With all the debate around Fred Goodwin being stripped of his knighthood, the story of an old soldier buried in South London might be of interest. James Collis was stripped of his Victoria Cross after being found guilty of bigamy in 1895. He rejoined the army in the First World War but died, aged 62, in 1918.
James Collis was born in Cambridge in 1856 and joined the army in 1872. As a gunner in E Battery, B Brigade Royal Field Artillery, he fought in the Second Afghan War, including the battle of Maiwand – a major defeat for the British. In the midst of it, Collis risked his life to save those of his wounded comrades. He was awarded the Victoria Cross:
For conspicuous bravery during the retreat from Maiwand to Kandahar when the officer commanding the battery was endeavouring to bring in a limber with wounded men under a cross-fire, in running forward and drawing the enemy’s fire on himself, thus taking off their attention from the limber.
Back in England in 1893 he married Mary Goddard in Wandsworth, only for her to discover two years later that he was already married to a woman named Adela in India. He told the police that he thought that he was free to marry again having not seen his first wife in years. He then told Mary to clear out ‘as he had another girl to take her place’ and by the time he was arrested Collis ‘was courting another young woman, and she had consented to marry him. It had been discovered that he had seduced three women’, one of whom he turned out of his home when she got pregnant and he refused to support their child.
In his trial, he was told that his gallantry in Afghanistan had saved in from a ‘severe sentence of penal servitude’. Instead he was sentenced to 18 months’ hard labour. He was also stripped of his Victoria Cross by Royal Warrant, under rules that meant the honour was forfeited when the recipient was convicted of a felony.
In 1912 he was resident in a workhouse. Two years later, the First World War began and he rejoined the army in November 1914 and served in the depot of the Suffolk Regiment. His career in the Great War must have been considerably less exciting than his time in Afghanistan since he never left the UK this around. It can only be wondered what his comrades felt about this man who was both a hero and a rogue. He was discharged as unfit for service, suffering from Bright’s Disease, in August 1917 and died of a heart attack the following June. Collis was buried in Magdalen Road Cemetery, Wandsworth, with military honours but in a pauper’s grave with no headstone.
In 1920 the rules were changed so that only treacherous crimes would lead to forfeiture of a VC, but this was not made retrospective. In 1953, though, Collis and the other seven men who had forfeited their awards were included on the official lists of Victoria Cross winners again. In 1998, a Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone, like those of other fallen soldiers of the Great War, was erected over his grave – complete with the image of a Victoria Cross.
Iain Stewart’s Victoria Cross page for Collis
The Times, 27/11/1895 & 9/5/1998