James Collis: The War Hero Stripped Off of His Victoria Cross

James Collis was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery during the Second Afghan War in 1881. However, James Collis also became one of the only eight who were stripped off of the said military distinction. Here’s the unbelievable story behind the giving and stripping of the soldier’s Victoria Cross that led to the amendment of the regulations connected to the medal.

Who is James Collis?

Lord Ashcroft, the man who bought the Victoria Cross medal of James Collis in an auction last year, was the one who divulged the interesting story behind the war hero’s medal and why it was stripped off from him.

James Collis served as a gunner during the Second Afghan War some 130 years in the past. Because of displaying an act of bravery during the said conflict, he was awarded the military decoration in 1881.

July 28, 1880 — James Collis was serving with the Royal Horse Artillery and he and his comrades were on their way to Kandahar. They had just suffered a massive loss at the hands of their enemies at Maiwand, Afghanistan.

However, they were attacked by Afghan forces while they were retreating. The officer in-charge of the battery was trying to bring in a limber – two-wheeled cart designed to support the trail of an artillery piece – which carried wounded men when they got caught in the crossfire.

Seeing this, James Collis rushed in to aid by racing forward. Because of his action, the enemies focused their fires on him; he was able to divert their attention away from the limber.

James Collis survived and on May 16, 1881, he was awarded the Victoria Cross for that very brave act just so he could save his wounded fellow British soldiers. The citation for the award read “for conspicuous bravery” though his surname was misspelled as Colliss.

Two Wives

But James Collis forfeited his Victoria Cross on the grounds of bigamy.

When he got discharged from the army in 1881, he went to India and joined the Bombay Police. The following year, he got married to Adela Grace Skuse, a widow residing in the Indian city.

James Collis returned to the UK in 1884. He re-enlisted in the army in 1887 and joined the Suffolk Regiment. He went back to India the following year but three years after, in 1891, he contacted rheumatic fever and was invalided home. He returned to British soil without his wife.

The Fallout

Eventually, he met and married Mary Goddard in 1893. However, he did so without her knowledge that he had a wife in India. Two years into their marriage life, the war hero’s deception was discovered.

James Collis was sentenced to bigamy and was punished by having had to spend 18 months in hard labor. And under the Royal Warrant of 1856’s original regulations, the one who started Britain and the Commonwealth’s most distinguished war honor, he was forfeited of his Victoria Cross because of his crime.

At this point, though, James Collis had pawned his medal as he had hit hard times. The war medal was hocked for a mere eight shillings or forty pounds. The police retrieved it promptly from the pawnshop, per instruction of the Home Office, for the same price.

James Collis went on to have a series of odd jobs after he was released from prison. When WWI broke out, the 58-year-old ex-soldier re-enlisted in the Suffolk Regiment and became a drill instructor. Nevertheless, he was invalided on medical grounds 1917; he was suffering direly from poor health. James Collis died at the age of 62 in London’s Battersea General Hospital in 1918.

The Changes

Two years after the death of James Collis, his sister, Hannah Haylock, sent a petition to the War Office in behalf of the whole Collis family pleading for it to cancel the forfeiture of her brother’s Victoria Cross medal. King George V showed sympathy to the family’s request but then Secretary of State for War, Winston Churchill, was against it.

Churchill believed that since James Collis pawned his Victoria Cross, he placed little value in the prestigious military decor he was given. He also argued the point as to why the family had to wait twenty-five years before airing this particular grievance of theirs to the government.

In the end, nonetheless, King George V won.

It was during the retreat after the Battle of Maiwand that James Collis showed "conspicuous bravery", thus, a courageous act enough to merit a Victoria Cross.
It was during the retreat after the Battle of Maiwand that James Collis showed “conspicuous bravery”, thus, a courageous act enough to merit a Victoria Cross.

It was Winston Churchill who approved the amendments to the forfeiture of the Victoria Cross — that only serious offenses like treason, cowardice, felony or any infamous crime should lead a soldier being stripped of the Victoria Cross awarded to him. King George V also insisted that James Collis name be included in the inscription at the Royal Artillery Memorial along with the other VC recipients of the corp.

The Victoria Cross of James Collis passed through the hands of several owners before it ended in Lord Ashcroft’s care, an addition to his VC collection which already reached a total of  187 decorations. It is said to be the biggest collection worldwide.

As for the politician himself, he believes that James Collis deserved the medal for his bravery during that conflict in his time and that he is glad that the amendments to the forfeiture of the war decoration had been made. After all, Lord Ashcroft pointed out, soldiers are still human after all and not angels, saints nor perfect.

Heziel Pitogo

Heziel Pitogo is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE