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The First Welsh VC

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 09:56 UK time, Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The date 8 September might not mean very much to most people. But on that day in 1856 Corporal Robert Shields won the first ever Welsh Victoria Cross. It was for an act of great bravery and courage during the Crimean War and Shields was not only the first Welshman to ever win the award, he was also one of the first 60 men to win this, the highest British medal for conspicuous gallantry.

Queen Victoria had only recently instituted the Victoria Cross, a Royal Warrant authorizing the medal being issued on 29 January 1856, barely seven or eight months before Shields' act of gallantry. The medal was meant to be awarded to men and officers alike, regardless of whether they served in the army or the navy, with no distinction for rank or position.

The Crimean War had broken out in October 1853. Its causes were many and varied but not least amongst them was the long-running dispute over the breakup of the old Ottoman Empire. On the one side were ranged the combined might of the Allied forces - Britain, France and Turkey - while standing alone against them was the huge Russian Empire.

The war was actually fought over many areas, including the Pacific, the Baltic and the Caucasus, but most of the action took place on the Crimean Peninsula. It was a war of terrible mistakes and mis-management and, these days, is chiefly remembered for the work of Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole and Betsy Cadwalader.

The campaign in the Crimea began in September 1854 and immediately troops were subjected to freezing conditions - which often resulted in frostbite - in the winter, broiling heat and fever in the summer.

Numerous battles took place and the city of Sevastopol was surrounded by Allied forces. The Russian commander Prince Menshikov withdrew from the city, leaving the defence to two Admirals, Kornilov and Nakhimov. The siege wore on and on and it was here that Shields was destined to win his medal.

On the morning of 8th September 1856 he volunteered to accompany Assistant Surgeon William Henry Thomas Sylvester in order to rescue a wounded officer who had been shot down not far from their position outside the city walls.

The officer in question was Lieutenant Dyneley, the Adjutant of Shields' own unit, the 23rd Regiment, Royal Welch Fusiliers. He had been shot and wounded close to the Redan, a fort built outside Sevastopol and then occupied by dozens of Russian troops. It was an exposed and dangerous part of the line and to venture close to the Redan, under the fire of the Russian infantry and artillery, was a foolhardy thing to do. Nevertheless, Sylvester and Shields decided to try to save the wounded man.

Together, they reached Dyneley but it was quickly apparent that his wounds were more serious than either of them had imagined. Sylvester dressed his wounds as well as he was able under Russian fire and, together, they brought then injureded man back to the shelter of their trenches. Sadly, Dyneley soon died from his wounds. For their courage under enemy fire, both men were recommended for the Victoria Cross. It was an award that was quickly approved.

Corporal Robert Shields was subsequently on parade for the very first presentation of the new medal. This took place in Hyde Park on 26 June 1857 when 62 men from the army and navy were presented with the award by Queen Victoria. In those early days the navy ribbon to the VC was blue, the army one crimson. This was later changed and all Victoria Cross medals now have a crimson ribbon.

Little else is known about Robert Shields. He came from Cardiff and was just 28 years old when he won the VC.

Sadly, he did not live much longer, being posted to India at the end of the war and dying there, in Bombay, on 23 December 1864. Presumably, like many soldiers in those days of poor medical care, he succumbed to fever. He was buried in the Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral in Bombay - which does, at least, suppose that he was a practising Catholic.

A few years later, in the Boys Own Volume of 1860, there appeared a drawing of shields, complete with long bushy beard - something many of the soldiers sported during the Crimean war - discovering the body of Lieutenant Dyneley. Surgeon Sylvester does not feature in the illustration - quite why has never been explained.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Since I wrote the above blog I have tried to find out how many Welshmen have won the Victoria Cross. By my count only 39 people with a Welsh background - or connection of some sort - have ever been awarded the medal. Of course this could be wildly wrong and I would be grateful if somebody out there could come up with an accurate figure. Interestingly, when you consider the Rorkes Drift action during the Zulu Wars, only three of the 11 VCs won that day were actually awarded to welshmen.

 

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