With the Victoria Cross being in the headlines (see the General Discussion thread) I thought that I would post some information about the first VC.
CHARLES LUCAS – THE FIRST VC
Three men can claim to be the first VC in that elite list of recipients of the world’s highest award for outstanding gallantry. The name of Lieutenant Cecil Buckley RN was the first to be published in the London Gazette of 24 February, 1857 for his part in an exploit in the Sea of Azoff on 28 May, 1855. Due to his superior rank, Commander Henry Raby RN was the first man to physically receive the Cross at the inaugural investiture on 26 June, 1857. This was awarded for his part in bringing in a wounded soldier under fire during the abortive attack on the Redan , 18 June, 1855. (see cover of 4th edition of The Journal)
The man who could genuinely be said to be the very first VC, however, was a young Irish midshipman named Charles Lucas, whose gallant act was performed on 20 June 1854, in what was virtually the first action of the war against Russia. He was born into a wealthy landowning family on 19 February 1834 at Drumargole, County Armagh. At the age of fourteen, he joined the Navy in 1848, the year of the Irish Potato Famine. He first served aboard HMS Vanguard, but it was in his second ship, the 40 gun Fox, that he saw his first action in the Second Burmese War of 1852.
Under the command of Commadore G.Lambert, Fox was part of the small squadron that attacked the heavily fortified enemy town of Martaban to great effect. Led by Commander Tarleton of the Fox, a landing party attacked and captured the enemy stockades, spiking their guns and destroying their ammunition. Further action followed against Rangoon and Pegu. The end of the war resulted in the annexation of most of Burma to the East India Company.
With the outbreak of war with Russia in 1854, the greatest naval danger was seen as the Baltic Sea, where Russia’s main fleet and her principle arsenals were situated. It followed that the main Anglo-French fleet was sent to the Baltic, but any hope that the Russians would oblige with a set piece naval battle was thwarted by the enemy’s refusal to leave Kronstadt, their heavily-defended home port. The monotonous task of operating a blockade was alleviated by the occasional raid against land targets.
Before war had been declared, the Admiralty had the foresight to reconnoitre the Baltic area and despatched the new steam sloop, Hecla. Midshipman, or Mate, Charles Lucas had recently transferred to the Hecla, which left Hull on 19 February 1854. In a voyage of some 3000 miles, she carried a team of surveyors, who drew charts and sought suitable anchorages for the large Anglo-French fleet. Several times Hecla used her superior speed to outrun Russian frigates, for she was better suited to speed than fighting, something later her captain seemed to forget.
The Hecla’s captain was the energetic and resourceful William Hutcheson Hall, a man who would play a prominent role in Lucas’s life. As a young lieutenant, Hall had commanded the East India Company iron steam ship Nemesis during the First China War of 1840. With its shallow draught and armed with rockets, the Chinese called it the “devil ship”, as it created havoc amongst the enemy junks in Anson Bay. Hall further came to the Lordship’s attention when he, and two other like-minded officers, proposed the establishment of a sailor’s home in Portsmouth. When sailors were paid off, they were often far from home and fell easy prey to all sorts of persons who were skilled in parting the unsuspecting victim from his money. The idea of a sailor’s hostel gained approval and both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert added their endorsement and financial support. From this, there grew the highly successful establishment, which gave sailor’s a refuge while waiting for another posting.
When the Hecla returned from her Baltic mission, she joined the main fleet at Dover. The surveyors distributed their charts and briefed the commander, Sir Charles Napier, and his captains. The fleet, including Hecla, then set course for the Baltic.
After the disappointment of the Russian fleet’s refusal to fight, lesser targets were sought. It was Hecla, together with the Arrogant that first engaged the enemy amongst the Aland Islands at the mouth of the Gulf of Bothnia. Capturing the crew of a fishing boat, they compelled them to guide them through the shoals and scattered islets to look for enemy merchant ships, which they suspected were at anchor. The Aland Islands were described by a naval officer as, “This granite archipelago encloses a perfect labyrinth of straits and bays studded with minor islands, and so fringed with reefs and banks as to make the navigation often impossible- always hazardous.”
