Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, February 8, 2021

The Last Victoria Crosses of World War I

By James Patton

The last Victoria Cross (VC) of the World War One era was presented to 'The unknown warrior of the United States of America'. On 11 November 1921 it was placed on the grave of The Unknown Soldier in the vault of the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery by the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet the Earl Beatty (1871-1936) GCB, OM, GCVO, OM. This VC symbolically honored all of the Americans  who died for the Allied cause during the war. Reciprocally, ‘The Unknown Warrior’ who lies in Westminster Abbey received the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor. Significantly, the same British Unknown Warrior was never presented with the VC. 

11 November 1921: Internment of the Unknown Soldier
On Behalf of King George V, Admiral David Beatty Presents the Victorial Cross to America's Unknown

Previous articles in Roads have covered the North Russian Intervention, mostly from the American perspective, so here’s some background from the British perspective. The expedition was a British idea and the original force was formed in June 1918, while the war was raging. After intense diplomatic pressure an American contingent was added later. 

When demobilizations began after the Armistice, many of the soldiers in Russia became restive about continuing in service and there was also public pressure in both the U.K. and the U.S. to bring them home, especially since many were conscripts. As a result the American 339th Infantry and its supporting units were withdrawn in July 1919. 

Whitehall wasn’t ready to abandon the mission, though, so a plan was hatched to create a replacement force made up entirely of volunteers. Two battalions were raised: designated as the 45th and 46th Royal Fusiliers (City of London) Regiment. The 45th enrolled over 150 Australians who had been cooped up in the U.K. due to a shortage of transport home. The Australian army allowed these men to transfer to the British Army, who in turn allowed them to keep their distinctive uniforms. 

This new formation was known as the North Russian Relief Force (NRRF) and they began to arrive in the theater in May 1919 to cover the withdrawal of the previous force. Subsequently, a series of Bolshevik victories divided the force into isolated garrisons and made further occupation untenable. The soldiers performed a valorous fighting extraction and all of the units were out of Russia by 27 September 1919.

The last World War One era VC’s awarded to individuals were to Cpl. Arthur Sullivan and Sgt. Samuel Pearse (posthumous), of the 45th Royal Fusiliers (both were Australians), for different actions in North Russia during the withdrawals of August 1919. 

Arthur Sullivan, VC

Arthur Percy Sullivan VC (1896–1937) was a bank employee and Australian Rules footballer from South Australia who didn’t enlist in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) until April 1918 and thus was still in training in the U.K. at the Armistice. Apparently a good soldier, he was promoted to Corporal in March 1919. After his stint in the NRRF he returned to his bank job and was active in community affairs and sports. He also served as a President of The Returned Soldiers and Sailors League. He died in London in 1937 while serving as a representative of Australia at the coronation of King George VI. Sullivan’s VC is displayed today at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra:

For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty on the 10th August, 1919 at the Sheika River, North Russia. The platoon to which he belonged, after fighting a rearguard covering action, had to cross the river by means of a narrow plank, and during the passage an officer and three men fell into a deep swamp. Without hesitation, under intense fire, Corporal Sullivan jumped into the river and rescued all four, bringing them out singly. But for this gallant action his comrades would undoubtedly have been drowned. It was a splendid example of heroism, as all ranks were on the point of exhaustion and the enemy less than 100 yards distant.

— The London Gazette 26 September 1919

Samuel Pearse, VC

Samuel George Pearse VC MM (1897-1919). Born in Penarth, Wales, his family immigrated to Australia in 1911. In 1913, the 16 year old Pearse joined the Australian Militia’s 73rd Infantry (Victorian Rangers). He volunteered for overseas service in July 1915 (still under-age). In his attestation papers his occupation was given as a “rabbit-trapper”. He left for Egypt in September 1915 with the 9th Reinforcement Battalion; he was later assigned as a replacement to the 7th Battalion AIF, which was serving at Gallipoli. He arrived there shortly before the evacuation, spending only two weeks in the line.  Then he went with the 7th Battalion to the Western Front, where he served mostly as a runner. He was wounded in 1916 and 1918 and received a Military Medal for his role in attacking a machine gun post in the Battle of Polygon Wood during Third Ypres. He was promoted to Lance Corporal in 1917 and to Corporal in 1918, in spite of being written up for neglect of duty, absence from guard and disobedience to orders. After he joined the 45th Royal Fusiliers, based on his prior experience he was promoted to Sergeant. He was married in the U.K. in 1919 and left a pregnant wife behind when he shipped out for North Russia. Pearse’s VC is held in a private collection in Australia.

For most conspicuous bravery, devotion to duty and self-sacrifice during the operation against [an] enemy battery position north of Emtsa, North Russia on the 29th August 1919. Sergeant Pearse cut his way through enemy barbed-wire under very heavy machine-gun and rifle fire and cleared a way for the troops to enter an enemy battery position. Seeing that a blockhouse was harassing our advance and causing us casualties, he charged the blockhouse single-handed, killing the occupants with bombs. This gallant non-commissioned officer met his death a minute later and it was due to him that the position was carried with so few casualties. His magnificent bravery and utter disregard for personal danger won for him the admiration of all troops.

— The London Gazette, 21  October 1919

In 2018, after more than ten years of searching, a group of Russians guided only by a 1925 map and a 1919 photograph, found a grave believed to be that of Sgt. Pearse. The remains were exhumed and are currently stored at the Archangelsk morgue. Thus far DNA identification of the remains has not yet been performed, but the skeleton is the same height as Pearse (5'6"), the remains of a slouch hat were found in the grave, the grave location was consistent with the 1925 map, a toe was missing from the right foot, which was noted in Pearse's Australian army medical record and whitewashed stones found during the exhumation are similar to those shown covering the grave in the 1919 photograph. 

On 22 May 1920 King George V signed a Royal Warrant regarding the Victoria Cross, which included the closure of the World War One era. He ordered that henceforth there would be no more VC’s bestowed for actions performed during that conflict. Thus, unlike with the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor, there have not been nor ever will be any retroactive VC’s for valorous acts during World War One. 


  1. In October 2013 a second authorized Medal of Honor was presented in Westminster Abbey at the final resting place of Britain's Unknown Warrior by MOH recipient Captain Thomas Hudner USN (Ret.) in the presence of the Ancient and Honorable Company of Massachusetts. The Medal was placed on a pillar overlooking the resting site of the Unknown Warrior.

  2. Was the Unknown Warrior really "interned" on November 11, 1921?

  3. I hadn't realized that some VCs were awarded after November 11, 1918. This is good information, extremely interesting. Thank you, James.