Captain William Barnsley Allen (VC, DSO, MC & Bar)(1892 - 1933)


Name William Barnsley ALLEN
Rank Major
Force Royal Army Medical Corps attd 246th Brigade Royal Field Artillery
VC  France, 3 September 1916
London Gazette 26 October 1916
Born Sheffield, 8 June 1892
Died 27 August 1933, Bracklesham
Grave Earnley Churchyard, Bracklesham Bay
of VC
Army Medical Services Museum, Aldershot
Remarks DSO MC & Bar



On 3 September 1916, near Mesnil, France, when gun detachments were unloading high explosive ammunition, the enemy suddenly began to shell the battery position. The first shell fell on one of the limbers, exploded the ammunition and caused several casualties. Captain Allen at once ran across under heavy shell fire and started attending to the wounded. He himself was hit four times by pieces of shell, but he went coolly on with his work until the last man had been attended to and removed. He then went to tend a wounded officer and only then reported his own wounds.
Additional Information: Major Allen also had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) as well as the Military Cross (MC) and Bar. He died at the age of 41 on 27th August 1933 in Bracklesham and is buried in the local churchyard..






The citation on the left is taken from The London Gazette

WILLIAM was born in Sheffield on June 8th 1892 at 14 Botanical Road Sheffield  His father Percy Edwin Allen was a successful commercial traveler and his mother Edith, the daughter of Joseph Barnsley of Taptonville Crescent, Sheffield. He had an elder sister Edith who was born on on 27th July 1890 and a younger sister Barbara who was born four years later on 13th September 1896. The parents had married in the Parish Church, Heeley, Sheffield on14th October 1889 

The address for the family at the time of Barbara's birth is given as 42 Southgrove Road, Ecclesall, Sheffield. I believe that it was sometime after this that the family moved to the house featured in the photo in Endcliffe Vale Road.

William was educated at what was then St Cuthbert's College, Worksop. In 1908 at the age of 17 he went to Sheffield University. The 1911 Census has the following information

Name William Barnsley Allen
Relationship to Head of Household Son
Condition Single Gender Male
Age 18 Estimated Year of Birth 1893 Occupation Medical Student
Employed Yes Working at Home No
Place of Birth Yorkshire Sheffield Nationality British Subject By Parentage
Enumerator Information Address 91 Endcliffe Vale Road Sheffield Parish Ecclesall Town Sheffield Type of Building Private House Number of Rooms 10 Inhabited Yes
Reference RG14PN27750 RG78PN1588 RD509 SD2 ED30 SN146 Administrative County Yorkshire (West Riding) Registration District Ecclesall Bierlow Registration Sub District Ecclesall West Central Enumeration District 30

William graduated with a honours degree in June 1914. During his time at the University he was awarded the Gold Medal in Pathology (1913), the Kaye Scholarship for the highest marks in physiology and anatomy and three bronze medals.

He joined the Royal Hospital as an assistant house physician but within weeks, he had enlisted with the Third West Riding Field Ambulance. In fact his date of enlistment is given in the records as 8th August 1914,four days after the outbreak of war. He was soon in France

On 16th May 1916 whilst on leave he married at the Wesleyan Chapel in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, MARY YOUNG MERCER ("Mollie"), the younger daughter of Mr. W. Y. Mercer Esq. The address on the marriage certificate was 27 Cecil Street Gainsborough and the brides fathers occupation is given as schoolmaster  In August 1916 he was awarded the Military Cross and ten months later in June 1917 he was awarded a bar to the MC. In July 2017 a researcher sent me this information. I have just been working on the 1st/3rd West Riding Field Ambulance Unit  war diary for July 1917 and there are a few conflicting dates with your web-site account for Capt Allen. The diary records that he was sent up to the ADS (Advanced Dressing Station) in Nieuport ay 08:30 on 22 July and was evacuated gassed on the 25th July 2017.

The War Diary is WO 95/2790/1 1st/3rd West Riding Field Ambulance Unit

The researcher also attached a map on which he placed the ADS (Advanced Dressing Station) and RAPs. (Regimental Aid Posts) The FA was supporting the 1/4th & 1/5th KOYLI who were in the area NE of the town. 1/4th in the NICE system and 1/5th in the NOSE.

