Nine Valiant Academicals – Edinburgh’s Victoria Cross heroes.

This is a presentation I gave in 2015 on the nine men – the ‘Nine Valiant Academicals’ as they have been termed ( by writer Alisdair Macintyre in his 2007 book of the same name) who from military training at Stockbridge’s own Edinburgh Academy went on to win the Victoria Cross – the world’s highest decoration for bravery in the face of the enemy. As a Stockbridge resident myself, it is amazing to read these stories and just as amazing to present them and I have promised myself for a long time to put this out there to a wider audience.

The Victoria Cross

Prior to the creation of the VC, the armies of Great Britain and the Commonwealth had no real personal order of merit – or distinction of bravery for the common soldier or sailor. Generals and officers – usually over the rank of Major, could be decorated or rewarded, but there was nothing to distinguish the common soldier as an individual – indeed the Waterloo Medal of 1815 was the first medal most common soldiers had received. All this was to change in the Crimean War.

The Crimean War lasted from 1854-1856 with the armies of Britain, France, Sardinia and Turkey against Russia. It was famous for the great battles of Alma, Balavlava and Inkermann – and of course for the terrible siege of Sebastopol…but there was something more. The British Army hadn’t really fought much of a war – outside of India – since Waterloo forty years before. Back then, newspapers would report on great and stunning victories from stories heard second and third hand – and some would even invent the details. All the public had known was great Generals such as Wellington – but the common soldier had remained largely forgotten. Now for the first time, however, the Crimean War saw the arrival of the popular press who followed the army, saw the battles and the suffering, lived with and spoke with the soldiers, and reported back a very different image of war to that which the British public had become accustomed to.

 William Russell

It was William Russell of the Times who changed how warfare was to be perceived for good and, far from tales of glorious cavalry charges led by heroic Generals, the public for the first time saw the lot of the common soldier. And they were horrified. Through bad generalship, a non-existent supply situation, disease and appalling medical care, the British Army was dying in the Crimea. Of 21,000 British soldiers and sailors killed in that war, it is estimated that 16,000 died from disease, malnutrition and bad medical care, and the public read every word of it.

For the first time, the British Generals were accountable, and the public was angry. But what they also saw for the first time were stories, accurate sketches and now even photographs of the true heroes – the common soldiers who despite every inadequacy were fighting for their lives and winning against vast odds. Now the common soldier was the hero and the General – at least the one who did not do his duty, was the villain of the story – it remains so to this day. All this began with William Russell.

Even before the war ended, Queen Victoria and Parliament began to feel the sway of public opinion and answered the call for a medal to be struck – open to all ranks and branches of the service, to honour the heroic deeds of the common soldier. Queen Victoria said the award should be plain – as the men themselves were, of little monetary value so that it could not be sold, that it should come with a financial reward and a lifetime pension and that it should come before all other awards, titles or badges of merit. The military establishment opposed the plan, stating that it might lead soldiers into breaking from their ranks to perform some foolhardy and heroic act, but Queen Victoria had her way. Finally Parliament suggested the medal should bear the motif “For the Brave” – but Victoria was against this. All her soldiers were brave, she said, and so the Victoria Cross was created on January 29th 1856 with the simple motto “For Valour”

The Victoria Cross was backdated to 1854 to take account of the Crimean War, and no less than 111 soldiers and sailors were decorated with the Order in June 1857 in Hyde Park.

So how hard is the Victoria Cross to win? – Officially, the Victoria Cross is the single hardest gallantry order to win in the world…and certainly the rarest. To be eligible, a soldier had to comply with no less than fifteen ‘rules and ordinances’ laid down by Parliament and approved by the army and the War Office. The basic premise for being awarded the VC is; “Most conspicuous bravery, or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.”

Although it is hard to quanitfy this, there are in fact a number of considerations which have to be satisfied to be eligible, which include;

Some great act of personal bravery in the face of the enemy without regard to life or personal safety – when citations are reviewed, the element  of ‘self preservation’ is considered and, if found, the decoration will not be granted.

The act must be performed pre-eminently – in other words not planned but instinctive.

It must be some act which materially affected the outcome of the battle or action in question. Again, your bravery must have some impact on turning the tide of the action.

It should be an act which saved the life – or lives, of ones comrades and had to be done with what is generally agreed to as a less than 10% chance of survival.

And finally a last key element – someone has to see you do it, ideally a senior officer who can corroborate the facts and who takes it upon themselves to write a citation requesting the award…which means your senior officer has to actually like you!

If the nominee for the VC was wounded in action and carried on doing their duty, then extra ‘Brownie-points’ were awarded. Perform all of this and you might just be eligible for the Victoria Cross!

