By Bob Gordon
The Victoria Cross was introduced on January 29, 1856 by Queen Victoria to recognize acts of valour during the Crimean War. A total of 96 Canadians have been awarded this illustrious medal since its inception, however none since the Second World War.
The original warrant states, the VC is “awarded to those officers and men who have served us in the presence of the enemy, and shall have then performed some single act of valour or devotion to their country.” Only rare, non-combat actions “under circumstances of extreme danger” were eligible. On its 25th anniversary, the award was limited to acts in the face of the enemy. Despite being the pinnacle of the Royal award hierarchy, it is a deceptively unassuming dark brown Maltese cross, cast from cannon captured at Sevastopol, not struck. The face displays the Royal Crown surmounted by a lion guardant. Below the crown is a scroll bearing the inscription: FOR VALOUR. The crimson ribbon is 36 millimetres wide. This occasional column will survey Canadian VCs, seeking the unusual, the unlikely and the unexpected.
The first Canadian to be awarded a Victoria Cross was Alexander Roberts Dunn, while serving with the British Army’s 11th Hussars at the Battle of Balaclava. Dunn was born in York (renamed Toronto one year later) in 1833, the son of John Henry Dunn, the Receiver-General of Upper Canada, and studied at Upper Canada College and at Harrow School, London. He purchased a commission in the Hussars in 1852. The citation in the London Gazette enumerated his heroics: “For having in the Light Cavalry Charge on the 25th October, 1854, saved the life of Sergeant Bentley, 11th Hussars by cutting down two or three Russian Hussars, who were attacking from the rear, and afterwards cutting down a Russian Hussar, who was attacking Private Levett, 11th Hussars.”
Dunn sold his commission in 1856, but after less than a year on civvy street managing his father’s estate north of York, he returned to the military organizing the 100th (Prince of Wales’ Royal Canadian) Regiment of Foot, a British unit raised in Canada in response to the 1857 Indian Mutiny. He went on to serve as its major. In 1864, Dunn transferred to the 33rd (Duke of Wellington’s) Regiment of Foot and was promoted to the rank of colonel, becoming the first Canadian to command a British regiment and the youngest colonel, at the time, in the British Army.
Four years later, Dunn and his regiment were sent to the Horn of Africa to take part in the Expedition to Abyssinia, more commonly known as Ethiopia. He was killed amid unusual circumstances while on a hunting expedition shortly after arriving in the country, on January 25, 1868. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has been caring for Dunn’s burial site in Senafe since 1982.