In January 1918 William was appointed acting Major but on 18th February 1918 he was transferred to the regular R.A.M.C with the rank of Captain, the rank he held at the conclusion of the war 

In October 1918 he was wounded for the third time and sent back to England for the second time. This time he was awarded the D.S.O.  

From Victoria Cross Awards 1856 - 1920

Altogether he had served in France for three years and two months.  

William's Medal Card

I do not know hardly anything about William's life after 1918 beyond the fact that he stayed on in the Army. He did divorce his wife MARY  - there is a record of a divorce absolute that was issued on 19th October 1925 in the High Court, Strand London Nine days later William married a GERTRUDE ISABEL CRAGGS at the St Martins Register Office in London. The brides fathers William Craggs (dec'd) occupation is given as an engine fitter and the Bride a florist at Waldorf Hotel London, living in.

The couple had a son also called William Barnsley in May 1927 but nothing else is known until a court case in July 1932 in Chichester. It revealed the extent of the problems that William had faced in the intervening years.

This is the report in The Observer dated 24th July 1932

He was charged as Major Allen with driving a motor car whilst under the influence of drink. His defence stated that Major Allen had "suffered as no other man in England had suffered". He had been wounded in the chest and afterwards in the eyes. He was blind for a total of six months. In total he had been wounded seven times during the war. After the Armistice he went to India where he contracted malaria and dysentery.  On his return back to England the malaria and dysentery was joined by bouts of sleepy sickness and pleurisy. He took drugs and whiskey to combat these ailments and whilst he was no longer on drugs, he still took the whiskey. The defence had no effect whatsoever on the Bench, Major Allen was fined and was banned for five years (or as they put it at the time had his licence suspended).

William did not complete the ban. Thirteen months later a Dr C.R. Sadler was called by phone at 7.15 a.m. On arriving at the house he found the Major propped up in bed in accordance with the instructions he had given over the phone. He was however unconscious, blue in the face and breathing very slowly. His pupils were dilated and he had an abnormal temperature. He died within half a hour of the Doctor's arrival. In a contradiction to the evidence given in the court case a year earlier, the Doctor knew that William was still taking drugs.

An inquest was held in Chichester on 28th August 1933 presided over by the Deputy Coroner for Chichester, Mr F.B. Tompkins. Dr Sadler confirmed that William was taking drugs - veronal, opium and morphis but he had no idea of the amount he had taken. His condition on the Sunday indicated that he had overdosed with opium. The doctor confirmed that he had never heard William threaten to take his life and in his opinion was not likely to do so. The Coroner stated that he was given to understand that the Major was in the habit of taking drugs straight from the bottle without measuring the amount. In these circumstances it is quite easy to see an overdose occurring. He recorded a verdict of accidental death. 

For a number of years I thought that it was these incidents at the end of his life that was the reason why more was not known of William Barnsley Allen. He was one of the most decorated men in the First World War and time after time he displayed amazing courage and perseverance under the most testing conditions imaginable. And yet there is no street/building etc named after him. The University of Sheffield, where he had excelled, chose to ignore him in their centenary history. And needless to say there is no plaque or memorial to mark his achievements and bravery.

However the court case in June 1932 and the inquest in 1933 don't tell the whole story. An article in "Down Memory Lane" published by The Star in Monday 28th September 1987 entitled "Forgotten Hero", a rather apt title, referred to research undertaken by a doctor at the University called Dr John Lunn, who had just recently retired from the department of community medicine. He pointed out that far from being in decline after the war, William was fine. An army colleague met him on Armistice Day in Sheffield in November 1918 and recalled that William was his usual intelligent cheery self. The following year he gave evidence in a murder case that involved the colonel of his unit who had shot and murdered a fellow officer. The Times reported that his testimony was clear and concise. It appear that he served in the Army up until 1923 and then left to go into medical practice in Hounslow, London.

Dr Lunn, firmly believes that "what did" for William Allen was "encephalitis lethargica" or to be more to the point "the sequale" or after effects of the disease 

The disease was first diagnosed if that is the right word by Arthur J Hall in 1918who ironically was Professor of Medicine at William's old University, Sheffield.