One final element was added – although not always adhered to – in that it was expected that serving officers should be expected to do more to earn the nomination than a common soldier. More was expected of an officer in terms of leadership, and an officer had more freedom of movement around the battlefield, and so could more easily perform such a gallant act, and so the rules pertaining to officers were stricter. Finally, perhaps the toughest consideration was this; each time the Victoria Cross was awarded, the bar was set higher…it became harder and harder to win, as we shall see.

Since its creation, only 1,355 Victoria Crosses have been awarded. In almost the same time, by contrast, the Congressional Medal of Honor has been won 3,449 times – which makes the VC two and a half times rarer. Here really begins the story of the Victoria Cross – because – as we shall see, the men who won it were all heroes – even those very first recipients who had to go ‘Above and beyond the call of duty’ – but the survivability rate of such a decoration has by now become almost impossible. The tale of these Nine Valiant Academicals from Stockbridge will, I hope, bear that out. Not in the Crimean War, however, but in the Indian Mutiny of 1857-1858 do we find our first three winners of the Victoria Cross:

Thomas Cadell VC

Thomas Cadell was born in Cockenzie East Lothian in 1835. He attended Edinburgh Academy between 1845-1848 and in 1854 obtained a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 2nd European Bengal Fusiliers. Thomas saw some active service along the frontier in Burma, but really he achieved nothing special – indeed there was no early mark of his being an especially good soldier.

In 1857 however, he was stationed in India, and then the Mutiny broke out. The mutineers had flocked to Delhi and captured it in May of that year, putting the British garrison to the sword, and now a British force was sent to recapture the city. Arriving a month later, the British regiments – including the 2nd Bengal Fusiliers, battled the mutineers back to around the walls of the city. Desperate not be penned in, the mutineer army battled furiously for every outlying fort or outpost, launching wave after wave of attacks against the British lines. One such attack came at the Flagstaff Outpost on June 12th where Thomas Cadell was stationed with his own regiment and the 75th regiment who were alongside.

(Flagstaff Tower, Delhi)

When the Indians attacked, in overwhelming numbers, the British forces were pushed back, but Thomas Cadell not only fought to hold his position as long as possible, but even advanced to save his comrades.

His citation reads; “For having, on the 12th June 1857, at the flagstaff picquet at Delhi, when the whole of the picquet of Her Majesty’s 75th Reginment and 2nd European Bengal Fusiliers were driven in by a large body of the enemy, brought in from amongst the enemy a wounded bugler of his own regiment under a most severe fire, who would otherwise have been cut up by the rebels. Also, the same day, when the Fusiliers were retiring, by order, on Metcalfe’s House, on its being reported that there was a wounded man left behind, Lieutenant cadell went back of his own accord towards the enemy, accompanied by three men, and brought a man in of the 75th Regiment, who was severely wounded, under a most heavy fire from the advancing enemy.”

Suddenly Thomas Cadell was a soldier of renown, and he served throughout the mutiny, and into 1860 mopping up the last bands of resistance along the frontiers in the north of India, being mentioned in dispatches and also receiving the thanks of the Governor General for his services. By 1884 Thomas had risen to the rank of full Colonel. He became Governor General of the Andaman and Nicobar islands between 1879-1892 until he retired aged 57. In retirement, Thomas returned to East Lothian, and there he became renowned as a philanthropist and a great public figure. He promoted education – giving vast endowments for the establishment of schools, became County Councillor, worked tirelessly for the poor, and worked closely to enhance the lot of the fishing community. In 1906 Thomas was made a Companion of the Bath for his tireless services, and he returned to serve on the Court of Directors for Edinburgh Academy from 1907 until his death in 1919. The turn out for his funeral was enormous.

In just this first example, I hope to show that the Victoria Cross in many ways made the men who bore it, but hopefully that such men truly made it mean something by more than a single act of bravery.

James Hills VC

James Hills was born in Neechindipur Bengal in 1833 and came to Edinburgh aged just ten to study at the Academy between 1843-1847 – he was at school with our first VC winner Thomas Cadell. In 1853 aged 20, he took up a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Bengal Artillery and was posted to India. In 1857 James Hills’ path would cross that of Thomas Cadell again, as Hills was sent to retake Delhi, and found himself in the siege lines, facing the same waves of attack as Cadell had. It was whilst on outpost duty on July 9th that Hills and his small detachment were assailed by enemy cavalry, on a day that both Hills and his Colonel were to win the Victoria Cross.

The citation read: “For very gallant conduct on the part of Lieutenant Hills before Delhi, in defending the position assigned to him in case of alarm, and for noble behaviour on the part of Lieutenant-Colonel Tombs in twice coming to his subaltern’s rescue, and on each occasion killing his man.”

