The Victoria Cross is the highest British military honour for gallantry in the face of the enemy. It can be bestowed on British or Commonwealth forces, and is not restricted to British nationals – anyone serving in the British or Commonwealth armed forces is eligible. It was created by Royal Warrant in 1856 and the first 62 VCs were awarded to veterans of the Crimean War in 1857, some by the Queen herself in London and others in the field.
Three Victoria Crosses were won on Japanese soil less than a decade later, on 6 September 1864. The trio includes the first Victoria Cross awarded to an American citizen.
The background to the Shimonoseki expedition is familiar – uninvited international incursions into a foreign land, weapons donated to tribal leaders and used against their donors, reckless use of military superiority resulting in massive civilian casualties, failure to appreciate alien political and cultural complexities. The aftermath, too, is sadly familiar – one of the Shimonoseki heroes was so scarred by his experiences that he took his own life just five years later. Yet whatever our opinion of cause and effect, the three men honoured deserve admiration for their heroism and dedication to duty and to their comrades. The story would make an astonishing shonen manga.
Shimonoseki is located in the extreme southwest of Japan’s main island of Honshu, near the island of Kyushu. Today it is a fishing port and industrial town, but it has a long, heroic and bloody history. Its famous Shinto shrine to the child-emperor Antoku, who died at the battle of Dan-no-oura in 1185, inspired Lafcadio Hearn’s ghost story Earless Hochi and the movie Kwaidan.
In 1864 the Shimonoseki gun batteries allowed the powerful Choshu clan to control shipping in its straits. Their armaments included five 200mm Dahlgren guns given to Japan by the USA. The aim of the British Shimonoseki expedition was to destroy the armaments the West had provided, and the antiquated local cannon, so that they could not be used to hinder Western shipping in Japanese waters.
Not all Japanese welcomed the Westerners who had flocked to their country in the wake of Commodore Perry’s gunships in 1853. American Captain David McDougal wrote to Secretary of the U.S. Navy Gideon Wells in 1863, saying that Japan was “on the eve of revolution, the principal object of which is the expulsion of foreigners.” A French attack had damaged the Shimonoseki batteries in 1863, but failed to silence them.
Attacks on individual foreigners were common. Also in 1863, the British Navy shelled the castle town of Kagoshima in reprisal for the murder of a British merchant. Much of the town was levelled in an attack widely considered to have been unnecessarily heavy-handed, although only 18 people died on both sides.
The shock-and-awe tactics used at Kagoshima worked. Japanese resentment of foreigners still spilled over into violence from time to time, but when two British officers were murdered in November 1865 the samurai responsible was arrested and executed by the Japanese authorities. Yet some of Queen Victoria’s subjects, generally patriotic to the point of jingoism, saw the level of response at Kagoshima as a stain on Britain’s honour. The British attack on the Shimonoseki batteries gave British public opinion of military action in Japan a welcome boost. The venture not only achieved its objective, but involved no civilian casualties.
It was, however, entirely unauthorised. The commander went ahead without Foreign Office approval and faced dishonourable discharge and ruin had his plan not been so successful. However, communications were so slow – his telegraph informing the FO of his decision had only reached Ceylon when the action took place – that by the time his superiors knew what was happening, the fighting was over.
All three VC recipients served on the British flagship, HMS Euryalus. The medals were awarded after her return home to England, at Southsea, near Portsmouth, on 22 September 1865. Only one more Victoria Cross has been won in Japan, in 1945.
American William Henry Harrison Seeley was born in Maine in 1840 and joined the Royal Navy’s China flagship HMS Imperieuse as an ordinary seaman in 1860. He transferred to Euryalus when she relieved Imperieuse, and went with her to Shimonoseki. The London Gazette recorded that his VC was awarded “For the intelligence and daring which, according to the testimony of Lieutenant Edwards, Commanding the Third Company, he exhibited in ascertaining the enemy’s position, and for continuing to retain his position in front, during the advance, after he had been wounded in the arm.”
Seeley lived into his seventies, dying in 1914 as the world plunged into another conflict. He is buried near his sister Bessie in Stoughton, Massachusetts. His Victoria Cross was still held by his granddaughter in 1943, but has not been seen since. As the first VC awarded to an American citizen, its military and historic importance is considerable.
Dorset native Thomas Pride was born in Wool in 1835, and joined the Navy in 1854. He served in China before his assignment to HMS Euryalus, and held the rank of Captain of the After Guard at the time of the Shimonoseki expedition. He was one of two colour sergeants charged with guarding the midshipman who carried the Queen’s Colours into action in an attack on the Japanese stockade on 6 September 1864. Despite fierce enemy fire which put six balls through the Colours, killed the other colour sergeant and seriously wounded Pride, he and Midshipman Boyes had to be ordered back by a superior officer.
Pride was honourably discharged from the Navy in 1866 and returned to his wife and family in Dorset. He died in 1883 and is buried in Poole. His Victoria Cross is proudly displayed in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.
Cheltenham-born Midshipman Duncan Gordon Boyes was just seventeen at the time of the expedition. His citation in the London Gazette reads: “For the conspicuous gallantry, which, according to the testimony of Capt. Alexander CB, at that time Flag Captain to Vice-Admiral Sir Augustus Kuper KCB, Mr. Boyes displayed in the capture of the enemy’s stockade. He carried a Colour with the leading company, kept it in advance of all, in the face of the thickest fire, his colour-sergeants having fallen, one mortally, the other dangerously wounded, and he was only detained from proceeding yet further by the orders of his superior officer. The Colour he carried was six times pierced by musket balls.” Over half a century later in 1921, Sir Ernest Satow, who had been Kuper’s interpreter at Shimonoseki, wrote of “conduct very plucky in one so young” in his memoir A Diplomat in Japan.
Sadly, Boyes’ military service ended in 1867 after he was court-martialled and discharged over a relatively trivial offence. Unable to bear the disgrace, he suffered from bouts of depression and drank heavily. He went to New Zealand to make a fresh start on his brother’s sheep farm, but died after jumping from an upstairs window in January 1869, aged 22. His death certificate cites ‘delirium tremens’ as the cause of death. His grave is in the Servicemen’s Section of Anderson’s Bay Cemetery.
His Victoria Cross passed to his old school Cheltenham College, in 1978, and was sold in 1998, raising over £50,000 to fund a scholarship in his name. It is now in the hands of a private collector, though a replica can still be seen at the College.
A hundred and forty-five years after Shimonoseki, as British and American soldiers continue to display great courage in similar situations, and to suffer terrible physical and mental injuries, it’s time to reflect. We appear to have learned little from history, either about prudence and justice in foreign relations, or about how to look after our war heroes.