Victoria Cross Recipients – Keeping it in the Family

Part One – Like Father, Like Son

A startling fact about the Victoria Cross is that around 75% of the recipients were the eldest child of a large family of siblings or the child of a young widow. This interesting little statistic could show a pre-disposition of extraordinary bravery that would seem to be bred into those who were cast into the role of responsibility from an early age, and that their resulting gallantry was the product of an extension of their duty to “look out for” those they were responsible for, above and beyond the standard in much the same way as they looked out for younger siblings or Mother, as a young “man of the house”.

Below are examples which would appear to bear this out, those families who had not one, but two, and on two occasions three members who were all recipients showing that in some instances, valour would seem to be genetic or relative. In its history, the Victoria Cross has been awarded to four pairs of brothers. In one of those instances, there was a son of one of the brothers who also received a Victoria Cross, making a total of three pairs of father and son awards. In two of these cases of brotherly love, the awards were made for the recipients’ actions in saving their brother…..

Also there are several cases of cousins, brothers-in-law, uncles and nephews and so on, which I will cover in later posts, demonstrating that bravery could easily be thought of as something that is bred or taught in certain people, and absent in others. This of course is not to demean those who were sole recipients, or indeed those who fall outside of the above parameters. Each and every one of the recipients of this honour demonstrated his own valour in placing his own life at the feet of his brothers in arms. Each and every man who enlisted and ‘did his bit’, demonstrated an act of courage.

Walter Norris Congreve was born in Staffordshire in November 1862. Educated at Harrow and Pembroke College, Oxford, he later married Cecilia Henrietta Delores Blount La Touche in May, 1890. Their first son, William La Touche Congreve was born the following March, followed by younger brother Geoffrey Cecil, later Baron Congreve (2nd creation), in 1897. In 1899, during the Second Boer War, in action at Colenso, during the siege of Ladysmith the gunners of the 14th and 66th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, were either casualties or had been driven away from their guns under attack; a 500 yard gap lay between the guns and their horses and limber.

Captain Congreve of The Rifle Brigade (Prince Consorts Own) risked his life under heavy enemy fire across the intermediate space, to bring in two of the guns along with five other men, Lieutenant The Hon Frederick Hugh Sherston Roberts, Lieutenant-Colonel Harry Norton Schofield, Captain Hamilton Lyster – more about him in a subsequent post -, Corporal George Nurse and Private George Ravenhill. During this action, Congreve was injured several times, receiving bullet wounds to his arm, shoulder, leg and foot. Despite this, realising Lt Roberts was badly wounded, he returned into the field, assisted by Major William Babtie, RAMC, to retrieve the fallen man. All seven men were to receive the Victoria Cross for these acts of valour, sadly Lt Roberts was to succumb to his injuries. Ravenhill, meanwhile, was to earn further notoriety in a later action – more about that also in a subsequent post. Captain Congreve was later to lose a hand following action in the Great War, both in the Battle of the Aisne and capturing and holding key positions during the battles for Longueval and Delville Wood in the Somme Offensive. Following his service and promotion, Lieutenant-General Walter Congreve VC moved to Malta where he served as the island Governor for 3 years until his death in 1927 where under his wishes, he was buried at sea.

Following his education at Eton, William Congreve followed his father into the Prince Consorts Own, rising to the rank of Major. On 1st June 1916 married Pamela Cynthia Maude. A month later he re-joined his regiment and was positioned close to his father at Longueval for the Somme offensive. During the two weeks between 6th and 20th July, Major Congreve repeatedly placed himself in forward positions to conduct reconnaissance on enemy trenches. When battalion headquarters suffered damage from direct heavy shelling, despite being under the effects of gas, Major Congreve personally assisted in the evacuation of the wounded to a place of safety, before once again taking his position on the front line where he was shortly afterwards shot by a sniper, dying instantly. For these acts of valour over a prolonged period, he was awarded the VC, which now rests in the Royal Green Jackets Museum in Winchester, alongside that of his father. In a sad twist, Pamela, his widow later gave birth to their baby girl, eight months after her father’s death; it is highly unlikely he ever knew he was to be a father. His younger brother, Lieutenant-Commander Baron Congreve, RN, was later awarded the DSO for his actions during a raid in Norway during World War II, followed shortly by his death in action on the coast of France 1941.