Now this sounds a bit obscure, and doubtless many challenged the validity of his recommendation, until it seems, a note was attached to it, which explained Hills’ part more fully: “During the siege of Delhi whilst on picket duty with two guns on a hill near the camp, his force was suddenly atacked by rebel cavalry. Without hesiotation, ho rode straight at the enemy, single-handed, in order to cause a commotion and give the guns time to load. He cut down two rebels before being thrown from his horse by two sowars charging together. Now on foot, he managed to fight off two more assailants and was about to be killed by a third when Tombs came to his assistance.”

He not only charged the enemy single-handed – he rode in front of his own cannon, fully expecting them to fire and probably kill him. This is the real ‘stuff’ of the VC – an act of pre-eminent valour, done without regard to life or safety against the odds, which saved his post and turned the tide of the action, an action in which, by all rights, he should have been killed, if not by the enemy, then by his own side.

Following the winning of the Victoria Cross, Hills was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and served throughout the mutiny at the siege of Lucknow, the Battle of Bareilly and a number of other actions. For his services, Hills was appointed personal Aide to the Viceroy of India – Lord Canning, and in 1868 – now a Brigade Major of some renown, he travelled to Abyssinia to take part in the war there which was to be one of the greatest feats of the British army – being present at the final battle of Arogi and commanding a mortar battery at the siege of the stronghold of Magdala. By 1886 he had achieved the rank of Lieutenant General retiring in 1888.

He returned to his ancestral home of Carmarthenshire where he held various posts, being Justice of the Peace, Deputy Lieutenant for Carmarthenshire, and Freeman of the County and Burgh of that place. He was appointed Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, made an honorary Colonel of several regiments and was awarded a Honorary degree from the University of Wales. He died in 1919.

John Tytler VC

The third of our Indian Mutiny VC winners is John Tytler. He was born in India in 1825 and attended Edinburgh Academy from 1838-1840 pre-dating both Thomas Cadell and James Hills by a few years. Unlike those two, John was already an experienced soldier by the time the Mutiny came about, having been in the army since 1844 as a Lieutenant in the 66th Gurkha Regiment and served in Peshwar under another of Scotland’s great soldiers, Sir Colin Campbell.

He fought in several of the battles and sieges of that war until by February 1858 the Mutiny was in its death throes, and the rebels had been chased into the northern provinces and mountains around Choorpoorah in what is now Kashmir. Here the rebels entrenched themselves, and John Tytler was sent to storm their positions. Advancing, the Gurkhas stalled under a hail of fire from the Mutineers, and now John dashed forward alone to lead his men on and to divert the fire from them as his citation recalled; “On the attacking parties’ approaching the enemy’s position under a heavy fire of round shot, grape and musketry, on the occasion of the action at Choopoorah on 10th February last, Lieutenant Tytler dashed on horseback ahead of all, and alone, up to the enemy’s guns, where he remained engaged hand to hand, until they were carried by us; and where he was shot rhough the left arm, had a spear wound on his chest and a ball through the right sleeve of his coat.”

John’s actions ensured that his Gurkhas, stirred by his example, won the day, and although wounded and sent to hospital, he recovered quickly and took part in the last actions of the war. He soon rose to be the commander of his regiment – now renamed the 4th Gurkhas, and led them in several campaigns, being again mentioned in despatches for bravery.

Commander of the Bath in 1872 he was promoted to Brigadier General soon after, and now led his Gurkhas as part of a flanking Brigade in the Second Afghan War, and successfully fought several actions, being responsible for a great deal of the success of the campaign until the peace of 1879 when he was forced to resign his command due to ill-health. However, the peace treaty was soon violated, the British embassy at Kabul was massacred, and Tytler now rose from his sick-bed to resume his command, against the orders of his doctors.

By now, he was considered the finest mountain-warfare General in the British Army, and he proved it by rejoining his command and attacking the Afghans in their mountain positions, personally leading a flanking march which turned the enemy out of an impregnable stronghold and winning a battle all his own. However, his illness not being recovered from, the campaign took its toll on him and in the beginning of 1880 he contracted pneumonia and died. He is still remembered by the Gurkhas to this day as the man who recruited and trained them from being raw levies into one of the finest forces in the British Army.

James Dundas VC

Our fourth Edinburgh Academical is James Dundas who was born in 1842 in Abercrombie Place, Edinburgh, and who attended the Edinburgh Academy between 1852-1855. In 1860 James was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Bengal Royal Engineers, which he joined in India after training in 1862.

