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Canada And The Victoria Cross: Part 1 of 18

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred
Cannon to right of them
Cannon to left of them
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d
­Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Lieutenant Alexander Roberts Dunn, VC. ILLUSTRATION: Sharif Tarabay

The Battle of Balaclava! An atrocious disregard for human life. The stupidest, most ill-The Battle of Balaclava! An atrocious disregard for human life. The stupidest, most ill-conceived tactical blunder in the annals of military deployment. Nonetheless, this costly debacle moved Queen Victoria to praise “the brilliance of the charge and the gallantry displayed by all have never been surpassed by British soldiers under similar circumstances,” and decreed that a medal be struck for gallantry in the field or at sea that would be eligible to all ranks.

On the chilly, gray morning of Oct. 25, 1854, a swashbuckling cavalry officer, Lieutenant Alexander Roberts Dunn of the 11th Hussars, so distinguished himself during the Charge of the Light Brigade that he became the first of 96 Canadians to receive that medal, the British Empire’s highest military honour for valour–the Victoria Cross.

When the design for the VC was originally submitted to the Queen, an inscription on the obverse read “For the Brave.” Not good enough. Her Majesty surmised that this would imply that no one was brave except those who received the medal and she changed it to read “For Valour.” A very astute decision by a very introspective monarch.

During the Charge of the Light Brigade, Canada’s first VC winner displayed that revised designation of the medal to a fare-thee-well and then some. Born Sept. 15, 1833, at York (renamed Toronto), the fifth son of the receiver general of Upper Canada, Dunn took his early education at Upper Canada College then, when his father moved to England after his wife’s death, Dunn attended Harrow School. In March 1852, at 19 years of age he purchased a commission in the 11th Hussars (Prince Albert’s Own Regiment of Light Dragoons, nicknamed the Cherry Pickers.)

Tall, six-foot-three, high in the saddle, blond-headed and handsome with a drooping moustache, Dunn not only cut a glamorous, romantic figure, he proved to be an outstanding cavalry officer as well. To accommodate his height and reach he had Wilkinson’s Swords fashion a four-foot-long–several inches longer than regulation–sabre for him.

A strong disciplinarian he was nevertheless popular and respected by the men serving under him. By the time his unit sailed for Crimea in 1854, where Britain and France had gone to war to stem the Russian advance on Turkey, Dunn held the rank of full lieutenant and was in charge of F Troop. On that Oct. 25th, the morning loomed unsettling and foreboding, an omen of what lay in store. A massacre. Six hundred and thirty British cavalry were thrown into the Valley of Death flanked by slopes on either side heavily defended by Russian troops and artillery and a 12-gun battery placed wheel-to-wheel at the end of the depression.

It was suicidal, prompting the French general to proclaim: “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre! C’est la folie!” It wasn’t war, it was madness. The attackers were hacked to pieces. Out of 110 cavalrymen making up Richard Dunn’s 11th Hussars, only 25 survived. Overall, the entire attacking force was decimated, 156 killed and missing, 134 wounded, 14 taken prisoner. But throughout the assault Dunn showed himself the warrior possessed that characterized him.

Time and again he led his troop against the Russian guns. Finally the regiment was forced to withdraw when it came under withering fire from Fedouikine Hill on the right. While retiring from the scene, Dunn saw that Sergeant Robert Bentley from his troop was wrestling with his horse, which had been severely wounded, and the Russians had singled him out as a straggler. Three of them concentrated their efforts to knock him out of his saddle and were preparing to finish him off. Seeing his predicament, Dunn wheeled around and galloped through a maze of dead and dying as well as riderless horses charging about in all directions to rescue him.

Prancing, side-wheeling, rearing his thoroughbred, he parried, thrusted and slashed at the assailants, felling them all in a matter of minutes. But Bentley was still in dire straights, desperately hanging on to his horse by one of the stirrups so Dunn dismounted, lifted Bentley back into his own saddle, then belted the horse on the rump to send it galloping towards the British lines. On foot Dunn suddenly caught sight of Private Harvey Levett from his troop who had lost his mount and was in danger of being cut down by a Russian hussar. Dunn rushed to his aid and skewered the enemy to death with his giant-sized sabre. When he returned to his unit and saw how badly it had been decimated in what had been a full-scale slaughter he broke down and cried.