In January 1858, The Right Honourable Field Marshall Frederick Sleigh Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts was awarded his VC at the rank of Lieutenant for actions in Khudaganj (Khodagunge) when he took after two Sepoys who had taken flight with a regimental standard. He fought both down, killing one of them before retrieving the colours. Later that day, he came to the rescue of a Sowar, killing the rebel who was bearing down on him. Working his way through previous and subsequent campaigns, including Lucknow, Afghanistan, and the second Boer War, Roberts, father of the above mentioned Hon Frederick Hugh Sherston Roberts VC, eventually gained the rank of Field Marshall, and several subsequent awards and honours. He was the last Commander in Chief of the Forces before the title was disbanded. Following his success in the Second Boer War, he handed over the reins to Lord Kitchener on 12th December 1899, when the sieges seemed to be all but over, and returned to England. His son, as we have seen, was killed three days later.

One amazing example of keeping it in the family would be the Goughs. A family of strong military background, which eventually consisted of three Generals, a Brigadier-General and a Field Marshall, Major Sir Charles John Stanley Gough and his brother Lieutenant Sir Hugh Henry Gough were born in India, and both joined the 5th Bengal Cavalry at a young age. At the outbreak of the India Mutiny in 1857, the Goughs were aged 24 and 23 respectively. For two acts of gallantry three days apart in August 1857, one of which involved actually saving the life of his brother when Hugh was wounded and was being over-powered by the enemy, Charles killing two of them in the process, and two further acts at the beginning of 1858 whereby he killed several more in hand-to hand combat, although outnumbered, Charles Gough was to receive his VC. Both he and his brother eventually rose to the rank of General. More about Sir Hugh in a later post!

Following in his family tradition, Major Sir John Edmond Gough, son of Charles Gough VC, took part at the age of 25 in various campaigns around Africa including Sudan and the Second Boer War. An officer in The Rifle Brigade (Prince Consorts Own) as were the Congreves above, it was during his participation in the Third Somaliland Expedition of 1903 that Major John Gough was to distinguish himself with an act of gallantry by which he very nearly did not receive any recommendation. Whilst leading a column of march on April 22nd 1903, Gough’s unit came under heavy enemy attack. Gough led a spirited defence against far superior numbers, until forced to retreat, all the while still fighting off the enemy led by Mohammed Abdullah Hassan. After getting to a relatively safe distance, Gough looked back to see two Captains of the march struggling to assist a badly wounded fellow officer, and get him to safety. Gough at serious risk to his own life, rushed back to help them lift the officer onto a camel. Sadly he was wounded further, and died almost immediately.

For their actions in trying to rescue their comrade, Captains William George Walker and George Murray Rolland received the Victoria Cross. Later that year, in August, after months of playing down his own role in the rescue attempt, the true extent of his participation was revealed, and in the following January, Major John Gough was awarded his VC by the King. Major John eventually attained the rank of General, as did his brother Hubert, who went on to be famous for leading the Fifth army during the Great War. John was also to become an unofficial but well known sounding board for Sir Douglas Haig. During the Great War, John continued his military career, but more in a command role. Whilst visiting his old battalion, the 2nd rifles, near Neuve Chappelle, on 20th February 1915, John was inadvertently hit by a sniper’s stray bullet which had been fired from around 1000 yards away, which seemingly missed its target and ricocheted, hitting Gough in the stomach. He died of wounds the next day. Sir John’s VC now sits in the Royal Green Jacket’s Museum along with those of the Congreves. His father’s meanwhile is part of Lord Ashcroft’s display at the Imperial War Museum.