He had a relatively easy career, being appointed to the Public Works department at Rurki where his abilities soon saw him promoted to the post of Executive Engineer for the region. In 1864 the North Indian state of Bhutan fell into civil war, and the rebel factions ousted the British supported governor and set up a rival government which Britain was determined to depose. It was a one-sided war, with British regulars – amongst them James Dundas of the Engineers, against little more than a rabble – albeit a determined one. At the battle of Dewan-Giri on April 30th 1865 the British routed their opponents apart from some 200 fanatics who holed themselves up in a block-house or fort, and forces – amongst them James Dundas and his fellow officer William Spottiswoode Trevor – were sent to clear them out.

His citation reads; “Major-General Tombs, CB, VC, the officer in command at the time, reports that a party of the enemy, from 180 to 200 in number, had barricaded themselves into the block-house in question, which they continued to defend after the rest of the position had been carried and the main body was in retreat. The block-house, which was loop-holed, was the key of the enemy’s position. Seeing no officer of the storming party near him, and being anxious that the place should be taken immediately, as any protracted resistance might have caused the main body of the Bhooteas to rally, the British force having been fighting in a broiling sun on very steep and difficult ground for upwards of three hours, the general in command ordered  these two officers to show the way into the block-house. They had to climb up a wall which was 14 feet high, and then to enter the house, occupied by some 200 desperate men, head-foremost through an opening not more than two feet wide between the top of the wall and the roof of the block-house. Major-General Tombs states that on speaking to the Skih soldiers around him, and telling them in Hindoostani to swarm up the wall, none of them responded to the call, until these two officers had shown them the way, when they followed with the greatest alacrity. Both of them were wounded.”

Now this sounds like an act of great bravery, but initially the request for the VC was blocked by the commander-in-chief Sir William Mansfeld, who felt that Engineer officers such as Dundas and Trevor had no business becoming involved in what he saw as infantry operations, and that; “In my opinion, Dundas, as Engineer Officer, had acted officiously and altogether out of order in entering at all int0 the struggle. In fact I consider that they were guilty of an irregularity which, if repeated, might prove seriously detrimental to the discipline of the army and which I am determined not to encourage.”

Eventually however, the intervention of the Governor-General proved final, and the commendations for both were sent to Horse Guards for approval. It took three years for the awards to be confirmed, and the matter was personally decided by Queen Victoria. In 1871 James Dundas returned to the Public Works department, where he resumed his duties, becoming personal assistant to General Taylor who ran it. He was hard working and determined to see to everything himself, as one subaltern wrote, he was; “A most anxious fellow…frightfully hard working…he does not give us subs enough to do of the work…always getting up at the most unearthly hours, though not a coolie shows his face until some hours later.” 

Seven years were to pass here until his next heroic exploit, when James was posted to the British outpost at Simla. One day when walking by, he was alerted to a fire which had taken hold of a house. The roof had fallen in and trapped a local Indian man. James Dundas at once dashed into the flames, severely burning his hands but rescuing the man on the second attempt with the help of another officer. The following year, James was promoted to the very height of the Public Works Department, but this time he refused the offer. The popular General Roberts was leading a punitive expedition into Afghanistan, and James determined to take part.

As Roberts advanced and took Kabul, James Dundas and a fellow officer named Charles Nugent were sent to aid in the destruction of a line of enemy forts which overlooked the British encampment. Lacking the right equipment, the two were forced to make their own improvised fuses for the explosives. It was December 23rd 1879 when the explosives detonated prematurely, and James Dundas and Charles Newgent were both killed instantly.

Just a few years ago, the British Army once again invaded Afghanistan, and to connect their outposts, the Royal Engineers built a bridge on a key road between Kabul and Bagram. When it was completed – after just thirteen days, they named it the ‘Dundas Bridge’. It still stands today.

John Cook VC

Our fifth ‘Valiant Academical’ is John Cook who served throughout the second and third Afghan wars already alluded to. He was born in 1843 in Darnaway Street, Edinburgh, and lived in his childhood in North Castle Street. He attended Edinburgh Academy between 1852-1856 and was in the same class as James Dundas, whose career we have just discussed.

In 1860 John Cook joined the Indian Army and left immediately to join his new command, finally settling in the 3rd Sikh Regiment. With these, he soon joined in the Umbeleya campaign and at once showed his bravery, being mentioned in dispatches and receiving the thanks of his Colonel for leading a vital bayonet charge. In 1872 John was promoted to Captain, and the following year transferred to the 5th Gurkhas.

It was December 1878 when he – as had James Dundas – joined General Roberts’ expedition to Afghanistan against the Douranees. The first action of this campaign came on December 2nd at Peiwar Kotal – the first Mountain Pass into Afghanistan, and the 5th Gurkhas – John Cook’s company in the vanguard, were sent to lead a flanking column around the enemy position, ready to attack at first light. As the column got into position, two Afghan guides on the British side suddenly fired their guns to warn their countrymen, and in an instant John Cook and his company were pinned down under an intense fire.

