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The first and last Victoria Crosses of the First World War


In a strange piece of martial serendipity, the first and the last Victoria Crosses to be awarded ‘for valour’ during the First World War were both earned in canal battles separated by four years and a little fewer than 40 miles. But there the coincidences end.

Three-times wounded Maurice Dease, an Irish-born Royal Fusilier officer, won his honour posthumously in a desperate attempt to prevent German troops crossing the Mons canal, whereas Major Brett Cloutman lived to receive his VC awarded for bravely trying to save a bridge from destruction ahead of a British attack across the Sambre-Oise canal five days before the end of the war.

Between those two remarkable acts of gallantry, a further 626 feats of daring were considered worthy of the nation’s highest military award for courage in the face of the enemy, a staggering 104 more than had previously been awarded during the medal’s 58-year history.

Included among them were two second award bars, both made to army doctors – Arthur Martin-Leake, who had earned his original VC a dozen years earlier towards the end of the Boer War, and Noel Godfrey Chavasse, a distinguished scholar and Olympian, who won his two Crosses, together with a Military Cross, in the space of a little more than two years on the Western Front which culminated in his death at the age of 32.

Chavasse, whose unique medal group now has pride of place in the Lord Ashcroft Collection displayed at the Imperial War Museum, was one of 187 recipients, who made up more than a quarter of the total, who earned the ultimate distinction at the cost of their own lives.

Counted among their heroic ranks were the oldest and the youngest winners of the VC during the First World War.

Boy 1st Class John Travers (Jack) Cornwell, a sight-setter aboard the newly-commissioned cruiser HMS Chester, was aged 16 when his devotion to duty during his first and last action was posthumously recognised. Mortally wounded and with his gun team lying dead and wounded around him, he steadfastly stuck to his post as his ship sought to escape a storm of fire at the great battle-fleet action off Jutland.

In stark contrast, Captain Frederick Parslow was born just three months after the medal was instituted by Queen Victoria in January, 1856. The 59-year-old master of the unarmed horse transport SS Anglo-Californian died on the bridge of his vessel desperately trying to evade an enemy submarine having defied repeated calls to abandon ship.

Parslow’s posthumous honour came after the war and only after he was granted the ante-dated rank of Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve. As the first Merchant Navy officer to be awarded the VC, he joined an exclusive list of landmark awards which included the first submariner (Lieutenant Norman Holbrook), the first airman (2nd Lieutenant William Rhodes-Moorhouse), the first member of the Tank Corps (2nd Lieutenant Clement Robertson), the first Indian (Sepoy Khudadad Khan), the first Gurkha (Rifleman Kulbir Thapa) and the first man to be so honoured for an act of bravery performed in, or rather over, Britain (Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson).

The overwhelming majority of VCs – an incredible 491, to be precise, including both second award bars – were presented for actions on the Western Front. However, two of the most notable episodes involving multiple awards took place away from the main theatre of war.

It was during the landings at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915, that a single battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers famously won ‘Six VCs before breakfast’. Unusually, all of them were awarded under Clause 13 of the Victoria Cross Warrant, whereby the survivors were balloted to find the six most deserving recipients among their brave company.

The same clause was activated again, three years later, following the Royal Navy’s gallant attempt to block the Belgian ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend which were being used by German U-boats. In all, eight VCs recognised the initial operation, four of them being ‘elected’ awards, and a further three were granted for a second forlorn effort against Ostend.

One of the posthumous recipients was Lieutenant Commander George Bradford, whose brother Roland had been killed a few months earlier having been similarly honoured while commanding a battalion on the Somme in 1916. It was only the third instance of brothers being awarded the Victoria Cross.

Another hero of Zeebrugge, Captain Alfred Carpenter, gained a measure of celebrity by writing a best-selling book about the St George’s Day raid, but for the majority of VC holders any fame proved short-lived. Most quickly slipped back into obscurity and would echo the memorable comment of modest London-born Australian Len Keysor who memorably remarked years later: ‘The war was the only adventure I ever had.’

By Stephen Snelling

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