It is a gallantry decoration with a rich and fascinating history behind it, quite apart from the incredible act of bravery for which it was awarded more than 130 years ago.
I have just completed the private purchase of the Victoria Cross awarded to Gunner James Collis in 1881 for an act of courage the previous year during the Second Afghan War.
Yet it is the events that took place after the medal was awarded that make it so rare – and that eventually led to the rules and regulations relating to the VC being amended and in my opinion very much for the better.
For the Collis VC is one of just eight in existence that were forfeited for the subsequent criminal behaviour of their recipients.
Yet a sense of injustice over this led to King George V seeking to revise the guidelines that were fi rst introduced when the medal was instituted by Queen Victoria in 1856.
The extraordinary tale of this particular VC winner begins on July 28, 1880, when Collis, who was serving with the Royal Horse Artillery, and his comrades were making their way back to Kandahar after the disastrous British defeat at Maiwand, Afghanistan (then, as now, a desperately diffi cult country in which to fi ght a war against the local inhabitants).
During the battle an estimated half of the 2,000-strong British force was lost against a vastly larger army.
Cambridge-born Collis, who was then 24, was part of the British force that was attacked by the Afghans as it retreated.
The offi cercommanding the battery was attempting to bring in a limber (a twowheeled cart designed to support the trail of an artillery piece) carrying already wounded men who were under a crossfire.
Seeing the dangers and difficulties faced by his comrades, Collis raced forwards and in doing so drew the enemy’s fire on to himself, thereby taking the snipers’ attention away from the limber.
Collis survived his daring act of bravery and his VC was announced “for conspicuous bravery” on May 16, 1881 – though rather carelessly his surname was misspelled as “Colliss” in his citation.
After being discharged from the army, Collis joined the Bombay Police in India in 1881, rising to the rank of inspector.
Furthermore in March 1882 Collis married Adela Grace Skuse, a widow, in Bombay.
In 1884 Collis returned to the UK and in 1887 he re-enlisted in the army, this time joining the Suffolk Regiment.
He returned to India in 1888 as part of his service but in 1891 was invalided home suffering from rheumatic fever, returning without his wife.
At some point he met, and in 1893 married, Mary Goddard who was apparently unaware that he had a wife in India.
In 1895 his deception was discovered and Collis was convicted of bigamy and sentenced to 18 months hard labour.
Later that year his VC was declared forfeit for his crime under the original statutes of the Royal Warrant of 1856, which created Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious gallantry decoration.
However by this point Collis had already pawned his VC for a mere eight shillings (40p) having apparently hit hard times.
The decoration was retrieved by police for the same sum of eight shillings from a pawnbroker’s shop for the Crown on the instructions of the Home Office.
After leaving prison and settling in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, Collis pursued a number of jobs but in 1914 after the outbreak of the First World War he re-enlisted in the Suffolk Regiment, aged 58, as a drill instructor.
However he was dogged by poor health and he was invalided out of the army on medical grounds in August 1917.
Collis died at Battersea General Hospital in London on June 28, 1918, aged 62.
Two years later Collis’s sister Hannah Haylock petitioned the War Office on behalf of the family for the forfeiture to be cancelled.
George V was sympathetic to the family’s wishes but Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for War, opposed the reinstatement.
He believed that because Collis had pawned his medals he placed little value on them.
Furthermore Churchill noted that the family had not kept in contact with Collis and it was only 25 years later that they had decided to raise their grievance with the authorities.
Yet the King and others won the day on the wider issue and Churchill approved amendments to the rules relating to the VC which stated that henceforward only “treason, cowardice, felony or any infamous crime” should lead to forfeiture.
The King also insisted that Collis’s name should be inscribed, along with all the corps’ other VC recipients, on the Royal Artillery Memorial in Woolwich, south-east London.
The precise whereabouts of the Collis VC between late 1896 and 1938 are not known although it would seem that it went initially, as was required at the time, into the possession of the Solicitor General, a later holder of which office had an interest in gallantry medals.
When that Solicitor General died unexpectedly and the VC was found at his home, it was decided to sell it.
The Collis VC was sold at auction by Glendining’s on June 10, 1938, to Colonel HJP Oakley, who was himself a recipient of the Military Cross.
After his death the VC passed to his daughter who resold it by auction in 1980.
The buyer at that auction, having kept it for 34 years, has recently decided to sell it and this has enabled me to buy this fine award with such an intriguing history.
I am delighted to have become the guardian of this particular VC, which will soon go on display in the gallery bearing my name at Imperial War Museums, London.
My VC collection, the largest in the world, now totals 187 decorations.
I am equally delighted that VCs are no longer forfeited for minor crimes.
A man or woman who displays great gallantry should not have their medal taken away just because of some relatively low-level misdemeanour.
Soldiers from past eras and indeed soldiers today are not always angels but if they have shown great bravery then that act cannot be denied simply because of a crime committed months or years later.
James Collis was an extremely brave individual and I will always do all I can to champion his gallantry.