Fielding knew Huggan bravery warranted a Victoria Cross
RUGBY famously honours four Victoria Cross winners for conspicuous bravery among its former internationals – England’s Arthur Harrison and the Irish trio of Tom Crean, Frederick Harvey and Robert Johnston – but many have felt there should have been a couple more.
Blair Mayne always gets a mention in that respect and the other Victoria Cross that ‘got away’ is Lieutenant James Laidlaw Huggan, a fast and clever wing with London Scottish and one of those pictured in the 1914 team group.
Huggan, from Jedburgh, was a medic and surgeon who graduated from Edinburgh University where he also captained the rugby team and after joining the Army and moving to London he soon made his mark.
He impressed playing for the Army against the Navy and was a star turn for the immensely strong London Scottish side which led to his try scoring debut against England in 1914, the final game before the Word War and a match which saw 11 of those involved perish in hostilities.
As a surgeon, he was gazetted to the RAMC in 1912 and was about to leave for India in 1914 when he was diverted to France on August 13 with the 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards and pitched headlong into the first bloody actions of the Great War. He was dead just a month later, the second rugby international to be killed during the war, just a couple of days after his London Scottish colleague Ronnie Simson.
Huggan died on September 16, just hours after he had demonstrated conspicuous bravery by playing a huge role in saving the lives of 60 wounded German officers who he had found in what appeared to be an abandoned field hospital in a barn. In the chaos of War, as the warring armies advanced and retreated, the Germans seemed unaware that the outbuilding housed their own wounded and were bombarding it with shells and mortars.
Disregarding his own personal safety and faithful to his Hippocratic oath, Huggan hurriedly organised the evacuation of the barn as its burning timbers and roof fell to the ground. Repeatedly, the young Scot sprinted in and out of the barn ferrying the wounded German soldiers to relative safety and, remarkably, he and his small medical team saved the lives of all 60 Germans.
Tragically, Huggan was then killed when a shell exploded nearby as they recuperated in a nearby quarry where he was operating on one of the German officers.
Huggan’s commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel G Fielding has no hesitation in immediately recommending his young medic for the VC but was promptly told that Huggan did not qualify because his heroism did not actually involve engaging the enemy and that he had saved the lives of German soldiers, not British or French.
It seemed an inadequate explanation then and still does. Fielding wrote to Huggan’s brother soon after. His use of the word “conspicuous” on two occasions is very telling, leaving us in no doubt as to his train of thought with regards to a possible VC.
“If ever I met a brave man, he was. At Landrecies, when under heavy fire for some hours during the night, he remained up in the front all night, helping and dressing the wounded as coolly as if he was in a hospital in time of peace. At Villers-Cotterets he was conspicuous for his bravery. This was a rearguard action at the line.. dressing the wounded and helping them back.
“At the Aisne he was most conspicuous everywhere. On the day on which he was killed, he again did a very brave action. There were in a barn about 60 wounded Germans, they were all cases that could not move without help. The Germans shelled this barn and set it on fire.
“Your brother, in spite of shot and shell reining about him, called for volunteers to help him save these wounded men from the burning building and I am glad to say that it was greatly in consequence of his bravery that they were all saved.
“After he had run this great danger successfully, he moved many of the men to a quarry in the rear when a big shell came into it and killed him and many others.”