Altogether 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded during the Crimean War. Dunn was the only officer in the Charge of the Light Brigade to receive the medal and the only cavalry officer in the entire campaign to whom it was awarded. (In addition he was awarded the Crimean Medal with four clasps as well the Turkish Medal). The citation for his VC read:

“For having in the Light Cavalry Charge on the 25th 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.”

The Victoria Cross itself had a notable, if somewhat erratic but certainly memorable, history all of its own. Having received Royal sanction what evolved was a Cross Formy or Cross Paty design, close to one and one-half inches square attached to a ribbon by a wide V to a bar on which there is a sprig of laurel, the symbol of victory. The sign of self-sacrifice, the cross originally hung from a ribbon 1 1/2 inches wide, red for the army, blue for the navy. When the Royal Air Force came into being in 1918 the colour of the ribbon was changed to red for all three services by Royal Warrant signed by Winston Churchill then Secretary of State for War (eg: Dunn’s VC ribbon was red).

As medals go compared to other more colourful decorations like the Distinguished Service Order and the Military Cross the design was, in the words of The Times newspaper of London, “poor looking and mean in the extreme.” Drab and lifeless.

At the outset the medal was designated The Military Order of Victoria. But Prince Albert dismissed it as too long-winded and blue pencilled this somewhat cumbersome nomenclature altering it to a simpler, more intelligible Victoria Cross. Lord Panmure, the British Secretary of War, commissioned the jewellers Hancocks & Company to make up a prototype. Though the firm’s expertise lay in silver they decided that it should be struck in base metal. But Her Majesty was unhappy with it. As her secretary noted:

“The Cross looks very well in form but the metal is ugly; it is copper not bronze and will look very heavy on a red coat with the Crimean Ribbon. Bronze is, properly speaking, gun metal; this has a rich colour and is very hard; copper would wear ill and would soon look like an old penny. Lord Panmure should have one prepared in real bronze and the Queen is inclined to think it ought to have a greenish varnish to protect it; the raised parts would then burnish up bright and show the design and inscription.”

What better or more appropriate choice of metal than to use the bronze from the Russian guns captured at Sebastopol, the last battle of the Crimean War (in which Dunn had also taken part). At the Woolwich Barracks, where two 18-pounders were made available, engineers sawed off the cascabels, knobs on the breech of the cannon secured to restraining ropes when the gun was fired. This metal was then used to produce the first batch of the freshly authorized medals.

This presented a problem. It was later discovered that the guns were not Russian but of Chinese origin and the bronze was of such poor quality that the VC had to be sandblasted instead of cast from a die. In addition, on the back of the medal where the date and name of the recipient was engraved, the details had to be handcrafted. Not entirely inappropriate, after all each medal was awarded for individual acts of valour.

Dunn was awarded his VC two years after the actions for which he won it. Meanwhile he had sold his commission and returned to Canada after running off with the wife of a fellow officer who refused to grant his cuckolding spouse a divorce.

Fortunately Dunn’s family was wealthy enough to allow him to live in the style to which he had grown accustomed at his parents’ estate in Toronto. He could hardly have supported a “wife” or, more accurately, a mistress, on his annual VC stipend of 10 pounds for the rest of his life. (By 1950 this had been increased to 100 pounds.)

But all this luxurious ease and comfort failed to relax a restless spirit so that when the Indian Mutiny, which lasted for two years, broke out in 1857 and Britain, whose armies were extended all around the world, called upon her colonies for enlistment for the very first time, Dunn helped form the Prince of Wales Royal Canadian Regiment which arrived in England in 1858. However, much to the disappointment of the officers and other ranks the regiment was sent to Gibraltar as a garrison unit instead of taking part in the Indian Mutiny.

By 1864 Dunn became a full colonel, the first Canadian to command a regiment and the youngest colonel in the British army.

