During the siege of Sevastopol, in the Crimean War — the war which gave us the doomed, heroic Charge of the Light Brigade — British soldiers captured several Russian cannons. It was an act of bravery under fire which caught the attention of royalty.
Queen Victoria commissioned a medal for those in her military forces who displayed uncommon valour in the face of the enemy, struck from the very metal of those cannons.
It still carries her name, and a heavy legacy — the Victoria Cross. In the fierce fighting of 1917, 100 years ago, three Kiwi soldiers were awarded this ultimate accolade for their courage under fire.
All three went above and beyond the call of duty to save the lives of their fellow soldiers.
The London Gazette said this of the actions of Lance Corporal Samuel Frickleton: ‘Lance Corporal Frickleton dashed forward at the head of his section, rushed through a barrage and personally destroyed with bombs an enemy machine gun and crew, which were causing heavy casualties.
He then attacked the second gun, killing the whole of the crew of twelve.
By the destruction of these two guns he undoubtedly saved his own and other units from very severe casualties’. Samuel Frickleton went on to serve in the Second World War with distinction as well.
The same publication covered the bravery of Private Henry James Nicholas in the same year: ‘Private Nicholas was one of a Lewis gun section, which was checked by heavy machine-gun and rifle fire. Private Nicholas rushed forward alone, shot the officer in command of the strongpoint, and overcame the remainder of the garrison of sixteen with bombs and bayonets, capturing four wounded prisoners and a machine gun.
He captured this strongpoint practically single-handed, and thereby saved many casualties’.
Corporal Leslie Andrew also earned the Victoria Cross for his actions in 1917. The London Gazette reported: ‘On leading his men forward he encountered unexpectedly a machine-gun post which was holding up the advance of another company; he immediately attacked, capturing the machine gun and killing several of the crew.
He then continued the attack on the machine-gun post which had been his original objective.
He displayed great skill and determination in his disposition, finally capturing the post, killing several of the enemy and putting the remainder to flight’.
While thousands of ANZAC soldiers served with bravery, these three men epitomised the ethos behind the honour of the Victoria Cross.
To this day, the unassuming medal forged from a captured cannon remains the very highest accolade given to Commonwealth troops during wartime.