10 Victoria Cross Winners of World War One | History Hit

10 Victoria Cross Winners of World War One

Tom Ames

19 Jan 2021

The Victoria Cross is the highest award for bravery which can be given to British and Commonwealth soldiers. Since Queen Victoria introduced the medal it has been granted to only 1,355 individuals.

628 VCs were awarded in World War One, a quarter posthumously. Recipients include a 16-year-old sailor and a Canadian flying ace. All of their stories are inspiring tales of courage in the face of the enemy.

Here are 10 Victoria Cross winners of World War One:

1. Lieutenant Albert Ball

From 25 April to 6 May 1917, Lieutenant Albert Ball of the Royal Flying Corps engaged in 26 different aerial combats. Ball was, at the time of his death, Britain’s top flying ace with 44 confirmed and 25 unconfirmed kills. During his final 26 battles he destroyed 11 hostile aeroplanes, often flying alone against five or six German planes.

Finally, on 7 May 1917, Ball led an attack on the squadron commanded by Lother von Richthofen, the Red Baron’s younger brother, near Annoeullin in northern France. Ball was shot down and died during the struggle, and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

Lieutenant Albert Ball VC

Lieutenant Albert Ball, VC (Image Credit: photograph Q 69593 from the Imperial War Museums / Public Domain).

2. Boy Seaman Jack Cornwell

Boy Seaman First Class Jack Cornwell was the youngest man to be awarded the Victoria Cross in the First World War. On 31 May 1916, during the Battle of Jutland, Cornwell was serving as a sight-setter on a gun aboard the HMS Chester.

The ship came under intense fire, and all of his gun crew were killed or mortally injured. Despite suffering severe wounds, including metal shards through his chest, Cornwell stayed at his post for the duration of the battle. He died from his wounds three days later, aged just 16 years old.

Boy Seaman Jack Cornwell VC

Boy Seaman Jack Cornwell, VC

3. Naik Shahamad Khan

On 12 April 1916, Naik Shahamad Khan of the 89th Punjabis was serving in Mesopotamia when he earned the Victoria Cross for his valour. Khan was in charge of a machine gun in an exposed position, covering a gap in the British lines.

He beat off three enemy attacks and worked the gun single-handedly when most of his men became casualties. After his gun was knocked out, he and two men held off the enemy with their rifles. When his section finally withdrew, he brought back a severely wounded man, then returned to remove the section’s arms and ammunition.

Naik Shahamad Khan VC

Naik Shahamad Khan, VC

4. Lieutenant Arthur Martin-Leake

Lieutenant Arthur Martin-Leake, Royal Army Medical Corps, is one of three men to be a double recipient of the Victoria Cross. Martin-Leake first earned a VC in 1902 during the Second Boer War, for helping wounded men despite being shot three times.

He was awarded his second VC after his actions from 29 October to 8 November 1914 near Zonnebeke in Belgium. Despite being exposed to constant enemy fire, Martin-Leake rescued a large number of wounded men who were lying close to the enemy’s trenches.

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5. Lieutenant William Sanders

Lieutenant William Sanders, commander of the HMS Prize, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his valour on 30 April 1917. Near the Isles of Scilly, HMS Prize was attacked and badly hit by a German U-Boat.

Sanders sent off some of his wounded men in a small boat, and remained hidden with the rest of the crew on the ship. Thinking the HMS Prize to be abandoned, the U-Boat approached.

When it drew near, Sanders ordered the ensign to be hoisted and the Prize opened fire. The U-Boat was seriously damage and fled, with its captain and two others abandoned in the water. Sanders rescued the three German prisoners and made for the Irish coast.

HMS Prize engages the German U-Boat.

HMS Prize engages the German U-Boat. (Image Credit: Charles Edward Dixon, National Maritime Museum / Public Domain).

6. Private Albert Halton

On the opening day of the Battle of Passchendaele, Private Albert Halton of the King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster) displayed exceptional bravery. Seeing the men around him pinned down from heavy enemy machine gun and rifle fire, Halton ran forwards 300 yards through a hail of bullets.

Halton captured a German machine gun nest and its crew single-handedly. He then went out into the field again and brought in 12 further prisoners. He survived the rest of the war and went on to live to 78.

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7. Captain William Bishop

On 2 June 1917, Captain William ‘Billy’ Bishop of the Royal Flying Corps flew a solo mission behind enemy lines. Previously, Bishop had won the Distinguished Service Order for shooting down two aircraft while being attacked by four others, and had even survived an engagement with the Red Baron.

On this solo mission, Bishop shot down three aircraft as they were taking off to attack him and destroyed several more on the ground. For this deed, he was awarded the Victoria Cross. For a time in 1917, Bishop was the RFC’s top ace pilot, and later served as Director of the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War.

Captain William Bishop VC

Captain William Bishop, VC (Image Credit: CCFlickr).

8. Private John Caffrey

On 16 November 1915 Private John Caffrey spotted a badly-wounded soldier lying in no man’s land, in full view of the enemy trenches.

Aided by a Medical Corporal, Caffrey tried to rescue him. Their first attempt failed when they were driven back by shrapnel fire, but they tried again and successfully reached the wounded soldier. As they lifted the wounded man, the Medical Corporal was shot.

Caffrey bandaged up the Corporal and carried him back to the British lines. He then returned and brought the first wounded soldier to safety.

Private John Caffrey in later life.

9. Lieutenant Colonel William Barker

On 27 October 1918 Canadian fighter ace William Barker took on an armada of German biplanes in perhaps the most one-sided dogfight of World War One. Both Barker and his Sopwith Snipe were riddled with bullets, but Barker remained conscious and downed four aircraft, for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Barker became the most decorated Canadian in World War One. In addition to his VC he won the Distinguished Service Order and Bar, the Military Cross and two Bars, two Italian Silver Medals for Military Valour and the French Croix de Guerre. He died in 1930 and was granted a state funeral in Canada.

William Barker beside a Sopwith Camel.

10. Lance Corporal William Coltman

On 3 October 1918 Lance Corporal William Coltman of the North Staffordshire Regiment earned a Victoria Cross for his ‘bravery, initiative and devotion to duty’.

Coltman heard that wounded men had been left behind during a retreat at Mannequin Hill. He went alone in the face of fierce enemy fire, and on three separate occasions carried casualties on his back to safety. He tended to the wounded unceasingly for 48 hours.

Coltman was also awarded both the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Military Medal twice, all for saving wounded men.

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Tom Ames