The first Royal Marine to receive the Victoria’s Cross earned the medal for gallantry at the Battle of Inkerman during the Crimean War when he lead his men against a Russian patrol despite being completely out of ammo. Since he couldn’t fire, he wrestled the enemy leader and threw him off a ridge.
John Pethyjohns joined the military in 1844 but, because he couldn’t read, did not know that the enlisting officer had misspelled his name as John Prettyjohns. The former farmworker slowly rose through the ranks and, in November 1854, he was a corporal helping lead a platoon against the Russians.
In the Battle of Inkerman, a large force of light infantry was holding the road that passed between the Russian forces and the town of Inkerman. The Russians had attacked during breakfast but the marines had managed to hold them. Russian sniper fire from nearby caves was starting to tip the battle back to the Russians.
So Prettyjohns’ platoon was sent to clear Russian snipers out of caves near the main battlefield. The platoon sergeant and Prettyjohns led the attacks and cleared some caves, but then they noticed Russian reinforcements approaching up the hill.
The Battle of Inkerman by Victor Adam (Painting: Public Domain)
The Royal Marines were nearly out of ammunition and trapped on the hilltop, but Prettyjohns quickly improvised. He ordered the marines to collect stones and then to the edge of the summit to meet the Russians himself.
When the first Russian crested the hill, Prettyjohns grabbed him and executed a wrestling throw, hurling the Russian down the slope. The other marines, meanwhile, threw their rocks at the Russian patrol, fired a volley of rifle fire, and forced them to withdraw.
When the Victoria Cross was introduced, the marines chose to nominate Prettyjohns for his actions on the hill and he became the first Royal Marine to receive the award. He left the service in 1865 as a Colour Sergeant and died in 1887.