Realising that he had to push his attack, John Cook now led the advance, as his citation recalled; “For a signal act of valour at the action of the Peiwar Kotal on the 2nd December 1878 in having, during a very heavy fire, charged out of the entrenchments with such impetuosity that the enemy broke and fled when, perceiving at the close of the melee, the danger of Major Galbraith, , Assistant Adjutant-General, Kurum Column Field Force, who was in personal conflict with an Afghan soldier, Captain Cook distracted his attention to himself and aiming a sword cut which the Douranee avoided, sprang upon him and, grasping his throat, grappled with him. They both fell to the ground. The Douranee, a most powerful man, still endeavouring to use his rifle, seized Captain Cook’s arm in his teeth until the struggle was ended by the man being shot in the head.”

Following this attack, the Douranees broke and fled, and the vital pass of Peiwar Kotal was won. John was now a popular hero, as was his brother Walter, who had been by his side as an officer in the same regiment throughout the engagement, and who just two months earlier had been proposed for the Victoria Cross himself, although the citation was not upheld due to administrative complications. It was almost a year later – in December 1879 when the two brothers were again fighting side by side, and again, coming under fire they led their company to the charge. This time, however, they were not so lucky.

Walter was shot in the chest whilst John was brought to his knees by a heavy blow to the head, and both, though the charge had succeeded, were dragged to the rear in their wounded state. Walter was kept in hospital, where his wound – a bullet in the lung – was pronounced non-lethal, but John returned to the fighting the next day and this time received a bullet in the leg just below the knee. He was forced to lay exposed in the cold all night, as the stretcher bearers could not get near him until morning. John thought that he would lose his leg, but the doctors procrastinated over the amputation, hoping that he might yet recover. The decision was to prove fatal, and John Cook died of complications on December 19th that year. His death was announced with sorrow in the divisional order.

Edward Brown VC

Our sixth Valiant Academical was Edward Brown who was born in 1861 in Dagshai, India, and who attended Edinburgh Academy between 1870-1871. After a spell in the Irish Militia, Edward was gazetted an officer in the 18th Hussars in 1883 – he was a Captain by 1888 and the following year transferred to the 14th Hussars. By 1894 his skills as a cavalryman were such that he was promoted to be commandant of the School of Instruction for cavalry at Aldershot – a post he held for a year. Promoted Major in January 1899, Edward was sent to fight in South Africa in the Boer War – a war which was to see a great slaughter of British soldiers by well-armed irregulars in prepared positions – a fore-runner if you will, of what was to come in the First World War.

It was at Geluk in 1900 when a British force became trapped beneath a terrible and galling fire and was forced to retreat, losing many casualties. The Boers – all excellent snipers, had a habit of wounding British soldiers and then shooting all who came to save them, but Edward Brown was determined to bring back as many men as possible, as his citation recalled: “On 13th October 1900 at Geluk, when the enemy were within 400 yards, and bringing a heavy fire to bear, Major Brown, seeing that Sergeant Hersey’s horse was shot, stopped behind the last squadron as it was retiring and helped Sergeant Hersey to mount behind him, carrying him for about three-quarters of a mile to a place of safety. He did this under heavy fire. Major Brown afterwards enabled Lieutenant Browne, 14th Hussars, to mount, by holding his horse, which was very restive under heavy fire. Lieutenant Browne could not otherwise have mounted. Subsequently, Major Brown carried Lance Corporal Trumpeter Leigh out of the action.”

Victoria Cross Re-enactment of the bravery of Colonel Edward Douglas Brown (Edward Douglas Browne-Synge-Hutchinson VC) (1861û1940) of the 14th Hussars - who, on 13th October 1900 (during the Second Boer War) aided Sergeant Hersey (whilst under heavy fire), carrying him on his horse for three-quarters of a mile to safety. Colonel Brown then carried Lance-Corporal Trumpeter Leigh out of action.

Later that year, Edward was to distinguish himself again at the Battle of Diamond Hill – being mentioned in dispatches for bravery, and was present throughout the war, being breveted to Lieutenant Colonel in 1902 and commanding the 14th Hussars until the war’s end that year, being again mentioned in dispatches for bravery by both Field Marshal Lord Roberts and Field Marshal Lord Kitchener throughout his time. He was promoted to full Colonel in 1911 and made a Commander of the Bath in 1915, dying in London in 1940 just short of his 79th birthday. He is remembered today as one of Victorian Britain’s finest cavalry commanders.

