Great Britain’s fabled Victoria Cross has been that nation’s highest award for “gallantry in the face of the enemy” since its creation in 1856 by Queen Victoria following the Crimean War.
A total of 1,353 VCs have been awarded over a century and a half, with 94 Canadians (including Duncan’s own Maj. Charles H. Hoey) receiving the honour.
Navy pilot Hampton “Hammy” Gray (another British Columbian) was the last Canadian to receive the VC, in 1945; as was that of Hoey’s the previous year, his was awarded posthumously.
Our first Canadian VC dates much farther back — all the way back to the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War. And therein lies the fascinating story of Lieut. Alexander Dunn.
At six-feet-three, the blond, mustachioed cavalryman’s extended reach prompted him to commission a sabre several inches longer than that usually crafted by the famous sword firm, Wilkinson’s. As events proved, this was a sound investment.
Described as having “cut a glamorous, romantic figure,” the York-born (Toronto-born) fifth son of the receiver general of Upper Canada attended Upper Canada College then Harrow School before, at the age of 19 in 1852, purchasing a commission (the practice of the day) in the 11th Hussars (Prince Albert’s Own Regiment of Light Dragoons) aka the Cherry Pickers.
A born cavalryman, Dunn set a high standard for his men and became known as a strict disciplinarian. For all that, his men respected him — seldom the case in an army of rich, privileged and often egocentric officers who lorded it over the lower caste ranks.
Dunn was in command of F Troop when his unit sailed for the Crimea to join in the English and French campaign attempting to thwart Russia’s incursion into Turkey. On Oct. 25, 1854, he was in the very thick of the action — the illustrious, infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, where British cavalry charged the Russian guns at Balaclava in what has become known to history and to literature as the Valley of Death.
Gallant, glamourous though it may have been, the charge against an entrenched enemy was suicidal to the point of insanity. Of the 630 cavalrymen who charged, 156 were killed or missing, 134 wounded, 14 taken prisoner. Dunn’s 11th Hussars, which formed the second line of attack, were hard-hit, too, with only 25 survivors.
Several times Dunn led his men against those murderous guns, only, finally, withdrawing when their decimated ranks came under fresh fire from the right. That’s when Dunn saw Sgt. Robert Bentley, who’d suffered a lance cut in the neck and a bullet in the calf and whose horse had been severely wounded, being targeted as a straggler by three Russian Hussars.
Demonstrating superb horsemanship, Dunn and his trusty steed pirouetted their way through the carnage of dead, wounded and terrified riderless horses to reach Bentley’s side and to kill — cut down, as his award citation put its — the three Russians with his custom-made sabre.
Because Bentley’s maimed animal was unmanageable, Dunn leapt to the ground, helped the sergeant to mount his own horse then slapped it on its rump to send it running off toward the British lines and safety.
This left Dunn afoot, and his attention was immediately drawn to another of his men, Pte. Harvey Levett who’d lost his horse and was being attacked by a Russian Hussar. Again, it was Dunn’s super-sized sabre to the rescue.
Both men survived, Dunn to break down in tears when he learned of the devastation of his troop.
His “gallantry in the face of the enemy” in going to the aid of Sgt. Bentley and Pte. Levett certainly qualified him for one of the 11 Victoria Crosses that were first awarded for the Crimean War.
He was the only officer who participated in the Charge of the Light Brigade to be so honoured.
In fact, his heroism on that ill-starred battlefield is believed to have been the inspiration for instituting the VC.
His citation, which is almost unbelievably terse given the drama that precipitated it, reads:
“For having in the Light Cavalry Charge on the 25th of October, 1854, saved the life of Sergeant Bentley, 11th Hussars, by cutting down two or three Russian Hussars, who were attacking from the rear, and afterwards cutting down a Russian Hussar, who was attacking Private Levett, 11th Hussars.”
Ironically, when Alexander Dunn suffered a fatal gunshot wound as commanding officer of the 33rd Regiment of Foot (later the Duke of Wellington’s Rgt.) at Senafe, Eritrea, 14 years later, it wasn’t in the line of duty, but from the accidental discharge of his own fowling piece.
So ruled a board of inquiry which rejected rumours that he was murdered by a servant or that he’d committed suicide, and the celebrated hero of Balaclava was buried, alongside six other men of the 33rd Foot, in isolated Senafe Cemetery near the disputed Eritrean-Ethiopian border.
His final resting place was forgotten and remained a mystery until 1945 when a British soldier on border patrol with the Eritrean Mounted Police noticed an abandoned cemetery. One grave, marked with a large rock on a grassy slope, caught his eye. Incredibly, this grave had been cared for by Italian soldiers during their occupation of Eritrea during the Second World War; as a courtesy, no doubt, to its heroic occupant. Twenty-nine years passed before the British Trade Commission could investigate, an attempt at restoration having had to be suspended for almost another decade because of military activity in the region. Dunn’s grave now receives bi-annual maintenance.
Although a policy was established during the First World War not to repatriate Canadian war casualties, in 2004, the 150th anniversary of his winning the VC, Toronto accountant Brian Patterson started a campaign to bring Dunn’s bones home to a Toronto cemetery. “The plan is complete,” he told the media. “We think the process will cost about $100,000 to have the body exhumed and returned. And we’ve had great cooperation so far from the Eritrean government.”
Said Arthur Bishop, son of First World War Canadian flying ace Billy Bishop, and author of a book about the VC: “Our first Victoria Cross has lain too long in a foreign soil to which neither he, nor we, have any real significant attachment. He belongs at home.”
In 2009, 141 years after his death, a Canadian detachment of troops serving with the UN in Eritrea undertook to refurbish Dunn’s burial plot and those of the other 33rd Foot soldiers who’d died far from home in the line of duty. Unfortunately, just a year later, Dunn’s grave was said to have been “scavenged” (despite, it seems, those regular attempts at maintenance).
Raged Patterson: “It’s [the cemetery] in the middle of nowhere, in an area that’s been fought over two or three times.”
Dunn had inadvertently sparked a previous public campaign, this one to reclaim his medals which had been sold at auction in 1894. So great was national resentment that the minister of militia authorized Canada’s high commissioner in London to buy them from their new owner. They were returned to Canada in time to be displayed at the Quebec Exhibition. Today, Dunn’s VC is owned by Upper Canada College where he took his early studies and is on loan to the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa.
In addition, an article in the Legion Magazine tells, “…A plaque erected in 1966 by the Archaeological and Historical Board stands at the northwest corner of Clarence Square, near the foot of Spadina Avenue, south of King Street in Toronto where Dunn spent his youth. It is headed, ‘Canada’s First Victoria Cross.’”
In 2008 the Canadian Government instituted a look-alike Canadian version of the VC, the Canadian Victoria Cross. It, too, is of bronze suspended from a crimson ribbon and bears a lion and crown insignia, with the addition of a fleur-de-lis and “For Valour” in English rather than in Latin as is the case of the British original.
With the instituting of the Canadian Victoria Cross the Canadian system of military honours is entirely our own.