The Most Victoria Crosses in a Single DayPosted on Tuesday 31st May 2016
The Victoria Crosses that Saved an Empire
(Hardback - 236 pages)
by Brian Best
The Indian Mutiny struck at the very heart of the British Empire. If India was lost the whole edifice of British domination across its colonies was in jeopardy. Everything was at stake, Britain’s leading role in the word, its international commerce and the reputation of its armed forces.
Across the globe Britain ruled only through the compliance of the subordinate nations – but if India could throw off the imperialist yolk others might also rebel. The very fate of the Empire hung in the balance.
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Within its grounds is the last resting place of Frances Ellen Hale, the beloved wife of George Herbert Hale, Lieutenant-Adjutant, 2nd Oude Light Infantry; there is also a stone marking the spot where Lieutenant James Fullerton and his nine-month-old son, Elphinstone, are buried. In fact, all around the grounds of the ruined Lucknow Residency are memorials to those who died during the bitter struggle for what became the pivotal battleground of the Indian Mutiny. Indeed, it was at the Residency, on 16 November 1857, that the greatest number of Victoria Crosses were awarded in a single day.
India had long been considered to be Britain’s most important colonial possession. It stood at the heart of the vast empire in the East, which embraced most of the sub-Continent. When the rule of the East India Company was threatened by a revolt of its sepoy soldiers, Britain had to respond quickly before the mutiny became a widespread rebellion.
When news of the revolt reached Lucknow, Brigadier-General Sir Henry Lawrence, the Chief Commissioner, quickly brought together whatever men he could find that might help defend the city, including pensioners and native troops whose loyalty could be trusted. He also gathered supplies in expectation of a siege, and British civilians from around the whole area made their way to his Residency.
Eventually, the mutineers reached Lucknow and the anticipated siege began. Lawrence had just 855 British troops, 712 Indian soldiers, and 153 civilian volunteers to defend the sixty square acres of Lucknow. Some 1,280 non-combatants, including hundreds of women and children, depended on this small force.
The first signs of trouble occurred on 30 May 1857, when the 71st Native Infantry mutinied and rampaged through the cantonment three miles from Lucknow. In time, however, the main action, from the end of June, centered upon the Residency itself, which was surrounded initially by some 8,000 rebels.
There were several determined attempts to storm the Residency and the complex of surrounding buildings, all of which were repulsed, and a number of sorties were undertaken by the defenders to delay the preparations of the besiegers. In these a number of Victoria Crosses were earned and the astute Henry Lawrence was fatally wounded.
A relief force was sent to Lucknow but it proved to be too small to save the garrison, losing 535 men out of 2,000. By this time, 25 September 1857, the defenders of the Residency had endured a siege of eighty-seven days, and were reduced to 982 fighting personnel.
The siege continued and the mutiny spread more widely across India. The situation was becoming increasingly serious, and the number of rebels around Lucknow had grown a force more than 30,000 strong.
A second relief attempt was made by Sir Colin Campbell at the head of 600 cavalry, 3,500 infantry and forty-two guns, along with a contingent of Royal Marines and sailors. Campbell fought his way through to the Residency on 16 November 1857 – one of the most memorable days in the long history of the British Army.
The first VC exploit of that day was undertaken by Captain George Steuart, whose action was witnessed by Surgeon William Munro of the 93rd Highlanders. Munro recalled seeing Captain Steuart assaulting a sepoy battery of two guns, the flanking fire from which was impeding the efforts of the relieving force: ‘Stewart [sic], perceiving the annoyance which these two guns were causing, called upon his company, and at the head of it … dashed forward in a most gallant style, captured the guns at the point of the bayonet, turned them on the flying rebels.’
The 93rd Highlanders were involved in the storming of the Secundra Bagh. This was a high-walled garden approximately 120 square yards square, with parapets at each corner, which lay in the path of Campbell's column as it moved into Lucknow. As the British troops advanced, they came under fire from loopholes in the Secundra Bagh. Hauled by rope and hand, artillery pieces were manoeuvred within sixty yards of the enclosure. Although significant British casualties were sustained in the process, the subsequent artillery fire breached the south-eastern wall.
Men from the 93rd and 4th Punjab Infantry Regiment then rushed forward. The Highlanders poured through the breach shouting, ‘Remember Cawnpore!’ Gradually the din of battle waned; the dwindling force of defenders moved northward; the British numbered the sepoy dead at nearly 2,000. Many of the VCs awarded for actions on 16 November 1857 were the result of the fighting at the Secundra Bagh.
Another who distinguished himself that day was a young Scottish private, George Grant. Lieutenant Colonel Ewart, who had been prominent throughout the attack, fought two mutineers for their regimental standard, which they were defending. He managed to kill them despite being hacked in his sword arm, and carried off his prize. Private Grant followed his commander and fought off the rebels as they tried to regain their colour. Grabbing a fallen tulwar, Grant slew five sepoys, thereby enabling Ewart to present his trophy to Sir Colin Campbell. Much to Ewart's dismay, Campbell severely rebuked him, saying: 'Damn your colours, sir! It's not your place to be taking colours! Go back to your regiment this instant, sir!'.
Private Grant was elected by his fellow soldiers and received his Victoria Cross from Major General Robert Garrett at Umbeyla, Peshawar, on 6 December 1859.
Eventually, the relieving force cut its way through to the walls of the Residency. William Mitchell of the 93rd described the final advance: ‘As soon as the terrible fire was opened on us in an effort to bar our advance on the Residency, Sir Colin gave the order for us to man the dragropes of Captain Peel’s naval guns for an immediate attack on the Shah Nujjuf [sic]; and the order was obeyed with a cheer … For more than seven hundred yards, the two 8-inchers and six 24-pounders were dragged along by our men and the sailors in the teeth of a hailstorm of lead and iron from the enemy’s batteries; and it was a wonder that any of us survived.'
During that attack, four Victoria Crosses were awarded to members the Naval Brigade sent ashore from HMS Shannon. This is just one statistic of the many that marked the astonishing story of the Indian Mutiny VCs.
Colin Campbell was able to enter the Residency, but he lacked the numbers to hold Lucknow, and he evacuated the garrison and all those inside the Residency. Campbell later returned to recapture Lucknow, 148 days after the siege had begun. The mutiny continued for another few months, finally concluding on 8 July 1859.
In total 182 Victoria Crosses were awarded for valour in the Indian Mutiny including, for the first time, civilians who had helped the British armed forces achieve the victory that saved the empire.
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