Walter Brodie VC

Our seventh and eighth Valiant Academicals both won their VC’s in the First World War on the Western Front – a war as terrible, if not more so than any known before or since. The first of these men was Walter Brodie. 

He was born in July 1884 in Belgrave Place, Edinburgh and attended Edinburgh Academy from 1892-1899. Joining the Highland Light Infantry in 1904, Walter Brodie was stationed first in Jersey, then at Edinburgh castle and finally in Invernesshire before being promoted to first Lieutenant in 1908 and being stationed in Ireland at the time of the troubles there from 1909-1913. In 1914 Walter sailed for France with his regiment as Battalion Machine Gun Officer – there being only two machine guns per battalion. He arrived in August and by the next month was promoted Captain.

Just a month later, in October, Walter was thrown into the terrible battle of Ypres which was to rage for a whole month between October and November of 1914. It was a vast battle, with millions of combatants and well over a hundred thousand casualties, and it was towards the end of this battle, when Brodie’s section of trench came under a heavy German counter-attack that he was to win his Victoria Cross, as his citation recalls: “His Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to approve the grant of the Victoria Cross to Lieutenant Walter Lorrain Brodie, 2nd battalion, the Highland Light Infantry, for conspicuous bravery whilst serving with the expeditionary force, as set forth below: – For conspicuous gallantry near Becelaere on the 11th November, in clearing the enemy out of a portion of our trenches which they had succeeded in occupying. Heading the charge, he bayoneted several of the enemy, and thereby relieved a dangerous situation. As a result of Lieutenant Brodie’s promptitude, 80 of the enemy were killed and 51 taken prisoners.”

Walter fought on through the war, being involved in the battles of Richebourg, Givenchy and Festubert in 1915 – and in 1916 he was given detached intelligence duty, being up near the front lines in the battles of the Somme and Arras of that year and being awarded the Military Cross for bravery in 1917 – one of the highest decorations for bravery in the British Army. By April 1918, Walter Brodie had risen to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in command of the 2nd Battalion Highland Light Infantry. He was by now a man noted for his exceptional courage and skill, respected by the entire army. He led his Highland Regiment forward at the battle of Albert in August 1918 and was reported killed in action. The entire Highland Division felt his loss immeasurably.

Allan Ebenezer Ker VC

Our Eighth Valiant Academical was Allan Ebenezer Ker who was born in March 1883 at Findhorn Place, Edinburgh and attended the Academy from 1899-1903 after which he attended Edinburgh University, living later in ferry Road and Wardie Road, Edinburgh, and taking up a position as an apprentice solicitor in his father’s law firm. In 1908 Allan Ker joined the Queen’s Edinburgh Mounted Rifles, but towards the end of 1914 he travelled to Aberdeen to settle the affairs of his late cousin who had been killed in the Great War. Allan’s heart was set on joining the Scots Greys, but whilst in Aberdeen, he was persuaded by friends of his late cousin to join their regiment – the famous Gordon Highlanders. Now with the Gordon’s, Allan Ker travelled to France in October 1915 to serve in the Great War, and by the middle of 1916 he had been posted to Salonica in the Mediterranean, where he fought in the battle of Muchovo. Later that year, he contracted Malaria and was evacuated back to the UK.

Following a promotion to First Lieutenant, Allan Ker returned to the Western Front in 1917, where he saw first hand the bloody battles of Passchendale, Arras and Cambrai before finally finding himself in the battle of St Quentin. Here, a massive German attack came directly towards his sector of the line, crumpling the flank of his division and threatening to break through the entire allied sector – only Allan Ker and a select group of soldiers around him stood between the German Army and disaster, as his citation tells us: “For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty – on the 21st March 1918, near St. Quentin, France, after a heavy bombardment, the enemy penetrated our line and the flank of the 61st Division became exposed. Lieutenant Ker, with one Vickers gun, succeeded in engaging the enemy’s infantry, approaching under cover of dead ground and held up the enemy attack, inflicting many casualties. he then sent back word to his Battalion Headquarters that he had determined to stop with his Sergeant and several other men who had been badly wounded and fight until a counter-attack could be launched to relieve him. Just s ammunition failed, his party were attacked from behind by the enemy with bombs, machine guns and with the bayonet. Several bayonet attacks were delivered, but each time they were repulsed by Lieutenant Ker and his companions with their revolvers, the Vickers machine gun having by this time been destroyed. The wounded were collected into a small shelter, and it was decided to defend them to the last and to hold up the enemy as long as possible. In one of the many hand-to-hand encounters, a German rifle and bayonet and a small supply of ammunition was secured, and subsequently used with good effect against the enemy. Although Lieutenant Ker was very exhausted from want of food and gas poisoning and from the extreme exertions he had made during ten hours of the most severe bombardment, fighting and attending to the wounded, he refused to surrender until all his ammunition was exhausted and his position was rushed by large numbers of the enemy. His behaviour throughout the day was absolutely cool and fearless, and by his determination, he was materially instrumental in engaging and holding up for three hours more than 500 of the enemy.”

