Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The first Victoria Cross and the Finnish connection

The first award of the Victoria Cross (by date of action in which it was awarded) was during the little known Baltic Campaign during the Crimean War.

The Victoria Cross is the highest military decoration awarded for 'most conspicuous bravery, or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy', to members of the armed forces of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth Nations.

The Baltic Campaign has not been a very well published affair of the infamous Crimean War between the Russian Empire and an alliance between the declining Ottoman Empire, Kingdom of Sardinia, French Empire and British Empire. Most eyes and subsequent publications have been focused on the land actions that took place on the Crimean Peninsula. It has been described as the first 'modern war', it was the first war in which was extensibility covered by numerous new reporters and photographs.

With the prospect of war with the Russian giant, Britain knew that the greatest threat to its shores were from the area of the Baltic. The majority of the Russian fleet and indeed her principle arsenals were situated at Kronstadt and the area surrounding the capital of St Petersburg. It was decided that an Anglo-French Fleet was to be sent to operate a blockade on the Baltic and thus stop any attack on France or Britain by Russia's main fleet.

The Russian Fleet throughout the Campaign refused to leave their heavily fortified safe haven of Kronstadt and the Anglo-French soon went on to raid the then Autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland. It was here, on 21st June 1854, that the steam sloop HMS Hecla, alongside the paddle steam frigates HMS Odin and HMS Valorous launched an ill thought out raid on the fort of Bomarsund. Bomarsund was a Russian Fort built on the island of Sund, Aland Islands, it was designed to be a big naval station for the Russian fleet with the advantage of being ice free for one month less on either side of the seasons than the nearest Russian naval base of Sveaborg (now known as Suomenlinna). It was however not completed when war broke out, having only three towers of twelve constructed. It was while this squadron were sailing through the channel of Angosund that it came under fire from two companies of Finnish Grenadier Sharpeshooters and 4 cannons. It was one of these cannons that a live shell landed on the upper deck of the Hecla. Immediately all hands were ordered to fling themselves onto the deck but one man ran forward and picked up the shell, its fuse fizzing away, and proceeded to carry it to the side of the ship to drop it overboard. The shell exploded before it hit the water and as a result two men were injured slightly, but it is without a doubt that the consequences could have been a lot worse if it weren't for this one man.

So who was this brave individual?

His name was Charles Davis Lucas, an Irish born 20 year old Midshipman who had been posted to the Hecla just before it left for the Baltic Campaign. The ships Captain, William Hall, promoted Lucas to Acting Lieutenant and praised him in his reports. The British fleets commander, Sir Charles Napier also echoed Halls praise and recommended confirmation of Lucas' promotion. The Royal Humane Society awarded Lucas the Gold Medal of their society for his actions that day. It was on Friday 26th June 1857 that Lucas received the Victoria Cross. He was fourth in line at the first investiture of the medal. He may have been fourth in line, due to the seniority of the other recipients, but the date of the action which resulted in the award of the Victoria Cross made it the first. The official write up for his deed was:-

“On 21 June 1854 in the Baltic, Hecla, with two other ships, was bombarding Bormarsund, a fort in the Aland Islands off of Finland. The fire was returned from the fort, and at the height of the action a live shell landed on Hecla's upper deck, with its fuse still hissing. All hands were ordered to fling themselves flat on the deck, but Lucas with great presence of mind ran forward and hurled the shell into the sea, where it exploded with a tremendous roar before it hit the water. Thanks to Lucas's action no one was killed or seriously wounded and he was immediately promoted to lieutenant by his commanding officer.”

Lucas went on to have a prosperous career, marrying Captain (who retired an Admiral but had deceased the year before the marriage) Hall's only Daughter, Frances Russell Hall; promoted to Post-Captain and later Rear Admiral. He also served as a Justice of the Peace for both Kent and Argyllshire. He died in Great Culverden peacefully in his home on 7th August 1914 and his body was buried in St Lawrence's Churchyard in Mereworth. 

This is the replacement copy of the Victoria Cross presented to Charles Lucas. His original VC, as well as his other medals were misplaced on a train journey. Notice the blue ribbon as original awarded to Navy recipients until the formation of the Royal Air Force in 1918.

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