As they were negotiating a narrow waterway, a Russian battery opened fire, but was quickly silenced by the 46 gun Arrogant. The following morning, the shallow draught, but lightly armed, Hecla found herself in range of the guns of a Russian fort and, although she returned fire, she was no match for it. Fortunately, Arrogant arrived in time and, despite running aground, was able to silence the enemy guns. Finally, they found the three merchant ships, two of which had run aground. The third was taken by Hecla who, under fire from shore batteries and Russian infantry, took her in tow and steamed away with her prize. In the process, one man was killed and Hall was wounded in the leg by a spent musket ball.
This minor success received the thanks of the admiral-in-chief as well as the British Government and no doubt spurred Captain Hall to undertake a foolhardy attack against the formidable fortress of Bomarsund on the east coast of the main island in the Aland chain. In what should have been a reconnaissance led by Captain Hall, developed into a bombardment by three lightly armed ships against the solid walls of the three granite-built fortress towers and heavily fortified casements. The Russians had considerable superiority in firepower with over 100 guns against just 38 (Hecla 8, Odin 16 and Valourous 16)
Early in the fight, a live shell landed on Hecla’s upper deck. A cry went up for all hands to fling themselves on the deck. One man ignored this advice. 20 year old Charles Lucas ran forward, picked up the round shell with its fizzing fuse, carried it to the rail and dropped it overboard. It exploded with a tremendous roar before it hit the water and two men were slightly hurt. The consequences would have been far more serious but for Lucas’s prompt action.
Captain Hall showed his gratitude for the saving of his ship by promoting Lucas on the spot to Acting Lieutenant. In his report. Hall was also fulsome in his praise for Lucas’s great presence of mind. In turn, Sir Charles Napier echoed this praise and recommended confirmation of Lucas’s promotion.
Hall also exaggerated the damage inflicted upon the Russians and earned a stiff rebuke from the Admiralty for putting his ship in unnecessary danger and expending all his ammunition to little effect. None the less, the news was well received by a British public hungry for some offensive movement from their much-vaunted navy. For a while, the name Bomarsund was the topic of conversation and a new coal mining village near Newcastle was even named after this obscure Baltic fortress.
For his bravery in saving the lives of his fellow crewmen, Charles Lucas was awarded a gold Royal Humane Society Medal. This large 51mm dia medal was not intended for wearing, but Lucas had a ring and blue ribbon fitted. In 1869, official permission was granted for the wearing of the medal and 38mm dia medal was produced with a scroll suspension and navy blue ribbon.
Just three years later, on 26 June 1857, Lieutenant Charles Lucas stood fourth in the line of recipients at the first investiture of the Victoria Cross and received his award from Queen Victoria (see first edition of The Journal, Oct.2002).
Lucas did not see any further action but steadily climbed the promotion ladder. He served on Calcutta, Powerful, Cressy, Edinburgh, Liffey and Indus. In 1862 his was promoted to Commander and then to Captain in 1867, before retiring on 1 October 1873. He went to live with his sister and brother-in -law in the Western Highlands until he received a summons to his death bed from his old captain, now Admiral Sir William Hall KCB, FRS, who made an extraordinary request. He begged Lucas to take care of his wife Hilare and to marry his only daughter, Frances. Lucas, an incurable romantic, agreed. The marriage was not a success for Frances was arrogant and violent-tempered and far too aware of her position as a member of the Byng family. being the grand-daughter to the 6th Viscount Torrington. They married in 1879 and produced three daughters.
They made their home at Great Culverden, on the Mount Ephraim area of Tunbridge Wells. In 1885, Lucas was promoted to Rear-Admiral on the retired list. He occupied himself as a JP for both Kent and Argyllshire. After a train journey, Lucas found to his dismay that he had left all his medals in the carriage. They were never recovered. Instead, he was issued with a duplicate group. The IGS bar’Pegu’ is engraved with his details, as are both gold Royal Humane Medals. The Baltic Medal is blank, as is the reverse of the Victoria Cross.
Charles Lucas died peacefully at his home on 7 August 1914, just as Europe plunged into the madness of the First World War. He was buried in St Lawrence’s Churchyard at the nearby village of Mereworth