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A South Australian treasure: the VC to Sergeant Major John Grieve.

150 years ago on 29 January 1856, Queen Victoria signed a Royal Warrant instituting a new naval and military decoration for gallantry, the Victoria Cross. The new medal was for both officers and men who had served "in the presence of the enemy and shall then have performed some signal act of valour or devotion to their country ... neither rank nor long service nor wounds nor any other circumstance or condition whatsoever save the merit of conspicuous bravery shall be held to establish a sufficient claim for the honour.

The Crimean War produced three gallantry awards. In 1854 the Distinguished Conduct Medal was instituted for Army non commissioned officers and other ranks. In 1855 the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal was introduced for petty officers and sailors. Senior Officers were eligible for the Order of the Bath but it was not until the institution of the Victoria Cross in 1856 that there was a medal for the company officers more directly involved in the fighting. However, as well as junior officers, the Victoria Cross was open to all ranks.

In 1854, Britain became engaged in the first European War for 50 years. The war quickly revealed a number of defects in the British Army including the lack of appropriate recognition for gallantry. The credit for bringing to public attention the shortcomings of existing means of recognition goes to Captain G.T. Scholl, MP. On 18 December 1854 he moved in the House of Commons that an Order of Merit should be instituted to recognize distinguished and prominent personal gallantry of members of the army and navy then fighting in the Crimea. Having debated the matter in the Commons and having been assured that the question was under consideration, he withdrew his motion.

The Duke of Newcastle, then Secretary of War, had previously without success raised the issue of individual recognition with Albert, the Prince Consort. Following the Commons debate he raised the matter again with the Prince Consort who now supported the proposal that a new decoration be instituted. On 22 January 1855 he prepared a draft of the conditions for the proposed award. A week later the Duke of Newcastle announced to the House of Lords that a Cross of Merit, open to all ranks, would be introduced.

The Order of Merit proposed by Captain Scholl, MP, in December 1854 became the Cross of Merit in the Duke of Newcastle's January 1855 statement and by January 1856 had evolved into the Victoria Cross. However, a further twelve months would pass before the first recipients of the Victoria Cross were announced.

On 24 February 1857, the London Gazette promulgated 85 Victoria Cross awards; 27 for the Royal Navy and Royal Marines and 58 for the Army. The awards appeared in the gazette in order of seniority. For the Royal Navy it was individual seniority but for the Army the awards were in regimental order of precedence with the senior regiment to appear being the 2nd Dragoons (the Royal Scots Greys).

The only member of the Royal Scots Greys to appear in the first list of recipients was Sergeant Major John Grieve who has the distinction of being the first Army recipient gazetted with the Victoria Cross. He was commended for gallantry during the Charge of the Heavy Brigade at Balaclava on 25 October 1854. Grieve is not chronologically the first Army recipient. That honour belongs to eight officers and men from five regiments decorated for gallantry at the Alma on 20 September 1854. As was common for Crimean War awards, four of the recipients were commended for multiple dates including Sergeant John Park of the 77th Regiment. He received his medal in Sydney in March 1858 while his regiment was stationed in New South Wales.

Following success at Alma, the British, French and Turkish forces proceeded to besiege Sebastopol. South of Sebastopol is the small port of Balaclava where the British established a supply base. On 25 October, four Russian columns attacked Balaclava in force. Three Russian battalions under General Gribbe seized the village of Kamara while a second column of five battalions under General Semiakin assaulted Canrobert's Hill. Kamara and Canrobert's Hill were defended by Turkish troops who although outnumbered, resisted stubbornly and with great gallantry until they lost a third of their men; they then retreated towards Balaclava's harbour.

The Balaclava plain was split from left to right by the Causeway Heights along which ran the Woronzov Road. Six redoubts were positioned on the Causeway Heights and were manned by Turkish troops. These troops, demoralised by the retreat from Kamara and Canrobert's Hill, fled when the Russians turned their artillery on the redoubts, the objectives of General Levontski's and Colonel Scuderi's columns. The 12-pounders in the redoubts were spiked by their British gunners before the Russians occupied four of the positions.

Only the British Cavalry Division and the 93rd Highlanders stood between the Russians and Balaclava. Following the Russian infantry was the main body of Russian cavalry which moved from the North Valley over the Causeway Heights into the South Valley towards the town of Balaclava. In direct line between the Russians and Balaclava, under the command of Sir Colin Campbell stood 700 troops including 550 Highlanders of the 93rd Regiment (Sutherland Highlanders). Four Russian squadrons split from the main body of Russian cavalry and were seen to wheel towards Balaclava. Campbell ordered his men to line up on the crest of a hillock in what history knows as the "Thin Red Line". At 500 meters the Highlanders fired, a second volley was fired at 300 yards and a third at 150 meters. The Russian formation broke and wheeled back towards the Causeway.

