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8 May 1865|
Bishopscourt, County Kildare
12 November 1914 (aged 49)|
Polygon Wood, Zonnebeke, Belgium
|Buried||Menin Gate Memorial|
|Years of service||1886–1914|
|Commands held||1st (Guards) Brigade|
Second Boer War|
World War I †
Brigadier General Charles FitzClarence VC (8 May 1865 – 12 November 1914) was an Anglo-Irish recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces.
Charles FitzClarence was born in County Kildare, the son of Captain George FitzClarence (15 April 1836 – 24 March 1894) and Maria Henrietta Scott (1841 – 27 July 1912). He had a twin brother named Edward. His paternal grandfather was The 1st Earl of Munster, an illegitimate son of William, Duke of Clarence (later King William IV of the United Kingdom). He joined the Royal Fusiliers in 1886 but his early career was blighted by several bouts of illness and he spent much of his time in administrative and staff roles. In 1899 he volunteered to serve as a Special Service Officer at Mafeking, South Africa and was given the duty of training a squadron of the Protectorate Regiment.
The VC action
On the 14th October, 1899, Captain FitzClarence went with his squadron of the Protectorate Regiment, consisting of only partially trained men, who had never been in action, to the assistance of an armoured train which had gone out from Mafeking. The enemy were in greatly superior numbers, and the squadron was for a time surrounded, and it looked as if nothing could save them from being shot down. Captain FitzClarence, however, by his personal coolness and courage inspired the greatest confidence in his men, and, by his bold and efficient handling of them, not only succeeded in relieving the armoured train, but inflicted a heavy defeat on the Boers, who lost 50 killed and a large number wounded, his own losses being 2 killed and 15 wounded. The moral effect of this blow had a very important bearing on subsequent encounters with the Boers.
On the 27th October, 1899, Captain FitzClarence led his squadron from Mafeking across the open, and made a night attack with the bayonet on one of the enemy's trenches. A hand-to-hand fight took place in the trench, while a heavy fire was concentrated on it from the rear. The enemy was driven out with heavy loss. Captain FitzClarence was the first man into the position and accounted for four of the enemy with his sword. The British lost 6 killed and 9 wounded. Captain FitzClarence was himself slightly wounded. With reference to these two actions, Major-General Baden-Powell states that had this Officer not shown an extraordinary spirit and fearlessness the attacks would have been failures, and we should have suffered heavy loss both in men and prestige.
On the 26th December, 1899, during the action at Game Tree, near Mafeking, Captain FitzClarence again distinguished himself by his coolness and courage, and was again wounded (severely through both legs).
His ferocity in battle earned him the enduring nickname 'The Demon'. He served in South Africa until February 1901, at which point he transferred to the newly formed Irish Guards. He passed Staff College in 1904 and succeeded to the command of the 1st Battalion Irish Guards in July 1909. He had a reputation as a forward thinking soldier and took an innovative, albeit demanding, approach to training. It was noted he was "both loved and feared by his battalion". At the outbreak of the First World War he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General and was given command of the newly formed 29th Brigade.
The Great War
On 27 September 1914 he replaced Brigadier-General Ivor Maxse as commander of 1st Guards' Brigade with the British Expeditionary Force. He held this command until he was killed in action on 12 November 1914.
On 4 October 1914, whilst 1st Guards' Brigade was holding trenches opposite the German line at the River Aisne, he ordered the Coldstream Guards to carry out a night time raid against a German position known as 'Fish Hook Trench'. This was the first British trench raid of the First World War. The raid was led by Second Lieutenant Merton Beckwith-Smith and was a striking local success.
In October, FitzClarence had played a significant part in the First Battle of Ypres. Captain Valentine Williams, MC, writing in Blackwood's Magazine, described the action at Gheluvelt thus: "The Coldstream and Scots Guards' battalions of FitzClarence's brigade, in trenches north of Gheluvelt, suffered terribly in a German attack, delivered in a dense mist on the morning of the 27th along the Menin road. The odds against the British were crushing, for on that day some 24,000 Germans were arrayed against about 5,000 exhausted British troops. In two days the Scots Guards lost 10 officers and 370 men killed and wounded. But the result of the day's fighting was that the British line stood firm and unbroken, while the Germans had sustained enormous losses". Sir John French, in his Despatch published on 30 November 1914, described the fighting at this time as: "Perhaps the most important and decisive attack (except that of the Prussian Guard on the 10th November) made against the 1st Corps during the whole of its arduous experiences in the neighbourhood of Ypres."
Blackwood's Magazine for August 1917 carries an article describing FitzClarence's part. It was he who gave the order for the vital counter-attack of 31 October 1914. He "rallied the troops and directed the successful onslaught". Lt Col. E. B. Hankey, involved in the attack, said of FitzClarence: " ... by shoving us in at the time and place he did, the General saved the day."
On the morning of 12 November the Prussian Guard attacked British troops along the Menin Road. Thirteen battalions of them came on, but only in three places did the Prussian Guard break through. On the following morning FitzClarence counter-attacked. The General himself decided to show his old regiment the way, and paid for the decision with his life. FitzClarence fell dead, and neither FitzClarence himself, nor Sir John French knew how well he had served his country at Gheluvelt.
In his Despatch of 20 November 1914, Sir John French said: "Another officer whose name was particularly mentioned to me was Brigadier-General FitzClarence, VC, commanding the 1st Guards' Brigade. He was unfortunately killed in the night attack of the 11th November. His loss will be severely felt".
His most recent biographer, Spencer Jones, describes FitzClarence as exemplifying "...the best aspects of the post-Boer War [British] officer class" due to his "courage, professionalism, natural leadership, and willingness to act upon his own initiative."
On 20 April 1898, at the Citadel Church, Cairo, he married Violet Spencer-Churchill (13 June 1864 – 22 December 1941), daughter of Lord Alfred Spencer-Churchill and a granddaughter of the sixth Duke of Marlborough. The couple had two children:
- Edward Charles FitzClarence, 6th Earl of Munster (3 October 1899 – 15 November 1983)
- Joan Harriet FitzClarence (23 December 1901 – 6 January 1971)
- Jones, Spencer (2013). ""The Demon: Brigadier-General Charles FitzClarence VC". Stemming the Tide: Officers and Leadership in the British Expeditionary Force, 1914. Helion & Co. p. 245. ISBN 978-1-909384-45-3.
- "No. 27208". The London Gazette. 6 July 1900. p. 4196.
- "Casualty Details: Charles FitzClarence". Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 15 November 2009.
Listed in order of publication year
- The Register of the Victoria Cross (1981, 1988 and 1997)
- Clarke, Brian D. H. (1986). "A register of awards to Irish-born officers and men". The Irish Sword. XVI (64): 185–287.
- List of Irish Victoria Cross recipients (Dept of Economic Development 1995)
- Monuments to Courage (David Harvey, 1999)
- Irish Winners of the Victoria Cross (Richard Doherty & David Truesdale, 2000)
- "Elegant Extracts" – The Royal Fusiliers Recipients of the VC (J. P. Kelleher, 2001)
- Royal Fusiliers Recipients of the Victoria Cross
- Turtle Bunbury, The Glorious Madness, Tales of The Irish and The Great War,
Charles FitzClarence -- Kildare's Royal VC Winner, p.37, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin 12 (2014) ISBN 978 0717 16234 5
- Spencer Jones (ed.) Stemming the Tide: Officers and Leadership in the British Expeditionary Force 1914. Helion & Co. (2013)