Canada's first Victoria Cross recipient, Alexander Roberts Dunn, was a native of York, Upper Canada, who fought in the Crimean War and charged with the Light Brigade.
On October 25, 1854, on the Crimean War battlefield of Balaclava, more than 600 British cavalrymen of the Light Brigade charged straight toward dozens of Russian artillery guns entrenched in a valley flanked on both sides by battalions of infantrymen on the heights above. Prompted by a poorly communicated order, the wild, suicidal charge resulted in devastating bloodshed and brutal loss of life. In only 25 minutes of battle, 118 men were killed, another 127 wounded, and approximately 60 taken prisoner. Considered a “hideous blunder”—as war correspondent William Russell described it in The Times—the Charge would in time be immortalized in poetry and cinema as much for its foolhardiness as its fearless heroism.
Among the number who rode against impossible odds that gray and chilly day was Lieutenant Alexander Roberts Dunn of the 11th Hussars. Handsome and brash, the York-born cavalry officer led “F” Troop through the chaotic mêlée as smoke from the artillery battery chocked visibility and unseen gunfire cut men down indiscriminately. Injured horses charged riderless across terrain covered with dead and dying soldiers. As he and his men retreated from the madness, Dunn saw a compatriot, Sergeant Robert Bailey, straggling behind and struggling with his injured horse. Without hesitation he turned and galloped back.
Brandishing his revolver, Dunn fired repeatedly into the mass of enemies as he charged. Then, wielding his sabre, he cut down two or three Russian Lancers who were wrestling the wounded sergeant from his saddle. “I saw him cleave one almost to the saddle,” Bentley would later remember. Dismounted, Dunn heaved the 38-year-old Yorkshireman back onto his horse and, with a slap to its flank, sent it speeding back to the British lines. Dunn then found Private Levett, a former labourer and a fellow Hussar, about to be slain. Again Dunn dispatched the Russian attacker with a thrust of his sword, although Levett would not survive the battle.
Once he made it back to safety, the 21-year-old Dunn saw how many of his men had survived and, it was said, he broke down and wept. Of the 110 men comprising the 11th Hussars, only 25 had returned. For his valour in saving and taking lives that day, Dunn won the Victoria Cross, the first Canadian to do so.