The symptoms of encephalitis lethargica, can be variable, but the illness usually starts with a high fever, headache and sore throat. Double vision, disturbance of eye movements, weakness of the upper body, tremors and strange movements, neck stiffness, intense muscle pains, a slowing of physical and mental response, drowsiness and lethargy soon follow. Unusual brain and nerve symptoms may occur, and the person's behaviour and personality may change too. Occasionally, they become psychotic with extremely disturbed thinking. Sometimes the illness is mistaken for epilepsy, hysteria or even drug or alcohol abuse. As the body shuts down, patients become increasingly sleepy and some may lose consciousness, slipping into a coma that can last months or even years. This is why the disease is sometimes known as sleeping sickness.

But it is the after effects that are the most disturbing. To quote the BBC's Health Website

"..the disease leaves a variety of problems that can cause prolonged disability. Most people recovering from encephalitis lethargica develop a form of Parkinson's disease, with typical symptoms of slowness, tremor and abnormal muscle movements called dystonia. As with Parkinson's there may be little facial movement, so although the person can hear, understand and is mentally fine, they don't appear to respond much to the world around them. These problems may develop as long as a year after recovery. There may also be problems with swallowing or vision, as well as long-term behavioural disorders.."

William contracted the illness in 1924. How he caught it is a mystery. The court case in 1932 refers to his service in India where he contracted malaria and dysentery but even today the causes of the illness are not known, Researchers believe a virus or other type of infection may be to blame for encephalitis lethargica, but there's no good evidence that pinpoints a particular organism. A few have suggested it might be an auto-immune disease, where the body's immune system is triggered by a throat infection (perhaps with a streptococcus bacteria) that in turn attacks the nervous system. Recent research shows that areas of the brain called the mid-brain and basal ganglia become inflamed during the illness. But while anti-brain antibodies can be detected, no viruses have been found. This suggests the illness isn't caused by a virus directly entering and attacking the brain. This indicates that the body's own immune cells are attacking the nerve cells in the brain.

The condition is not curable and even today treatment is targeted at supporting the person through their illness and dealing with the symptoms as they occur.

To quote the BBC's Health Website again

"As the person recovers, physiotherapy, nutritional support and speech therapy may all help to speed them on the path back to normality. They may also need psychological support to deal with emotional and behavioural problems."

William received nothing beyond drink and drugs to cope with his illness. To be fair there is little or nothing that could have been done. The illness was very much a mystery at the time and still is. Given it's variable nature, making the patient "comfortable" was the only viable option.

After posting this information to the site in October 2006 I was contacted by William's descendents who put a slightly different perspective on events leading up to William's death.

"It is also suggested in papers held (there is a wonderful file and scrapbook) at Keogh Barracks, Ash, Aldershot that his death may have been caused  by his deliberately infecting himself to try to find a cure having lost patients from a similar illness.  This however is only a vague suggestion and the family believe he committed suicide knowing he was developing  Parkinsons. We will probably never know the truth of it."

And I tend to agree with those sentiments - we will never know the truth of it.  

William is buried in Earnley Churchyard near Bracklesham in Sussex. He was just 41 years old when he died.

Additional notes



Major William Barnsley Allen, V.C., D.S.O., M.C. and bar, late R.A.M.C., of Bracklesham Bay, Sussex, was found dead in his bed room on Sunday. Major Allen, who was 41, was awarded the V.C. for most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty at Mesnil, on the Somme, on Septem- ber 3, 1916. The Gazette states:- "When gun detachments were unloading high explosive ammunition from wagons which had just come up, the enemy suddenly began to shell the battery position. The first shell fell on one of the limbers, exploded the ammunition, and caused several casualties. Captain Allen saw the occurrence, and at once, with utter disregard of danger, ran straight across the open, under heavy shell fire, commenced dressing the wounded, and undoubtedly by his promptness saved many of them from bleeding to death. H-Ie was himself hit four times during the first hour by pieces of shells, one of which fractured two of his ribs, but he never even mentioned this at the time, and coolly went on with his work till the last man was dressed and safely removed. i-c then went over to another battery and tended a wounded officer. It was only when this was done that he returned to the dugout and reported his own injury."

