CHARLES LUCAS VC (1834-1914)
In what was a largely naval operation in the Baltic Sea, the Royal Navy planned to entice the Russian Fleet to leave their sanctuary at Kronstadt on the approaches to St Petersburg and do battle. Instead the Russians were content to remain in their fortified harbours and fortresses and watch the increasing frustration of the Royal Navy.
Instead of a straight forward Nelson-type battle, the Royal Navy had to be content with bombarding the Russian outposts, particularly the Åland archipelago that stretched across the Gulf of Bothnia between Finland and Sweden. It was here that three Victoria Crosses were won; Lieutenant John Bythesea, Stoker William Johnstone and Mate Charles Lucas. The latter performed his gallant act on 20 June 1854, in what was probably the first British action of the war against Russia.
Charles Davis Lucas was born into a wealthy landowning family on 19 February 1834 at Drumargole, County Armagh. He joined the Navy in 1848 at the age of fourteen, the year the Irish Potato Famine was at its height. Serving first aboard HMS Vanguard, it was in his second ship, the forty-gun Fox, that he saw his first action in the Second Burmese War of 1852. Under the command of Commodore 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 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. Mate Charles Lucas had recently transferred to the Hecla, which left Hull on 19 February 1854. In a voyage of some 3,000 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.
Hecla’s commander 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 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 Arrogant, that first engaged the enemy amongst the Åland 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 Åland Islands were described by a naval officer:
`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 forty-six-gun Arrogant. The following morning 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 Åland 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 thirty-eight (Hecla eight, Odin sixteen and Valourous sixteen).
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. Twenty-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. But for Lucas’s prompt action, the consequences would have been far more serious.
Captain Hall showed his gratitude for the saving of his ship by promoting Lucas on the spot to Acting Lieutenant and, in his report, Hall was 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. Nonetheless, 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 the gold Royal Humane Society Medal. This large 51mm diameter 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 a 38mm diameter 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. In effect, he received two awards for the same action.
Lucas did not see any further combat but steadily climbed the promotion ladder. He served on Calcutta, Powerful, Cressy, Edinburgh, Liffey and Indus. In 1862 he was promoted to Commander and then to Captain in 1867, before retiring on 1 October 1873 as a Rear-Admiral. He moved to Argyllshire and shared a farm with his sister and her husband. He also owned a marble quarry and a halfshare in a slate quarry. It was here that he received a message from his old commander from HMS Hecla, now Admiral Sir William Hutcheson Hall, summoning him to his death bed. Hall made an extraordinary request. He begged Lucas to take care of his wife Hilare and marry his only daughter Frances. Lucas, an incurable romantic, agreed.
They married in 1879 but the marriage was not a success. Frances proved to be arrogant, violent-tempered and far too aware of her position as a member of the Byng family, being the grand-daughter of the 6th Viscount Torrington. They made their home at Great Culverden, on the edge of Tunbridge Wells in a Decimus Burton-designed house. Charles Lucas occupied himself as a Justice of the Peace for both Kent and Argyllshire. It was after a train journey that Lucas found to his dismay that he had left all his medals in the carriage and they have never been recovered. Instead, he was issued with a duplicate group. The Indian General Service Medal with clasp to ‘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 the Byng’s family plot in St Lawrence’s Churchyard at the nearby village of Mereworth.
While public attention was focused on the battles that raged in the Balkans, there was also plenty of action taking place in the Baltic Sea. In April 1854, an Anglo-French fleet was sent to nullify the threat posed by the Russian Baltic fleet, which was stationed at Kronstadt, a seaport on Kotlin Island that sits just 19 miles west of St Petersburg, the then-capital of Russia.
The British fleet, commanded by Admiral Sir Charles Napier, consisted of 49 ships and was the largest since the Napoleonic Wars. Though it was ill-suited to the conditions and lacked experienced crew, it managed to blockade Russia’s ports in the Gulf of Finland and kept the Baltic fleet moored for the duration of hostilities.
In August, three British ships bombarded the fortress at Bomarsund in the Åland Islands, and received return fire. A live shell landed on the deck of HMS Hecla, at which point the ship’s mate, Charles Davis Lucas, grabbed it and threw it overboard, preventing serious loss of life. Lucas was immediately promoted to Acting Lieutenant and became the first man to receive the Victoria Cross for gallantry.
Charles Davis Lucas VC
Lucas saved the ship. Having joined the Royal Navy at 13, the 20-year-old was promoted to lieutenant. His act of bravery would be the earliest to be recognised by the Victoria Cross, which was instituted in 1856.
At a grand ceremony at Hyde the following year, the queen who gave her name to the medal presented 62 of them, as 100,000 of her subjects watched. They weren’t given in chronological order of deed, but rank, so Lucas was fourth to receive the VC.
Commander Henry James Raby had the honour of being the first to receive the medal, in recognition of saving a wounded man amid heavy fire. Although, maybe it wasn’t such a great honour. Victoria messed up her first attempt to pin the medal on his uniform and stabbed Raby in the chest
The Britons’ initial assault was indecisive, so a fleet of 25 ships, supported by French infantry, made a second attack in the middle of August. The fort was systematically bombarded over four days, until the Russian commander surrendered. The remnants of the fort were then demolished.
A less-successful attack took place against the heavily fortified Sveaborg dockyards outside the Finnish capital of Helsinki a year later. Some 77 ships of the Allied Baltic fleet lay two miles offshore, out of range of the fort’s obsolete artillery. Over the course of two days, the ships’ arsenal of some 1,000 guns fired more than 20,000 shells, but failed to destroy their target.