My final dabble into the brave world of father and son recipients, is actually one of in-laws. Just to show that the familial connection doesn’t have to be blood. Also this family lays claim as do the Goughs, to a strong military background, on both sides. However theirs goes back further. I will start with Field Marshall The Right Honourable John Standish Surtees Prendergast Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort. Bit of a mouthful, but as a direct descendant of one Thomas Gage of American Revolutionary Wars fame, we can perhaps forgive him. Born in 1886, in London as a member of the illustrious Prendergast-Vereker line, he was educated at Harrow and succeeded his father’s title in 1902 at the age of 16. After his education, he entered the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, in 1904 and progressed to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant of the Grenadier Guards the following year, two years later, making Lieutenant. After being a key player in the funeral procession in 1910 of King Edward VII, Sir John married in 1911 and had three children, two sons, one of whom died as a toddler, and the other being killed in 1941 also as a lieutenant in the Grenadiers, and a daughter, Jacqueline.
At the outbreak of the Great War, Sir John was promoted to Major and sent with the early BEF forces to France, where he took part in action in the retreat of Mons, the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Passchendaele over the following three years, earning himself further promotion and several decorations for bravery. As the war entered its closing stages, Sir John demonstrated extreme valour; earning him a Victoria Cross. His citation reads:

For most conspicuous bravery, skilful leading and devotion to duty during the attack of the Guards Division on 27th September 1918, across the Canal du Nord, near Flesquieres, when in command of the 1st Battalion, Grenadier Guards, the leading battalion of the 3rd Guards Brigade. Under heavy artillery and machine-gun fire he led his battalion with great skill and determination to the “forming-up” ground, where very severe fire from artillery and machine guns was again encountered. Although wounded, he quickly grasped the situation, directed a platoon to proceed down a sunken road to make a flanking attack, and, under terrific fire, went across open ground to obtain the assistance of a Tank, which he personally led and directed to the best possible advantage. While thus fearlessly exposing himself, he was again severely wounded by a shell. Notwithstanding considerable loss of blood, after lying on a stretcher for awhile [sic], he insisted on getting up and personally directing the further attack. By his magnificent example of devotion to duty and utter disregard of personal safety all ranks were inspired to exert themselves to the utmost, and the attack resulted in the capture of over 200 prisoners, two batteries of field guns and numerous machine guns. Lt.-Col. Viscount Gort then proceeded to organise the defence of the captured position until he collapsed; even then he refused to leave the field until he had seen the “success signal” go up on the final objective. The successful advance of the battalion was mainly due to the valour, devotion and leadership of this very gallant officer.

As World War 2 broke out, Gort was given command of the BEF and the following year, his daughter married Sir William Sidney, only son of William Sidney, 5th Baron De L’Isle and Dudley, one of the oldest and most distinguished noble families in England with an illegitimate line of descendency to William IV and an obvious legitimate one to Sir Philip Sidney, courtiers to the Tudor dynasty. He succeeded his father as 6th Baron in 1945. Born in 1909, Sir William was educated at first Eton, and then later at Magdalene College, Cambridge before graduating into Chartered Accountancy and joining the Grenadier Guards Reserve of Officers. Sir William took part in action in both France and Italy, in 1944 he led two attacks on the enemy whilst defending the Anzio Beach-head and drove the Germans out of a Gully from where they had been positioned to fire upon his command, in the second instance, charging the enemy at point blank range firing his gun until they were either killed, wounded or fled. During this action, Sidney was wounded, but despite his injuries he refused to seek medical assistance, until the position had been consolidated and the enemy retreated.

For this action he was awarded the Victoria Cross. Later Sir William would be asked where he had been shot, and famously – not to mention coyly- replied “In Italy!” Both Sir William and his father in law are interred in the family vault, in the Sidney Chapel in the Church of St John the Baptist beside the family seat at Penshurst Place.

I hope you have all enjoyed part one of this mini-series. Look forward to part two where I discuss brothers who have been awarded the VC.

Phoebe