Like so many questions, and their answers, it often depends on how the question was asked. The above seems simply enough... but is it really. No its not!
If you ask who first EARNED a Victoria Cross the answer would rest with the date of the act of heroism being rewarded.
If you ask who actually got his Victoria Cross pinned to his chest, that may well be another fellow.
And if you ask on what date was the award actually announced, in this case by way of it being published in the London Gazette, you will get still another fellow.
And thus three different firsts.
Last week I brought you the story of Charles Lucas. His actions in tossing the still sizzling cannon ball over the edge of his naval vessel probably saved his vessel and crew from death. Because of the date of that action,.. 20 June 1854, it predated all other actions that resulted in awards of the VC... and thus he was the first recipient ... BY DATE OF ACTION. Today I bring you the story of the hero who was the first to actually be presented with the VC, and tomorrow I will bring the third first... the fellow who's actual gazette announcement predates all others.
There is something interesting to note about today's first and one of the "firsts" that was awarded the US Medal of Honor. In the US, the first fellow was a doctor by the name of Bernard JD Irwin. His first being that his deed took place before any other that resulted in the MOH being awarded. The highest medal for bravery in the US went to Irwin... who was born outside the country. He was from Ireland.
Today's hero was awarded the highest medal for bravery in the British Empire. His was the first based on actually receiving it. And like the American, he too was not born in the country that awarded the medal. He was born at Boulogne France.
His name was Henry James Raby and his parents were industrialists from Wales. They were very prominent in the coal and iron business but then the Depression hit. it became the financial ruin to the family fortunes. Then the family home was destroyed in a horrible fire. The family decided it was time for a new start and moved to France where years later Henry was born. The family would later come back to Wales and Henry got his early education at Sherborne School in Dorset. From there he decided to join the Royal Navy in 1842 at about the age of 15 as a Volunteer First Class. He'd spend the next 36 years serving on well over a dozen ships and by retirement in 1878 he would have been promoted all the way up the ladder to Rear Admiral. Many of his promotions along the way were as a direct result of his bravery. His record of service would also include numerous MID's, Mentions in Dispatches, from a senior officer to an even higher level of authority, in which Henry's performance was praised. Each of these are themselves considered to actual be medals of bravery.
During Henry's early years of service he would be aboard vessels off the coast of Africa where the British were capturing those involved in the slave trade. In his first dozen years he would serve on at least 8 different war vessels and get a very sound education on the life of a sailor. Service life obviously agreed with him and his performance was recognized with promotions to Mate and Lieutenant. When the Crimean War broke out Henry volunteered to become part of the Naval Brigade, a group of sailors and marines that would go ashore and help the army to carry out its various tasks.
It would be while serving in the Naval Brigade at Sevastopol that Henry would earn his Victoria Cross.
At what would become known as the Battle of the Redan, troops had to build very long and heavy ladders that could be raced up to the massive walls. Troops would then scale the ladders, climb over, enter the city and then take it. Easier said than done! The walls were very heavily guarded and the ground before the walls was open and offered no protection for advancing troops. Carrying of ladders was near impossible due to the distance to be covered and the fact that by the time the ladder parties got even close to the wall, most had already been shot dead.
At Halifax Nova Scotia there is a major monument, said to be the only Crimean War monument in North America. It is a massive archway named after Halifax officers Welsford and Parker who both were killed trying to mount this very wall... as seen in modern days in the picture above and to the left. Both officers managed to survive the dash to the wall and even climb the ladder. But as Welsford poked his head over the wall his head was blown off by enemy fire. Parker mounted the wall but was as quickly shot dead.
Lt. Raby was the2nd in charge of one of these ladder parties. After a number of attempts, his crew, or what was left of them were in a secure dug out when they heard cries for hep. It was soldier who had both legs badly shot up and was a sitting duck... rather literally in the kill zone of the enemy. On hearing these cries Raby and another officer and two sailors raised out and managed to pick the fellow up and bring him to safety. The sketch to the right and above illustrates this incredible bravery, that took place fully knowing that the likelihood of success was next to none. Three of the four, would later be awarded the Victoria Cross, Raby of course being one of these. One of the two seaman would die the very next day after his VC was gazetted.
The center image above is looking out off the fortification and shows the battlefield that Raby, Welsford, Parker and hundreds of others braved that September day in 1855.
Three months after his actions at the Redan, Lt Raby received a double promotion to the rank of Commander for his bravery. He would continue his service on at least another half dozen ships over the next 28 years and on retirement held the rank of Rear Admiral, as seen on the left.
As you look at the picture you can see the medal known as the Companion of the Order of Bath on the left. Next to it is his Victoria Cross. The Admiral is also proudly wearing the British Crimea Medal with clasps, or campaign bars for Inkerman and Sevastopol, The Turkish Crimea Medal, the Knight of the Legion d' Honneur of France, the Medal of Valour from Sardinia, the Companion to the Order of Bath (military) and the Order of the Medjidie 5th Class from Turkey. On one of these he would also have been wearing several MID clasps.
After Raby retired from the military he took on active roles with the Royal Sailor's Home and also with the Home for Sick Children at Southsea.
Henry James Raby died in February 1907 at the young age of 79 and lies at rest at Southsea, Portsmouth, England.