James Collis VC: an honour forfeited

02 Feb

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.

Details of James Collis's service in the Great War

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.


Other sources:

Iain Stewart’s Victoria Cross page for Collis

The Times, 27/11/1895 & 9/5/1998


Posted by on 2 February 2012 in Award-winners


5 responses to “James Collis VC: an honour forfeited

  1. Sally Maskell (nee Collis)

    14 October 2013 at 11:00 pm

    James was my paternal Great Grandfather, bit of a rogue indeed but a brave one, I remember my dad talking abut him. He apparently had already pawned his medal when arrrested and the police redeemed it from the pawnbrokers. Adele was my Great Grandmother .James now has a military headstone at his grave in Wandsworth Cemetry. We went along to a short ceremony some years ago.
    Hope this is of interest
    Regards Sally

    • Stuart

      24 October 2013 at 9:59 pm

      Hi Sally.
      It’s always nice to hear from relatives/descendants of the people I have written about. James Collis’s story is certainly an interesting one; funny that his roguish behaviour has been told down the family tree – I’d imagine that Adele was not too complimentary about him after the way he treated her. That is certainly interesting about his Victoria Cross; I wonder how many VC-winners have done the same in tough times!
      Thanks for getting in touch,

    • Andrei

      8 April 2014 at 5:36 pm

      Hello Sally, can you please leave me your contact details?

    • Brian Drummond

      12 June 2019 at 11:22 am

      Hi Sally, I am currently researching the life story of James Collis VC for a book on the 62 Gunner VC’s, of which James is one, which I hope to have published in the near future. Would you be interested in having a look at this research and advising/commenting on any of it? Kind regards Brian (Gunner VC researcher)


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