Edinburgh World Heritage - News Article


Archive Anecdotes

Snippets from the city's archives

Apr 10, 2015

One hundred years ago, the courage and valour of a Royal Navy Officer on the battleship HMS Goliath was recognised. Commander Henry Peel Ritchie, who grew up in his family’s home in Melville Crescent in Edinburgh’s New Town, was the subject of the following notice issued by the Admiralty on the 10 April 1915.

‘The King has been graciously pleased to approve of the grant of the Victoria Cross to Commander Henry Peel Ritchie Royal Navy for the conscious act of bravery specified below -For most conspicuous bravery on the 28th November 1914 when in command of the searching and demolition operations at Dar-es-Salaam, East Africa. Though severely wounded several times his fortitude and resolution enabled him to continue to do his duty inspiring all by his example until at his eighth wound he became unconscious The interval between his first and last severe wound was between twenty and twenty five minutes.’

This was the first Victoria Cross (VC) awarded to naval personnel during the First World War. The VC is the highest award for valour "in the face of the enemy" that can be given to members of the British and Commonwealth armed forces.

By 1914 Ritchie was a senior officer on the battleship HMS Goliath which was being deployed in the Indian Ocean near the colony of German East Africa. It was here that Ritchie sustained his injuries leading a raid which aimed to sink cargo ships in the East African port of Dar-es-Salaam in order to restrict or end the continued use of the port by the German fleet.

Ritchie used the gunboat Helmuth to lead the raid. The raid met with considerable success. Three large merchant vessels were immobilised and several shore installations destroyed. However the British forces met with severe resistance and suffered heavy casualties.

On leaving the harbour, the Helmuth came under heavy gunfire and shelling. With many of the crew out of action through injury, Ritchie took the helm and, despite receiving eight separate gunshot and shrapnel injuries, refused to leave it until he had steered the boat and its crew out of the harbour to safety. He is described as being 'simply smothered in blood and barely conscious'.

It was later reported that he sustained ‘injuries to his forehead, left thumb, left arm (twice), right arm, right hip and a badly broken right leg after being hit by two large calibre machine gun bullets’.

Following extensive medical treatment and a long period of recovery, Ritchie was invalided out of the Royal Navy in the following year. He was presented his VC on 25 November 1916 by King George V at Buckingham Palace. He died in Edinburgh in 1958, aged 82.

In November 2014 a commemorative stone was laid in his honour at 1 Melville Crescent, the place of his birth. The house is now the Scottish headquarters of the Scotland Office.

(Photo courtesy of Museums Collection Centre, City of Edinburgh Council)

A fuller account of Ritchie’s life can be read on the Scotland's War website and also on Wikipedia.

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