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Victoria Cross : Gunner Collis
The Victoria Cross is the highest award for bravery above and beyond the call of duty which the British can bestow. This is the story of the Victoria Cross won by Gunner Collis.

In 1895 though it was all to go wrong for the man...

Countries win and lose wars but for individuals it is a rather more personal experience. You win if you survive.

Death and taxes have been stated as the two certainties in life. Well as trouble comes in three's lets add war to the list.

Conflict exposes a character to a very stern test and war must be the sternest of all. We all die, the question is how. We all want to survive the question is how far will you go too survive. Once the bullets start flying a lot of the rules by which you live your life have to go out of the window.

Normal people can do atrocious things whilst others do the most heroic of things, no nationality has a monopoly of either state.

Everyone wonders if they have enough within them to make the grade and not let themselves down when it comes to the crunch. When the stakes really are life and death you know this is the biggest crunch of all. We all like to think we have but in quiet moments we have a feeling we just might not.

Here is the tale of one man that won the Victoria Cross.

He appears on card 20 of Players Victoria Cross [1914],

Gunner J. Collis.
Details from Card
Gunner J Collis at Maiwand, Afghanistan, 1880
On July 27th 1800, General Burrows army of 3000 British were overpowered by some 25000 Afghans and forced to retreat to Candahar. During the journey Collis displayed great bravery, saving his gun from the teeth of the enemy, together with ten of the wounded British. On two occassions he gallantly went into the native villages for water for the wounded, ultimately reaching Candahar in safety, after marching through a whole day and night..

As ever the reverse of the card is a masterpiece of concise detail which never fails to impress this simple soul.

Still it does leave out a bit and one central detail which makes this card so very different to the thousands of other cards which show VC winners (you can be sure there are more cards depicting the holders than there are actual holders).

Collis was born on 19 April 1856 in Cambridge (UK) and joined the army in 1872.

Gunner Collis was part of the force which had been dispatched to give the Afghans a lesson because of the slaughter of the British mission at Kabul. Collis was under the command of General Burrow's.

All went well for the main force, re-taking Kabul, but things did not go so well for Burrow's and his men. Cut off as they were from the main force at Maiwand.

Collis was part of a limber nearly dismembered by an Afghan charge. Clinging to the limber as it beat a retreat Collis was seriously wounded by a sabre. Collis grabbed a carbine and shot dead the Afghan delivering the fearsome blow.

Clear from the initial danger Collis got off the limber and although wounded gave up his place for more seriously wounded men.

Although in constant danger Collis stopped off wherever possible to find water for the wounded men.

On the second day he was collecting water from a village well when a troop of Afghan cavalry caught up with them. He ordered the rest of the men to retreat and grabbing a rifle he made a stand hiding amongst a rock outcrop. From this position he fired upon the Afghans with such determination they dismounted for fear they were about to be added to the two dead comrades Collis had given them with his accurate fire.

Collis was able to hold them off whilst the rest of the force made good their escape. However the Afghans were approaching him on all sides and all looked lost when at the last moment General Nuttall and the Indian Cavalry arrived to save the day.

Collis rejoined his troop and was involved in the seige of Kandahar that followed.

In August he attracted attention by volunteering to take a message beyond the walls to a detachment of men. Climbing down a rope he had to run two hundred yards across no mans land whilst Afghan snipers did their best to arrest his progress. Something made even more dangerous on his return as his climbed up the rope.

When General Roberts arrived with the relief he recommended him for the Victoria Cross for his brave deeds.

This, he was duly presented with in 1881.

The story gets a bit sketchy at this point as little is known of what happens to the fellow for a few years. After being discharged from the army Collis lived in Bombay for a while and returned to England to work in the Corps of Commissionaires.

In 1895 though it was all to go wrong for the man. He was convicted of bigamy. Although he had a wife in India he had married again in England and had been caught out in this infraction.

The standards of the Victoria Cross did not end with the winning of it. It could be taken away from you if convicted of 'treason, cowardice, felony of any infamous crime'.

Collis was sentenced to 18 months with hard labour. The Victoria Cross was taken from him. He was no longer in possession of it as, already suffering hard times, he had pawned the medal for the modern equivalent of 40 pence (about 70 cents). The War Office paid the redemption fee and reclaimed the highest award available to a British soldier for acts of bravery.

When World War One broke out this old soldier enlisted in the Suffolk Regiment at the age of 58. He served until August 1917 when he was discharged on medical grounds.

On 28 June 1918 he died of a heart attack in a Battersea hospital at the age of 62.

He was taken to his grave on a gun carriage and afforded full military honours where no mention was made of his fall from grace.

However his family did not attend the funeral as he was considered something of a black sheep. Three of his sons were in the Army but still they would not attend.

There was also no money made available for a headstone and he was buried in a mass grave for the poor.

In 1920 the provisions for removing a Victoria Cross was altered but the new provisions were not back dated

The story does not quite end there.

In 1998 on 22 May there was a small ceremony in the Wandsworth cemetary where Collis was laid to final rest. At least now he has a headstone which bears testament to his deeds.

Collis is only one of 8 people that have had their Victoria Cross removed from them.

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King George V felt very strongly that the decoration should never be forfeited. In a letter written by his Private Secretary, Lord Stamfordham, on 26th July 1920, his views are forcibly expressed: "The King feels so strongly that, no matter the crime committed by anyone on whom the VC has been conferred, the decoration should not be forfeited. Even were a VC to be sentanced to be hanged for murder, he should be allowed to wear his VC on the scaffold". .

Saturday, 5th July 2008