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Forces War Records Blog

THE FIRST JEWISH RECIPIENT OF THE VICTORIA CROSS

On 25th November 1914, Lieutenant Frank Alexander de Pass, of the 34th Prince Albert Victor’s Own Poona Horse, was shot in the head by a sniper while trying to capture a small enemy trench in No Man’s Land at Festubert, Flanders. The day before he had demonstrated such bravery in the field as to earn the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for gallantry, recorded in the London Gazette on 16th February 1915. He was just 27 at his death, and the first Jewish person and the first Indian Army Officer ever to earn the VC.

On Tuesday this week a service was held in his honour, and a commemorative paving stone was laid in Victoria Embankment Gardens, marking 100 years since he laid down his life for Britain. According to ‘Jewish News’ the stone was blessed by Military chaplain Rabbi Reuben Livingstone, in the presence of Lieutenant Colonel Jonny Kitson, a relative of Lieut. de Pass, The Lord Mayor Westminster Cllr Audrey Lewis, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, Deputy Commander of the Army in London Brigadier Richard Smith, the Head of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women and veterans from the Royal British Legion, and recent VC recipient Sergeant Johnson Beharry VC, along with assorted servicemen and women. It is just one of 469 stones that will be laid in communities in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland over the next four years to honour recipients of the Victoria Cross.

Lieutenant Frank Alexander de Pass was born in Kensington, London on 26th April 1887, the second son of President of the West India Committee Sir Eliot Arthur de Pass and Beatrice de Pass. He attended Rugby School and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, before obtaining his first Commission with the Royal Field Artillery in 1906. He was stationed in India in 1909, and obtained a further commission with the 34th Poona Horse that same year after passing his language requirements in just 6 months. He was appointed Orderly Officer to the Chief of the Staff in India in 1913, but re-joined the 34th Poona Horse when war broke out in 1914, and was sent to France that September.

Memorials of Rubeians Who Fell in the Great War’, available to view in our Historic Documents Library, quotes a report made by his Captain, detailing Lieutenant de Pass’s heroics after it was discovered, on reaching his post and finding that the enemy had driven a sap, or shallow ditch, to that part of the trench designated to his Battalion and blown an 8ft breach in the main Parapet, leaving the trench exposed to rifle fire. Lieut. de Pass immediately asked permission to take charge of the defence of the breach, and a scout reported shortly after that that a sniper was concealed behind a sandbag placed close by where the sap made its first bend.

“Early on the morning of the 24th, Lieut. de Pass, accompanied by Sowars Fateh Khan and Firman Shah, entered the enemy’s sap and, proceeding along it, Lieut. de Pass placed a charge of gun cotton into the enemy’s loop-hole, and fired the charge, completely demolishing the traverse and rounding off the bend sufficiently to expose the sap for some thirty yards to our rifle fire. While this was being done the enemy threw a bomb at Lieut. de Pass’s party, which fortunately missed and exploded behind them.

“This action of Lieut. de Pass stopped all bomb throwing by the enemy during the 24th, and its effect can better be gauged by the fact that there was only one casualty that day, compared with six the day before, and nine the day after, when, under cover of darkness on the night of 24-25, the enemy replaced their loop-holed sandbag traverse.

“The same day Lieut. de Pass, accompanied by a trooper of the 7th Dragoon Guards, went out in broad daylight and brought in a sepoy of the 58th Rifles, who was lying wounded in the rear of our trenches, at about 200 feet distance. Lieut. de Pass did not ask permission to do this but acted on his own initiative.

“Lieut. de Pass again volunteered to enter the enemy’s sap and blow up the traverse, but permission was refused.

“About 3pm on the 25th the bomb-throwing by the enemy became worse, and Lieut. de Pass went to the head of the sap to supervise repairs to our defences, which had been seriously impaired. He endeavoured to shoot the enemy’s sniper through a loop-hole, and in doing so was himself shot through the head. I consider that Lieut. de Pass’s conduct throughout was most intrepid, and his actions were a magnificent example to the men of the Detachment.”

Lieut. de Pass was the first of 5 Jewish men to earn the Victoria Cross during the course of the First World War, an impressive number considering just 578 among the 6 million men who fought were granted this award. For details of the other recipients’ acts of gallantry, take a peek at the ‘British Jewry Book of Honour 1922’, also held in our Historic Documents Library.

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