Major Allen was born at Sheffield on June 8. 1892, and was educated at Worksop College and Sheffield University. He gained the gold medal for pathology in 1913, and three other medals and the Kaye scholarship. He joined the Armv four days after the outbreak of the War. He married at Gainsborough in May, 1916, Mary Young, daughter of Mr. W. Y. Mercer, of Gainsborough, and in the following August won the M. C. In July, 1917, Captain Allen was awarded a bar to the M. C. and was invalided to England in the same month. In January, 1918, he was made acting major, and in October was wounded for the third time and invalided for the second time to England and awarded the D. S. O. He had served in France three years and two months and was transferred to the Regular R.A.M.C. being dated back to captain, February 8, 1918, the rank which he held at the conclusion of the War. When in July last year* Major Allen was charged at Chichester with driving a motor-car while under the influence of drink. it was stated on his behalf that he had suffered as no other man in England had suffered. He was wounded in the chest, and afterwards in the eyes, being blind for six months. Altogether hc was wounded seven times. When the War ended he went to India, where he contracted malaria and dysentery. Returning to England. he gradually recovered, but later suffered from sleepy sickness malaria, dysentery, and pleurisy. Because of sleeplessness he began taking whisky and later drugs. He was able to throw off drugs, but still took whisky. The Bench fined Major Allen, and suspended his licence for five years.
In January this year it was announced in the London Gazette: " Major Allen, Royal Army Medical Corps, ceased to belong to the Reserve of Officers on account of ill-health." At the inquest held yesterday by the Deputy Coroner for Chichester (Mr. F. B. Tompkins) a verdict was recorded that death was due to an overdose of opium by misadventure. Dr. C. R. Sadler said that he was called by telephone about 7.15 on Sunday morning. He found the major propped up in bed, in accordance with instructions he had given over the telephone. He was blue in the face, absolutely unconscious, and his breathing very slow. His pupils were contracted and his temperature abnormal. He died about half an hour later. The witness knew that Major Allen took drugs - veronal , opium, and morphia -but he had no idea of the quantity he used. He knew from his condition on Sunday that it must have been a fairly large amount. Death was due to opium poisoning. He had never heard the Major threaten to take his life, and in his opinion he was not a person who was likely to do so. Dr. Sadler mentioned that Mrs. Allen was not at home at the time, being ill in a nursing home. , The CORONER said that he was given to understand that Major Allen had been in the habit of taking drugs from a bottle without measuring the dose. One could quite imagine how possible it would be for an overdose to be taken in such circumstances. In his opinion it was accidental. The action which led to William's award is an area of controversy amongst researchers of the conflict Although William was with the RAMC, he was attached to 246th West Riding RFA on 3rd September 1916 and was assisting helping men from this unit.
"Following a failed attack which I have also seen called a raid on German trenches in a letter of condolence, it is clear that considerable controversy followed the remarks made by some senior officers after the attack by the 147th Infantry Brigade on and around the Pope’s Nose strong point at Thiepval, and the 146th Infantry Brigade’s attack to their north.

The battalions involved in the actual attack were:
In the 147th Brigade the 1st 4th and 1st 5th Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment, and in the 146th Brigade the 1st 6th and 1st 8th Prince of Wales West Yorkshire Regiment.

The 1st 7th Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment was also shelled heavily and it would seem reasonable to assume that all battalions in both brigades were also under shellfire that day.

Anyone who has researched a Memorial will know that there are days when the death rate shoots up. For Holmfirth and district (1st 5th Duke of Wellington’s) the 3rd September 1916 is the second worst day of the whole war.

This is from Sir Douglas Haig’s dairy:

“Monday, 4 September :
I visited Toutencourt and saw Gen.Gough. The failure to hold the position gained on the Ancre is due, he reported to the 49th Division. The units of that Division did not really attack and some men did not follow their officers. The total losses of this Division are under a thousand! It is a Territorial Division from the West Riding of Yorkshire. I had occasion a fortnight ago to call the attention of the Army and Corps Commanders (Gough and Jacobs) to the lack of smartness, and slackness of one of its Battalions in the matter of saluting when I was motoring through the village where it was billeted. I expressed my opinion that such men were too sleepy to fight well, etc. It was due to the failure of the 49th Division that the 39th (which did well and got all their objectives) had to fall back.”

