NI's Winner of the First Victoria Cross

Ian Maxwell remembers Charles Davis Lucas

On a fine morning in June 1857, 62 Crimean War veterans gathered in Hyde Park, London, to receive the controversial 'gallantry award', from the hands of Queen Victoria herself.

More than a year had passed since the end of the conflict, but the public turned out in large numbers to witness Her Majesty honour so many of its surviving heroes.

The gallantry and suffering of the troops during the war had caused a potent mix of admiration and outrage at home, leading to calls for official recognition of their courage and endurance.

The campaign soon had a major supporter in Prince Albert. He persuaded the Queen to cast aside the objections of senior military commanders and authorize the new medal. It was also Prince Albert who suggested its name: the Victoria Cross.

Co Armagh naval officer Charles Davis Lucas, who holds the distinction of being the first winner of the Victoria Cross, was present at Hyde Park to receive his award from the Queen.

Born in Drumargole on February 19 1834, Lucas was serving as a mate on the HMS Hecla in 1854. The Hecla formed part of the fleet under the command of the highly popular commander Admiral Sir Charles Napier.

Stung by public criticism of their lack of success against the Russian fleet, the British fleet had been forced to attack the heavily defended shore forts where the Russian navy had been content to shelter.

The Hecla, and two 16-gun paddle-steamers under the Command of Captain WH Hall, attacked the coastal fortress of Bomarsund on the Aland Islands in the Baltic Sea. The ships came under fire from the batteries and from Russian riflemen and artillery on the shore.

All three ships anchored at about nine o'clock that evening, and bombarded the fortress until one o'clock the next morning.

At the height of the bombardment, a live shell from an enemy battery landed on Hecla's upper-deck, with its fuse still hissing.

All hands were ordered to fling themselves flat on the deck, but, according to Captain Hall, his commanding officer, Lucas, with ‘a remarkable instance of coolness and presence of mind in action’, ran forward and hurled the shell into the sea, where it exploded with a tremendous roar before it hit the water.

Some minor damage was done to the ship's side and two men were slightly hurt but, thanks to Lucas, nobody was killed or seriously wounded.

At the outbreak of the Crimean War only senior officers were eligible for orders of chivalry, but their juniors, and other ranks, received no formal recognition of acts of gallantry.

Instead, rewards were often made in the form of promotions or cash. Lucas, however, was promoted to Lieutenant and would eventually rise to the position of Rear Admiral.

Nevertheless, from early on in the war there had been calls for a new gallantry award which would be open to all ranks.

However, it was not until February 5 1857, barely a month before the end of the war, that the London Gazette announced the institution of the new gallantry award, which was to be made retrospective to late 1854 to allow for awards to sailors and soldiers in the Crimean war.

On June 12 1857, the Queen informed the new Secretary of State for War, Lord Panmure, that she had ‘come to the conclusion that it will be best to have a Review in Hyde Park', where she would attend on horseback and give the Crosses to the recipients before the front.

That left only a fortnight to arrange the Review, forcing men like Lucas to make their way to London at very short notice.

A few minutes before 10 o’clock the officers and men who were to receive their medal from the Queen marched in single file across the park to the Queen’s position.

They passed before the Queen, advancing close while she affixed to the breast of each in turn the plain bronze cross, with a red ribbon for the army or a blue one for the navy.

‘So quietly and expeditiously was this done in every case,’ commented The Times, ‘that the whole ceremony scarcely occupied 10 minutes, and must have been over before the general but very distant public in the background were aware it had commenced.'

Lucas was one of the first to be presented with his medal. All the VCs were cast from the bronze cascabels of two cannon of Chinese origin, that were captured from the Russians at the siege of Sevastopol.

A single company of jewelers, Hancocks of London, has been responsible for the production of every VC awarded since the medal's inception.

For the ceremony at Hyde Park, the jewellers had to work around the clock to ensure that the Crosses were engraved for those named for the day in question.

Although The Times was disappointed by the design of the new medal which it considered ‘poor looking and mean in the extreme’, it was moved by the sense of occasion of the day.

‘As they stood in a row, waiting the arrival of Her Majesty,’ the correspondent reflected, ‘one could not help feeling an emotion of sorrow that they were so few, and that the majority of the men who would have done honour even to the Victoria Cross lie in their shallow graves on the bleak cliffs of the Crimea.’

Lucas died at Great Culverden, Kent, on August 7 1914, a few days after the outbreak of the First World War. His Victoria Cross can be seen at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.