We mentioned earlier about how the Victoria Cross was becoming harder and harder to win…perhaps Allan Ker’s example shows this better than any other. Allan was a prisoner until December 1918 when he was finally repatriated and only then learned of his award and his new-found fame. Using his skills as a solicitor, the Army attached him next to the Advocate General’s department before promotion to Captain and attachment to the War Office as a staff officer.

In November 1920 the body of an unknown soldier was dug from the trenches of Flanders and laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. A Guard of Honour was provided for the unknown soldier, made up of a hundred recipients of the Victoria Cross, and Allan Ker was chosen to be one of them – perhaps as high an honour as the decoration which he now bore. Finally he was demobilised in 1922, although donning his old uniform once more in 1926 to unveil the Machine Gun Corps Memorial at Hyde Park Corner. In 1940, however, Allan Ker was recalled for the second World War and served on the Directorate of the Chief of the Imperial Staff at the War Office. He attended the Potsdam Conference and was awarded a Knight of the Order of Military Merit of Brazil for his services. He led an ordinary life in London until September 1958 when he died in a Hospital in Hampstead aged 75.

Anthony Cecil Capel Miers VC

Our ninth and last ‘Valiant Academical’ is this man – Anthony Miers – and in many ways, he is by far the more controversial of the bunch, and for a number of reasons. 

He was born in Inverness in 1906, son of a Captain in the Cameron Highlanders who was something of a decorated war hero himself, serving in Africa and throughout the Transvaal and Boer Wars until he was killed on the Western Front in 1914. Anthony Miers studied at Edinburgh Academy from 1915-1916 before attending Wellington College in Berkshire, but he didn’t follow his father into the infantry; instead he enlisted as a Royal Navy cadet in 1924.

Posted to the battleship HMS Thunderer, he rose to the rank of sub-Lieutenant by 1928 and the following year joined the Submarine Service aboard HMS Dolphin, being promoted Lieutenant in January 1930. He must have impressed, as barely a year later he transferred to HM Submarine M-2 a new experimental weapon in the Royal Navy – Half Submarine and half battleship, fitted with a 12” deck gun. The following year he received another promotion to First Officer, and a posting to join a more conventional submarie – H-28 in Harwich. Already, Anthony Miers was known as a tough, dependable and professional officer, but one who had a very hard, dark streak, and it was said that he would either earn himself a Court Martial or a Victoria Cross. In the end, he was to get both!

He was a keen and overly-competitive sportsman; a player of tennis, squash, football and rugby – his particular game of choice, which he even played professionally, earning caps for London Scottish, the Combined Services Team and for Hampshire, and he was even invited for trials to play for Scotland. It was during a football match in 1933 that Miers – whose level of competitiveness in all things was by now legendary – entered into a brawl with a lower rating. However, being a consummate professional, and once his temper had cooled, he then reported himself for Court Martial and found himself dismissed from his ship. This punishment served, however, his natural abilities saw him posted to a number of ships including the Submarine Rainbow, submarine L-54 and the ships Iron Duke, Nelson, Rodney and Warspite, becoming Lieutenant Commander by 1938.

When the second world war broke out, he was back in command of a Submarine, the newly-built Submarine HMS Torbay which he was ordered to take on patrol to the Mediterranean. His beginning was not auspicious, as pulling out of port, he collided with the British tanker Vancouver, although both vessels remained relatively undamaged. Here, now in full command, Anthony Miers was mentioned in disptches in both 1940 and 1941, receiving a DSO and Bar for sinking over 70,000 tonnes of Axis shipping. In all, the Torbay undertook ten major patrols under Miers’ command, each one sinking a vast amount of enemy shipping to include tankers, supply ships, troop ships and even warships.

It was on the third patrol in 1941 however, where came the darkest blip on Miers’ record, and an incident – indeed two incidents which have since led to accusations of war crimes. On both occasions having torpedoed an enemy vessel, he had moved in close to attempt to take possession of the ship, and the enemy crews had resisted, forcing him to turn the Submarine’s machine gun onto the deck. Once the enemy soldiers were in the water, however, Miers then – and on both occasions, gave orders that the survivors be strafed until none survived. These incidents he reported in his log book, defending himself that the enemy had resisted and that he wished to deny them the ability to regain their ship. The Admiralty frowned upon such acts, mainly as they feared reprisals of the same from the Germans, but he was spared another Court-Martial, being sent instead a strongly worded letter telling him to cease such activities in the future.

