Category Archives: Victoria Cross

The man who earned the first Victoria Cross

It was on Wednesday 21st June 1854 that 20 year old Charles Davis Lucas won the first Victoria Cross. He came from County Monaghan in Ireland and had joined the Royal Navy when he was thirteen. Now twenty, he was a Mate on HMS Hecla as part of an Anglo-French fleet at the eastern end of the Baltic bombarding the Russian fortress of Bomarsund.  The fortress mounted some eighty massive guns and, as HMS Hecla drew closer to Bomarsund, a live shell landed on the Hecla’s deck and lay there, smoking evilly and obviously about to go off, to murderous effect.

Charles Lucas coolly picked the shell up, carried it to the ship’s side and dropped it into the sea, where it exploded with a huge bang and a giant fountain of spray. Lucas was promoted to lieutenant from that day and his was the first act of heroism to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

The medal was not actually instituted until 1856, but it was made retroactive to cover the Crimean War. Queen Victoria took a keen interest in the decoration which bore her name and it was she who suggested the words ‘For Valour’ beneath the medal’s bronze Maltese cross – rather than ‘For the Brave’, which she pointed out could be taken to imply that other people were not.

Charles Lucas’s campaign medals, including his Victoria Cross, are now displayed at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. They are not the original medals though – they were left on a train and never recovered!  Replacement copies were made, though the reverse of the Victoria Cross copy is uninscribed.

The crosses were actually made of metal from Russian cannons captured at Sebastopol. It was a crucial innovation that the medal was awarded completely regardless of rank and on no consideration other than a single act of valour or devotion in the presence of the enemy.

Many years later the writer C.S.Forester used this incident to good effect in one of his Hornblower stories.

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Wednesday 20th September and the Victoria Cross:

The Victoria Cross was introduced in Great Britain on Saturday 29th January 1856 by Queen Victoria. Its ‘role’ was to reward acts of valour during the Crimean War. The VC takes precedence over all other Orders, Decorations and Medals and may be awarded to a person of any rank in any service and to civilians under military command.  The first presentation ceremony was held on Thursday 26th June 1857 when Queen Victoria invested 62 of the 111 Crimean recipients in Hyde Park.

The Battle of the Alma took place just south of the River Alma and is usually considered the first battle of the Crimean War. It was on this day – Wednesday 20th September 1854 – at that Battle, that Edward Bell & Luke O’Conner of the Royal Welch Fusiliers and John Knox, William Reynolds (the first private to be awarded the VC), James McKechnie & Robert Lindsay of the Scots Fusiliers Guards each earned their Victoria Cross. All survived the war.

63 years later, on Wednesday 20th September 1917 Second Lieutenant Hugh Colvin of the 9th Battalion of the Cheshire Regiments won his VC during an attack east of Ypres in Belgium. He took command of two companies and led them forward under very heavy machine gun fire. He then went to assist a neighbouring battalion. In the process he cleared and captured a series of ‘troublesome’ dugouts and machine-gun posts, some on his own and some with his men’s assistance. He personally killed several of the enemy and forced others – about fifty in all – to surrender. His Victoria Cross citation concludes ‘Later he consolidated his position with great skill, and personally wired his front under close-ranged sniping in broad daylight, when all others had failed to do so. The complete success of the attack in this part of the line was mainly due to Second Lieut. Colvin’s leadership.