The future for the 30-year-old cavalry officer indeed looked promising, but even that prospect failed to satisfy his need for the excitement of battle and he transferred to the “hard drinking” 33rd Duke of Wellington’s Regt. of Foot. Now his prospects for the future appeared even brighter. The Times reported: “His career has already given promise of sufficient distinction to justify the belief of his friends that the highest military appointments are within reach.” Fate, however, decreed otherwise.

Dunn’s regiment was sent to Malta, then India, where the mutiny had ended eight years earlier. Next it was posted to Abyssinia (renamed Ethiopia) where it joined Napier’s march on Magdalen against the Emperor Theodore. It was during this expedition–on Jan. 25, 1868–that Dunn lost his life near Senafe, the circumstances of which still remain a mystery.

The official version of his death issued by the 33rd Regt. is that during a hunting expedition Dunn was trying to uncork a brandy flask when his rifle slipped between his legs and discharged both barrels into his chest. His last words to his manservant were: “Run for a Doctor.” But when help arrived it was too late. Dunn was dead. This suggests that he killed himself accidentally.

Another version brought up the question of whether he committed suicide. Dunn is said to have dismounted from his horse and sent his valet to a nearby stream for some water. When the manservant returned he found his colonel dead from gunshot wounds.

Nor can murder be discounted. The dashing, handsome, VC hero was well known as a womanizer (eg: He had already walked off with a brother officer’s wife in Crimea).

It is possible that a jealous suitor or husband shot him or had him shot. Another possibility is that his valet killed him. It was known that he had reversed his will in favour of the manservant and the valet might have murdered him to reap the benefits.

Dunn’s body was never returned to England or Canada, which sheds further speculation as to his demise. The Canadian Military Gazette dismissed the issue with these words: “Colonel Dunn died of gun wounds in Abyssinia. It is generally supposed that his fowling-piece was accidentally discharged when he was clearing some obstruction, though some believe that his servant murdered him, a few that he committed suicide. The truth will probably never be known.”

This in no way detracts from the fact that Alexander Dunn was a bona fide military hero in every sense of the word. He was a soldier for soldiering’s sake, not for the fame his honours and bravery won him.

In July 1894, Dunn’s VC, along with other medals, was sold at auction at Sotheby’s in England. Canadians in London took strong exception to this mercenary transaction and demanded action by John Patterson, Canadian Minister of Militia.

Patterson cabled Charles Tupper, the Canadian high commissioner in London, authorizing him to buy the medals from the purchaser at the market. They arrived in Canada in time to be displayed at the Quebec Exhibition that year. Later they were transferred to Upper Canada College where Dunn took his early education and there they remain on display.

In addition, 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.”

Until 1945 the biggest mystery of all was: what happened to Dunn’s body? That was when a regular British army soldier, Reg Rimmer, who was leading a patrol of Eritrean Mounted Police along the border with Ethiopia, came upon a small cemetery near Senafe, which showed signs of having long been abandoned.

The exception was that among the plots, one grave on a grassy slope sheltered by a large rock appeared to have been given some attention–by the Italian army during the Fascist occupation, as it turned out. A headstone read:

ON THE 25th JANT 1868 This information did not reach the British Trade Commission until 1974, 29 years later. At that time the Department of Veterans Affairs began an investigation. But due to the military activity in Ethiopia no work could be undertaken for another eight years. Restoration finally took place and the commission now monitors the grave every two years.

In 1995 I wrote: “Somewhat reassuring, but unsatisfactory nonetheless. Our first Victoria Cross winner has lain too long in a foreign soil to which neither he, nor we, have any real significant attachment. He belongs at home. This is not to suggest that our other war dead, buried in cemeteries all over the world, should likewise be disturbed. They must be allowed to rest in peace where, or close to where, they fell on the sword. Dunn’s case is different. His death in Abyssinia did not occur in battle. It is time to bring our heroic hussar back to his native land and honour him with the salute he so richly and rightly deserves as one of our bravest and best.”

Last summer I received a phone call from an individual who preferred to be anonymous. He had been in Africa and visited Dunn’s grave and hoped to gain support to have his body returned to Canada as I had proposed. When he returned home he contacted Veterans Affairs and inquired whether or not they had or would consider bringing his body home. He was told that it was under advisement. Par for the course. Enough said. For the time being anyhow.

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