Captain P.G.Bales, who sees things rather differently, wrote in the History of the 1st 4th Battalion, Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment, 1914 - 19:

“It is not the purpose of this book to criticise as a general rule, but some slight exception must be made in connection with the attack on September 3rd. At the time there was a widespread belief, which was certainly held by most of the higher authorities, that the Battalion never gained its objectives. This was wrong. A and B Companies reached, and cleared the enemy from, the whole of the first and second objectives; it is true they did not occupy the whole of them, but that was due simply to lack of men. For more than two hours there were no Germans in either of the lines which the Battalion was ordered to capture. These facts are clearly proved, not only by the evidence of the men who carried out the assault, but also by the German official report on the action.”

Finally I must draw attention to the following book. In late spring 2010, I was contacted by an author who was writing a book on the Sheffield firm of George Barnsley and Sons. I will let Pauline explain the scope of the book in her own words. The book in now available from the outlets mentioned at the bottom of the next paragraph. I can thoroughly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in local (and national) history - it is a fascinating story
"We really started off wanting to put together the story of the firm which is a brilliant example of the niche marketing of Sheffield's cutlery trade but Colin gave to me a cardboard box full of stuff belonging to his grandfather that somehow took the story wider than just the firm and then a few internet contacts popped up and we discovered Wm. Barnsley Allen V.C. and Arthur Bentley. I can't say I have a favourite story but I do think the photographs that Colin has that belonged to his grandfather Major George Barnsley are stunning. In particular the ones he took with his small camera in 1900 when he led the Sheffield Volunteer Engineers to the Boer War. Colin found the negatives all labelled and had them printed. There are about 50 altogether so I had to be very selective. I also found looking at the telegram that was with the  papers telling him to put up the recruiting posters at the beginning of WW1 very disturbing somehow. Eugene's story I knew a bit about
though very little. Eugene was my father's cousin. We would be delighted if you put details of the book on to your website. My motivation for writing which Colin shares is simply to have these individuals and craftsmen recognised and remembered"
"I thought you might be interested to know that the book that I have written with Colin Barnsley is now available. The details are at the bottom of the page. About five years research went into it and it includes all I can find out about the Barnsley family going back to the 1500s. A George Barnsley was renting a wheel from the Lord of the Manor in 1637. The wheel in question was situated about a mile from where I was born. He was probably the George Barnsley who helped start the Cutlers' Company and became Master Cutler in 1650. The central section of the book is the story of the firm of George Barnsley and Sons who made tools for leather workers and which survived until 2003. The original building was bought jointly by my ancestor Charles and Colin's ancestor George. They were brothers. The works were in Cornish St. across the road from James Dixon and Sons. The final section tells the stories of individuals who made contributions to either local or national history many by serving in the armed services. Included is some original material that Colin had from his grandfather and father including pictures that Colin's grandfather took when leading the Sheffield Volunteer engineers to the Boer War. Thank you so much again for allowing me to use the material from your website about William Barnsley Allen V.C.

If you would like a copy they will be in all the usual outlets in Sheffield or you can get it through a local bookseller or I can post a copy to you. Please make payment by cheque to me or I do have a PAYPAL account. The book retails at £8.99 and if I post it to you it will be post free.

The book details are:
Forging History: The story of George Barnsley and Sons toolmakers and the family members who helped forge local and national history.
 Pauline Bell with Colin Barnsley. ISBN 978-1-906722-16-6"

From VC Heroes of the War

In May 2013 a researcher into the Barnsley family forwarded me the following e-mail relating to the company of James Dixon

"I came across your email address on a James Dixon forum site. By the looks of it you must have studied up on the Dixon empire, my interest is in their production of reloading tools.
I notice there are large amounts of material in regards to tea pots ,and knives and forks, but not much on tools. Did you ever come across any material on tools or patents?
I have their Sporting Catalogue of 1883 and I also own a couple of hundred reloading tools by James Dixon, but I am always on the look out to know more about this company. My website of Dixon tools can be viewed at

I don't know much about the James Dixon forum but if it helps other collectors then please add my site to your forum page, when you go to my website then just open the James Dixon folder and enjoy."


The London Gazette 1916

The Times dated 1931 - 1932

The Times dated 29th August 1933

The Observer and West Sussex Recorder dated 30th August 1933

BBC's Health Website

Down Memory Lane" published by The Star in Monday 28th September 1987 - "Forgotten Hero

Great War Forum

Out of Battle Blogspot - Image of William and Gertrude's Grave

War Diary is WO 95/2790/1 1st/3rd West Riding Field Ambulance Unit

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This page was last updated on 14/12/20 07:35