Part II: For Valour: The Victoria Cross, RUSI and the First World War By Ashley Ryan As part of our series looking into the lives of RUSI members who fell during the Great War, we profile Captain Charles ‘Fitz’ FitzClarence, a cousin of Churchill and a veteran of previous conflicts.
Charles ‘Fitz’ FitzClarence was born, along with his twin brother Edward, into a military family in Bishopscourt, County Kildare, Ireland, on 8 May 1865. He was the great-grandson of King William IV. FitzClarence attended Eton and Wellington before joining the Royal Fusiliers on 10 November 1886. In April 1898, FitzClarence married Lady Violet Spencer Churchill, Winston Churchill’s cousin. They had a son and a daughter.
FitzClarence was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) for his actions on three occasions, 14 and 27 October, and 26 December 1899, at the Siege of Mafeking (Mafikeng since 1980, and Mahikeng since 2010), South Africa, during the Second Boer War (1899–1902). Altogether, 78 VCs were awarded during this conflict.
FitzClarence, by now a Captain, was placed in command of B Squadron of the Bechuanaland Protectorate Regiment. His men, who were – rather discouragingly – known as ‘the Loafers’, consisted of ‘frontier adventurers and not a few villains’. Nonetheless, Major Robert Baden-Powell, who later founded the Scout Movement, had confidence in FitzClarence’s ability to mould them into an effective fighting unit. On 14 October 1899, just two days into the war, his assurance was borne out. An armoured train departed from Mafeking but was ambushed at Five Mile Bank. FitzClarence led his partially trained squadron, who had no combat experience, to its defence. They were vastly outnumbered and became surrounded, and it seemed that the entire squadron would be killed. FitzClarence’s personal ‘coolness and courage’, however, so galvanised his men that they inflicted a heavy defeat on the Boers, who lost 50 men in the engagement, as well as a sizeable number wounded. The next day the Boers attacked again, laying siege to Mafeking. Baden-Powell, FitzClarence, Major Lord Edward Cecil, the prime minister’s son, and their men were to be besieged there for the following eight months.
On 27 October, FitzClarence was tasked with a night-time assault on the Boer trenches. To keep the element of surprise, the attack was a closely guarded secret; so much so that even their doctor was not told of the plans, but merely informed he should have an ambulance on standby. FitzClarence, leading from the front once more, was the first man to leap into the enemy trench. He dispatched four Boers with his sword, decapitating one with a single blow. The British had attacked on two fronts and, in their confusion and alarm, the Boers fired on their own men. Altogether, 150 casualties were inflicted on the enemy. FitzClarence was injured twice, but his compass case saved him from more serious wounds. Baden-Powell noted that without FitzClarence’s ‘extraordinary spirit and fearlessness, the attacks [on 14 and 27 October] would have been failures, and we should have suffered heavy loss both in men and prestige’.
On 26 December, the British attacked Game Tree Fort, but the first wave of the assault was unsuccessful. FitzClarence led B Squadron in the second wave and, despite continuous enemy fire, was the first man to succeed in gaining entry to the fort. A reporter stated: ‘[FitzClarence] … alone got inside and stabbed two or three. They shot him once, but he proceeded to bayonet another when they shot him a second time and he dropped down … though not dead’. It transpired that the two shots were to his legs, but he recovered sufficiently that he was later able to play cricket within the fort.
Baden-Powell, who dubbed FitzClarence ‘The Demon’, recommended him for the first VC of the war, which was gazetted on 6 July 1900. By the outbreak of the First World War, FitzClarence had achieved the rank of Brigadier General. In September 1914, he went to France, commanding the 1st (Guards) Brigade, 1st Division. He showed great leadership, during a counterattack on 31 October, when his strategic vision ensured the line was held. At 0300 hours on 12 November 1914, he was killed while leading an assault against the Prussian Guard at Polygon Wood, Zonnebeke, Belgium. Enemy shelling meant that his body was never recovered. FitzClarence is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial, Belgium. His VC is held in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum, London.
Although he had only been on the Western Front a few short months, the men with whom he served had given him their own nickname – a mark of respect – ‘GOC Menin Road’. Several of them had noticed that, on occasions, FitzClarence seemed to be directing the entire battle.
This article is the second in a nine-part series to be published in the RUSI Library News. If you would like to learn more, go to https://RUSI.org/GreatWar
PART I: Introduction
Max Arthur, Symbol of Courage: A History of the Victoria Cross (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 2004).
Michael Ashcroft, Victoria Cross Heroes (London: Headline Review, 2006).
Kevin Brazier, The Complete Victoria Cross: A Full Chronological Record of All Holders of Britain's Highest Award for Gallantry (Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2010).
Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011).
Paul Reed, Walking the Salient: A Walker's Guide to the Ypres Salient (Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Leo Cooper, 1999).
RUSI Journal, ‘Great War Stories: RUSI’s Fallen Members’ (Vol. 162, No. 3, June/July 2017), pp. 4–10.
Ian Uys, Victoria Crosses of the Anglo-Boer War (Knysna, South Africa: Fortress, 2000).
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