that swamped his two weeks’ furlough.

William Collins was recalling an incident from 70 years ago. It had clearly still made a significant impact on him after all this time. This is a remarkable piece of historical commentary. We are indebted to The Imperial War Museum for the creation of this oral treasure.

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