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The first Victoria Cross hero

hms_hecla_bombardment_of_bomarsund

The first act of bravery ever to be rewarded with the Victoria Cross was by Irishman Charles Davis Lucas during the Crimean War.

Lucas, who was born in Poynntzpass, County Armagh, had enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1848 at the age of 13, served aboard HMS Vengeance, HMS Vanguard and seen action in the Second Anglo-Burmese War of 1852-53 on HMS Fox. By 1854, aged 20, he was serving aboard HMS Hecla, part of Anglo-French fleet which had been dispatched to assist in the blockade of the Russian Baltic Fleet during the Crimean War.

On 21 June 1854, along with two other wooden battleships, Hecla was engaged in a brutal battle, bombarding the Russian fortress of Bomarsund, a fort in the Åland Islands off Finland. During the height of the action a live shell landed on Hecla’s upper deck but did not explode. The fuse still hissing, an immediate order to ‘hit the deck’ was given. As his shipmates dived for cover, Lucas rushed over to the shell, coolly picked it up and hurled it overboard into the sea, where it exploded with a huge bang.

Thanks to Lucas’ quick thinking no one on board was killed or seriously injured by the shell and, accordingly, Captain William Hutcheson Hall immediately promoted Lucas to acting Lieutenant. Subsequently, this act of heroism was the first to be rewarded with the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. Although the Victoria Cross medal was not instituted until 1856, it was made retroactive to cover the Crimean War and was the first military honour to be awarded regardless of rank and on no other consideration other than a single act of valour in ‘the face of the enemy’.

Although Lucas’ actions were the earliest to be rewarded the Victoria Cross, he was not the first to physically receive his award. At the inaugural awards ceremony on 26 June 1857, Lucas followed rank and stood fourth in line to receive the honour as military protocol was observed. Three senior officers received their VCs from Queen Victoria before him, the first being Commander James Raby.

Lucas spent the rest of a long career in the Royal Navy, later serving on Calcutta, Powerful, Cressy, Edinburgh, Liffey and Indus. In 1862 he was promoted to Commander and in 1867 was promoted to Captain, before retiring on 1 October 1873. He was later promoted to Rear-Admiral on the retired list in 1885. During his career he received the India General Service Medal, the Baltic Medal 1854-55 and the Royal Humane Society Lifesaving Medal.

In 1879 Lucas married Frances Russell Hall, daughter of William Hutcheson Hall who had been Captain of Hecla in 1854, and the couple had three daughters together. He died in Tunbrige Wells, Kent in 1914 aged 80. Copies of his medals can be seen on display at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, although they are not the originals as these were left on a train and never recovered. 

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