Lord Lucan, the commander of the Cavalry Division sent the Heavy Brigade of 800 men under Brigadier General Scarlett to support Campbell. Scarlett was 55 years old and had seen no active service prior to Crimea. However, he did not discount the value of active service and had selected as aide-de-camp Captain Alexander Elliott who had seen active service in India with the 8th Bengal Calvary.

The main body of General Rykoff's Russian cavalry of about 3000 men in blue and silver uniforms came into view on the skyline as the Heavy Cavalry moved into position. Because of the nature of the terrain, Scarlett's Brigade was moving in two irregularly spaced columns. Scarlett was leading the two squadrons of Scots Greys and a squadron of Inniskilling Dragoons. To their right was another squadron of Inniskilling Dragoons and the 5th Dragoons. In reserve, in the rear were the 4th Dragoons.

The Russians had the advantage of both higher ground and superior numbers, but Lord Lucan ordered Scarlett to immediately attack. Before ordering the attack, Scaflett first aligned his squadrons. Instead of charging down and engulfing the Heavy Cavalry, the Russians halted and watched the British preparations. Having completed his unhurried preparations, Scarlett then gave the order to advance.

The Heavy Cavalry charged towards the Russians. Scarlett with Captain Elliott and two troopers was fifty metres in the lead of his column of 300 sabres. The Scots Greys and Inniskilling Dragoons smashed into the Russian ranks and cut and slashed their way through. The 5th Dragoons attacked the Russian centre and Lord Lucan ordered the 4th Dragoons, from reserve, to attack the Russian flank. As the flank attack came in, the Scots Greys and the Inniskillings emerged from the chaos and eight minutes after it all began the Russians reeled, broke up and turned to scatter in complete disorder.

In the midst of the action, while the two sides were inextricably mixed, Sergeant Major John Grieve performed the actions for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. His citation states that he:
 Saved the life of an officer, in the Heavy Cavalry Charge at
 Balaclava, who was surrounded by Russian cavalry, by his gallant
 conduct in riding up to his rescue and cutting off the head of one
 Russian, disabling and dispersing the others.


The casualties on both sides were surprisingly light, the British suffering about 80, the Russians about 200. The congestion, blunt sabres and thick grey coats worn by the Russians contributed to a small toll but the moral effect was great. The Heavy Brigade had won a clean-cut and important victory. The triumph could have been greater if the Light Brigade had followed up the retreating Russians. However, Lord Cardigan, the commander of the Light Brigade, despite pleas from his subordinate, refused to move from where he had been ordered to remain. Instead of exploiting the Heavy Cavalry's success, Lord Cardigan allowed the opportunity to slip away. Later that day, Lord Cardigan refused to question an ambiguous order and the Light Brigade, made its famous but catastrophic and futile charge.

On 21 July 1856, six months after signing the Royal Warrant instituting the Victoria Cross, Queen Victoria wrote to the Secretary of War pointing out that the forces that had served in Crimea had returned home and that "distinctions always have the more effect when they are given without delay". However it was not until 2 February 1857 that a board of senior officers met to consider the numerous recommendations. Two lists of names were prepared for formal submission to Queen Victoria, one for the Royal Navy and Royal Marines and the other for the Army. The lists were submitted to the Queen on 15 February who suggested one amendment. Following the publication of the first list of recipients on 24 February 1857 it was another four months before the any awards were presented to recipients.

The first presentation of the Victoria Cross was made by Queen Victoria in Hyde Park on 26 June 1857 when over 100,000 people assembled to see the event. The troops on parade formed up under the command of Sir Colin Campbell who had commanded the "Thin Red Line". The Royal party arrived at 10 am with Queen Victoria accompanied by an impressive entourage escorted by the Royal Horse Guards. The Queen wore a suitably adapted Field-Marshal's uniform and took her position for the ceremony with Prince Alfred, who the previous day was conferred with the title of Prince Consort, on her left.

