Col J. A. V. Mortell (Retd)
For me, the most interesting item in the Military Exhibitions at the National Museum, Collins Barracks, Dublin was the sight of the first ever VC awarded. It was presented by Queen Victoria to Midshipman Charles Davis Lucas in Hyde Park, London on the 26th of June 1857. It was awarded for his coolness, presence of mind and bravery during an attack by HMS Hecla on the Russian fortress at Bomarsund (Aland Islands) in the Gulf of Bothnia on the 21st of June 1854. He was on the quarter-deck when a live enemy shell, with its fuse still burning, landed close to where he was stationed. Without a moment’s hesitation, he grabbed the shell with both hands and threw it overboard. Before it reached the water, it exploded but none of the ship’s crew was killed or seriously injured.
Royal Mail 64p Commemorative Stamp
Lucas was promoted to Lieutenant on the 26th of June 1854 on foot of recommendations to the Admiralty in London from Captain Hall, Officer Commanding HMS Hecla, and Admiral Sir Charles Napier, Commanding the British Fleet.
This would normally have been sufficient reward for gallantry. However, when the VC was instituted in 1856, Napier recommended Lucas for the award. There is some dispute over Luca’s birthplace. It is generally believed to be Druminargal House, near Poyntzpass, Co. Armagh. However, when Sir Shane Leslie of Castle Leslie, Co. Monaghan, pointed out that his father, David Lucas, came from Clontibret, Co. Monaghan and was a member of the Lucas family of Castle Leslie, the only support he received was from the founder-chairman of the VC Association, Sir John Smyth VC.
Lucas enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1847 and took part in the Burmese War of 1852-1853. He rose from the rank of Lieutenant (in 1854) to Rear Admiral. From 1873 to 1883, as a Brigadier General, he commanded the Ballachulish Corps in Scotland. He died at Great Culverden, Kent on the 7th August 1914. Whilst there is a memorial to him at St Lawrence’s Church, Mereworth, Maidstone, Kent, there is no memorial to him in Ireland. There are plans to erect a plaque at his birthplace in Co. Armagh.
His VC is on temporary loan from the British National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, London. In 2006, the Royal Mail issued a 64p stamp (vide illustration) to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the institution of the VC. The stamp features an image of Lucas and an extract from his commendation for the VC.
NOTE: I am indebted to Messrs Richard Doherty and David Truesdale, authors of ‘Irish Winners of the Victoria Cross’* for permission to quote from their excellent book. They acknowledge their indebtedness to the late Lt Col Brian Clark’s seminal article in the ‘Irish Sword’ which they describe as providing an “invaluable foundation” and “an inspiration” for their book.
*Published by Four Courts Press CLG., Malpas Street, Dublin 8.