The first Jewish and Indian recipients of the Victoria Cross

The British and French victory at the First Battle of Ypres in 1914 marked the end of the war of movement on the Western Front. Both sides dug in and a line of trenches soon ran from the Channel to the Swiss frontier.

On 23 November 1914 the 34th Prince Albert Victor’s Own Poona Horse, part of the recently arrived Indian Corps sent to reinforce the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), found themselves in the trenches at Festubert, a small village to the east of Béthune in France.

The following morning the Germans attacked both them and the adjacent British and Indian Army units. During the subsequent fighting, Lieutenant Frank de Pass of the Poona Horse became the first Jewish recipient of the Victoria Cross and also the first Indian Army officer to win the award in the First World War.

A reconnaissance by Indian soldiers of de Pass’s unit discovered that the Germans had built a small trench near their parapet and had then erected a sandbagged traverse from which they could throw bombs into the British trench, causing several casualties.

Lieutenant de Pass, along with Sowars Fateh Khan and Firman Shah, volunteered to destroy the traverse with a charge of gun cotton (a type of explosive). The three men achieved this and returned unscathed, despite coming under attack by German bombers.

Later the same day, under heavy fire, de Pass and Private C Cook from the 7th (The Princess Royal’s) Dragoon Guards rescued a wounded sepoy of the 58th Vaughan’s Rifles who was lying exposed in the open.

When the Germans attacked again the following day, and once more bombs rained down on the Poona Horse’s trench, Lieutenant de Pass volunteered to repair part of the parapet that had been damaged. As he started to do this he spotted a sniper. He tried to shoot him but was himself shot in the head and killed.

Frank de Pass’s VC was announced in The London Gazette of 18 February 1915. The two Indian soldiers who had helped him received the Indian Distinguished Service Medal, while Private Cook of the 7th Dragoon Guards was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his role in the action.

Frank de Pass was buried at Béthune Town Cemetery. He is also commemorated on the Bevis Marks Synagogue war memorial in the City of London and on the war memorial in the chapel at Rugby School. A paving stone is due to be unveiled outside his birthplace as part of the UK government’s First World War Centenary Programme.

By Dr Matt Thomas of the National Army Museum

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