The recipients of the Victoria Cross were drawn up in front of the troops. When all was ready, each man filed past the Queen. The Secretary of State for War handed a medal to the Queen who stooped from her saddle and fixed it on the man's chest. The Navy filed past first and Commander Henry John Raby was the first to receive his medal. Lieutenant Charles Davis Lucas, who chronologically was the first recipient of the Victoria Cross, and, who was cited for his gallantry in the Baltic, was the fourth to receive his medal. The 12 naval officers and sailors were followed by two Royal Marines. The 48 Army recipients were presented to the Queen in regimental order of precedence and again Sergeant Major John Grieve headed the Army group. Although not chronologically the first army recipient of the Victoria Cross, Sergeant Major John Grieve has the distinction of receiving the first Army Victoria Cross gazetted and the first Army Victoria Cross presented.
 It is not a thing that should be suffered to die away. When he cut
 off a soldier's head at a blow, and disabled and dispersed several
 others, he had no very exciting motives of self-devotion. Pay,
 promotion, or popularity could not well enter his head, for he
 knew the rules of the Service about rising from the ranks, and he
 knew too, that the British public rarely asks the names of the poor
 privates and non-commissioned officers who fall. What John Grieve
 did, then, was an act of the purest and most unselfish heroism; but
 I daresay, when the Queen pinned the Cross to his breast in Hyde
 Park that day, he felt he was more than rewarded for what to him
 was a very ordinary matter-of-fact bit of duty.


John Grieve was born in Scotland on 3 May 1822 at Musselburgh in what is now the eastern outskirts of Edinburgh. According to a nephew, Mr Charles Grieve, his uncle as a young man ran through a small fortune and then enlisted in the Scots Greys. He became Comet without purchase on 4 December 1857, Adjutant on 15 February 1859 and Lieutenant on 30 January 1863. He died aged 52 on 1 December 1873 at Inveresk, Mid Lothian, Scotland. He was buried four days later at St Michael's Churchyard, Inveresk and was interred in his mother's grave. Sadly, the grave remained unmarked for 130 years.

On 21 August 2003 at Piershill Cemetery, Edinburgh, the Royal Highland Fusiliers in conjunction with the Royal Scots Grays and the Black Watch placed a memorial stone over the previously unmarked grave of Private George Wilson VC. On either side of the Wilson grave were memorial stones commemorating Grieve and Indian Mutiny VC recipient Private James Davis, 42nd Regiment (The Black Watch). The memorial stones were later placed over the graves of Grieve at Inveresk and Davis in North Merchiston Cemetery, Edinburgh.

When I wrote an article on John Grieve 15 years ago I ended with the statement that the second edition to The Register of the Victoria Cross indicates that John Grieve is the great uncle of Captain Robert Cuthbert Grieve (1889-1957) who was awarded the Victoria Cross with the 37th Battalion, AIF at Messines on 7 June 1917. The source of the story that the two VC recipients named Grieve were related would seem to be a paragraph that appeared in the Times on 29 May 1964. It read:
 During the Crimean campaign John Grieve sent home 75
 [pounds sterling] to Robert Grieve. If Robert Grieve was his
 brother and also emigrated, then some relationship may be
 established between the Crimean VC and an Australian Army VC
 of the First World War Captain Robert Cuthbert Grieve ...


Descendents of both Grieve families have been in contact with each other trying to find a family connection but so for without success. While there might be a connection further back, the claim that John Grieve VC is the great uncle of Captain Robert Cuthbert Grieve VC seems unlikely. However a nephew of John Grieve VC did arrive in Australia in 1880.

John Grieve Oliver, the son of Catherine Oliver, a sister of John Grieve VC worked with the South Australian Railways until he retired in 1925. His mother sent the Victoria Cross to her son in Australia. In 1918 seeing an appeal by the Adelaide Museum for a Victoria Cross for its medal collection John Grieve Oliver loaned his uncle's medals to the museum. In 1936 he gifted the medals to the museum. At that time he was a widower in his mid 70s with five grand daughters but no grandsons.

The Victoria Cross was on display the Elder Wing (Australian Collection) of the Art Gallery of South Australian for Anzac Day 2005 and remained on display 1 May. The Art Gallery of South Australia maintains a public access policy enabling you to view any object(s) in the collection (not on display) during normal office hours and this can be arranged by appointment. Unfortunately this visit is too brief to arrange for an inspection but I will soon be back in Adelaide to see this South Australian treasure.

Charles Dickens wrote of Grieve's gallantry in an early edition of his journal All the Year Round:
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Title Annotation:Victoria Cross
Author:Staunton, Anthony
Publication:Sabretache
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Sep 1, 2006
Words:2569
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