His other patrols – too complex and numerous to mention, were great acts of daring. He not only continued to sink a vast amount of Axis shipping, but was responsible for retrieving and rescuing over 140 special forces personnel from the shores of Crete after it had fallen, as well as for landing troops behind enemy lines in North Africa – each mission occasioned with great danger – and with equal if not greater daring by Miers, who was now becoming the most famous – and feared submarine commander in the Mediterranean. On his tenth patrol in 1942, Miers first attacked a German Destroyer before going after an enemy convoy headed for the safety of Corfu Harbour. Miers approached submerged, but was forced to surface for the night and recharge his batteries before entering the Harbour the next morning, which was crawling with enemy vessels, aircraft, submarine nets and was bristling with guns and other defences. Here he was to win his VC, as his citation recorded; “For valour in command of H.M Submarine Torbay in a daring and successful raid on shipping in a defended enemy harbour, planned with full knowledge of the great hazards to be expected during seventeen hours in waters closely patrolled by the enemy. On arriving in the harbour, he had to charge his batteries, lying on the surface in full moonlight, under the guns of the enemy. As he could not see his target, he waited several hours and attacked in full daylight in a glassy calm. When he had fired his torpedoes he was heavily counter-attacked and had to withdraw through a long channel with anti-submarine craft all round and continuous air patrols overhead.”

In those seventeen hours, Anthony Miers and the Torbay caused havoc in the harbour, sinking several enemy vessels, damaging many more, and enduring attacks including over forty depth charges as well as shells, bombs and strafing by aircraft, and brought his ship and his men to safety. His recommendation for the award was seconded by the accounts of his eighth and ninth patrols, which cumulatively led to the decoration being awarded without hesitation.

After this tenth patrol, Miers was to be promoted, but in his time – in just two years in command of the Torbay, he had won no less than The Victoria Cross, Two Distinguished Service Crosses with Two Bars, Thirteen Distinguished Service Medals with Four Bars, eight mentions in dispatches and he had been made a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order – in all Thirty-One distinct honours for bravery and outstanding ability in just Twenty-Three Months of service, equivalent to one every three weeks. Indeed, HMS Torbay is recorded as the most successful Submarine in the History of the Royal Navy.

Torbay was to go on to have a good career until she was broken for scrap in 1945 but Anthony Miers had seen the last of the Mediterranean. He was now posted to Pearl Harbor to advise admiral Chester Nimitz, C-in-C US Pacific Fleet on Submarine operations, being awarded the American Legion of Merit award, and served in the Pacific until the war’s end, being promoted Captain in 1946. Post War, Anthony Miers was appointed Captain of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, then of the Aircraft Carrier HMS Theseus and was made Rear Admiral and Flag Officer Middle East in 1956 – a post which he retained until his retirement in 1959 which saw his elevation to Knight of the Bath or KBE. Post-Navy, he went on to be President of various sporting associations, notably Middlesex County Cricket Club, London Scottish Rugby Club and the Royal Highland Society. He lived in London with his wife Patricia – an Australian WREN he had met in the Pacific and was awarded with the Freedom of the cities of London and Inverness. He died in Surrey in 1985 and is buried in his home town of Inverness.

Anthony Cecil Capel Miers Medals

N.B – For more outstanding stories from Military History, why not follow ‘Ricky D Phillips – Military History Author’ on Facebook for news of upcoming publications.

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4 thoughts on “Nine Valiant Academicals – Edinburgh’s Victoria Cross heroes.

  1. November 2003 my late brother (Alan Deeks) was communicated by the Victoria Cross & George Cross Assoc. (Mrs. Didy Grahame MVO) to help in more personal details of our great grandfather Captain John Cook. I doubt he knew much, if anything and ill health intervened. Belatedly, I am now trying to find out more as I am the last of my generation (84 yrs) and would like this knowledge for the future generations. My grandfather, John Abenezer Cook was Mentioned in Despatches, but again I have no-one now to turn to. I came upon this quite by chance and wonder if you could point me in the right direction. Being on the other side of the world is frustrating. Thank you.

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    • Hi Doreen, it is frustrating, I agree. I have tried to look up some of my past relatives. I certainly know people who can help and would be happy to help you. Do you know what regiment he served in? What war? Anything at all would be useful. As much information – even random things you remember him saying could help!! 🙂

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    • Hi Robert, actually I live just opposite! The Academy has a book on it for sale (about £7.00) although I did a lot more on it where I could. Was going to write the book but, as it has been done already in 2007 and has a limited audience, I left him to it! Currently working with the boys who defended Stanley the night the Falklands War broke out. A fascinating story! I am very glad you enjoyed it!

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