The woman who went to war

Old Rectory, Ifield, in 1920 SUS-140417-105942001
Old Rectory, Ifield, in 1920 SUS-140417-105942001

Crawley produced many heroes during World War One but one of the most amazing stories to be told was that of Louisa Constance Colt-Williams.

The young nurse was held captive by German forces for four-and-a-half months after refusing to leave the wounded men she was tending when her front-line hospital in the Aisne area of France was over run.

Louisa, who lived at the Old Rectory House, Ifield, and served as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse at Crawley Cottage Hospital, was awarded the Croix de Guerre (the Cross of War) for her heroism.

A report printed in the Sussex & Surrey Courier, dated Saturday August 3 1918 read: “Miss Constance Colt-Williams, daughter of Mrs Colt-Williams, of the Old Rectory House, Ifield, and, until going to France, a member of the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) working at the Crawley Hospital, has been recommended by the French Authorities for the Croix de Guerre, for refusing to leave her wounded soldiers when the Germans attacked her hospital, Le Chateau de Beamieux, on May 27th, in the Aisne provinces.

“This hospital formed the most advanced clearing station in the French lines.

“Miss Colt-Williams was, unfortunately, taken, and remains a prisoner of war.”

Louisa’s heroism is recorded at the National Archive in a report by Captain WA Rees, who was captured at the same time.

The report, filed in November 1918, lists the captain as being 35 years of age and “not wounded”.

Following his capture at Maizy, Rees found himself taken to the 261st Field Lazarette (hospital for those with an infectious disease), at Beaurieux. It was there he met Louisa.

He wrote: “There were three French medical officers working with the French, and three captured sisters. One, an Englishwoman by birth (now repatriated), Miss Colt-Williams, gave us invaluable assistance.”

Rees recorded that his treatment by the Germans at the time was “extremely good”.

But Rick Leigh, of the Crawley Museum Society, has been researching Louisa’s history and questioned whether her experiences during her capture may have contributed to her death.

Louisa died at the tragically young age of 31 on September 13 1920. She had served her country for five years.

Louisa was born in Boughton, Cheshire, the younger daughter of barrister David Archer Vaughan Colt-Williams, and is buried in Nannerch, North Wales.

The Colt-Williams family was no stranger to sadness.

In 1914, the Courier reported the untimely death of Mr Colt-Williams, at the age of 64, shortly after the family moved to the Old Rectory.

The report read: “DEATH AT IFIELD - Within a fortnight of taking up his residence at the Old Rectory, Ifield (recently vacated by Mr C Fox), Mr Colt-Williams died there on Tuesday after a short illness. Mr and Mrs Colt-Williams came from Kent, and took apartments at the George Hotel, Crawley, while the Old Rectory was being got ready for their occupation.

Much sympathy will be felt with the widow and the family in their unexpected bereavement.

The funeral was fixed for yesterday (Friday)at Nannerch, N Wales, where there is a family vault. The body was conveyed by train from Crawley on Thursday, Mr T Bartley, of the firm of Messrs Bartley & Ward, having charge of the whole of the funeral arrangements.

The body was enclosed in a leaden shell and an outer coffin of polished oak, having brass fittings, and bearing the inscription: ‘David Archer Vaughan Colt Williams, died April 21st, 1914, aged 64 years’.”

Does anyone have a photo of Louisa or know anything about the circumstances surrounding her death?