The Victoria cross
Some stories of brave men and doughty deeds.
A little Maltese cross of bronze intrinsically worth 41/2d, cast from cannon taken at Sebastopol; upon it a crown surmounted by a lion and underneath the words, “For Valour” ...... That is the proudest decoration a British subject can wear, the coveted prize of the soldier and sailor, the legion of honour of our service, the famed Victoria Cross.
Up to the present time 522 have been awarded, one by a clergyman, three by civilians, three by men of colour, twenty six by officers of the medical profession and forty one by men of the Royal Navy.
The first to win the cross was a naval officer, the last a Gurkha Lieutenant.
During the war in the Crimean Peninsula 111 V.C.’s were won, in the two years of the Indian Mutiny the number of crosses awarded was 182, whilst 78, were given for deeds of valour during the Boer War.
In accounts of brave deeds in the Crimea, Bugler Thomas KEEP, 3rd Bat Grenadier Guards, a boy hero of 10, who although he never won the V.C, had a high claim to it, as any of whom it has been granted.
The plucky little chap, whilst the battle of Inkerman was raging and the shells were bursting about him, set to work to build up a huge fire, gratefully appreciated by all who felt its warmth in keen bitter winds which stiffened their limbs, and, making tea, he hurried hither and thither among the wounded, under fire; a ball entering his jacket and coming out through his trouser leg; his red coat being well remembered by many an Inkerman veteran as he knelt fearlessly with his pannikin beside the maimed soldiers who had dragged themselves out of the fight, the Russians still continually to fire on them.
KEEP, known for the rest of his life as the, “Boy Hero” retired with medals and a pension in 1878 and was a packer in the army and navy stores for some years, serving as a sergeant in the 4th Middlesex Rifle Volunteers with great zeal and energy. His medals, bugle and drums were laid on his coffin at his funeral on the 16th, July 1894.
V.C, s for valour have been awarded for attempting to succour wounded comrades under circumstances of terrible danger. Lieut Alexander Roberts DUNN of the Light Brigade, who gained the last Balaclava V.C, 6ft 3ins in his socks, his career was singularly stirring and romantic.
The 11th Hussars were returning at hard gallop under a galling rifle fire from the Fedioukine Hills on their right, went a non-commissioned officer, mounted on a slow and jaded horse, fell behind, unable to keep up with the rest, and several voices exclaimed, “Sgt BENTLEY’S cut off!” regarding him as lost to a certainty.
Without a word and none of the men knowing what he was about to do, Lieut DUNN turned his charger, one of the most notorious kickers in the regiment, and rode back towards the belated Sergeant, who was endeavouring to parry the blows of three Russian Dragoons, the rest of the 11th passing on unconscious of the death struggle about to take place in their rear.
The Lieut knew his risk, They were the last of the brigade except the dead and dying, left in the heart of the enemy’s ground; besides which, he was a wealthy man, already about to retire from service. The cross not then instituted, he had nothing to gain but he saw BENTLEY alone, facing fearful odds, and he deliberately chose to hazard his life and all in the efforts to save him.
After a terrific combat the officer killed the three Russians and bore BENTLEY safely to the English lines.
Private Alfred ALBETT of the 3rd Battalion, performed a plucky action in the trenches before Inkerman, saving not the life of one comrade, but the lives of a score. The sentries had shouted, “Look out there!” and a live shell dropped plump into the middle of some ammunition cases.
Pulling it away , the deadly thing rolled between ABLETT’S legs and he had just time to pick it up and hurl it out of the trench when it burst, knocking him over and covering him with gravel and sand.
Sgt BAKER picked him up and found he was unhurt, although severely shaken, and the affair was reported to the Capt in charge of the party, who, on coming off duty, duly reported it to his commanding officer, with the result that brave ABLETT was promoted Corporal then Sergeant, and received in addition from the hands of his chief a silk necktie made by her Majesty, who also pinned the V.C, to his breast at the 1st presentation.
Another plucky deed of similar character was performed by Private Francis WHEATLEY, Rifle Brigade, 1st Battalion, who when in the trenches on 10th Nov, 1854, he tackled a live shell that fell into the midst of the party, and after vainly endeavouring to knock out the burning fuse with the butt of his rifle, picked it up and flung it over the parapet, where it immediately exploded.
It was during the Indian Mutiny that the popular, “Bobs” won his V.C. He was then Lieut Frederick Sleigh ROBERTS of the Bengal Artillery, and was with Sir Colin CAMPBELL following the retreating rebels after the engagement at Khodagunge, when he saw two Sepoys hastening away with a colour.
Dressed, as Lord ROBERTS himself informed the author, in a blue patrol jacket, Bedford cords, and brown boots, with a turban encircling his khaki-coloured helmet, and mounted on a bay charger, he was seen to come up with them on the outskirts of a village, and turning at bay, they threw their muskets forward and covered the sleight figure.
One of them fired, but those faulty old percussion caps had luckily a habit of snapping, and the young Lieut cut down the rebel with the colour and captured it.
Just before he had distinguished himself in a different manner; for during the pursuit he came upon a Royal Sower , or native horse soldier, of the 5th Punjab Cavalry, engaged with a rebel Sepoy of the 41st Bengal Native Infantry, and, as is generally the case with, “sword mounted versus bayonet dismounted,” the rebel was having it his own way.
Riding up to the troopers assistance, never heeding the fixed bayonet of the desperate Sepoy, with one terrific slash across the face, ROBERTS killed him on the spot.
He was afterwards summoned to Buckingham Palace to receive the cross from the hand of her Majesty while on his honeymoon in Scotland.
Thomas Henry KAVANAGH, known as, “Lucknow Kavanagh” held a civil post and was stationed at Lucknow with his wife and family when the mutiny broke out. All through the memorable siege he behaved with great bravery, although his wife was wounded and they both suffered great hardships.
The garrison’s only hope was Sir Colin CAMPBELL, who was on his way to the relief, and who had reached the White Tower of the Alum Bagh about 4 miles from the residency. But the road into Lucknow was circuitous, and would be fiercely defended the various passages and buildings en route affording splendid vantage posts for the rebels.
HAVELOCK’S had suffered severely from an imperfect knowledge of the way, and it was of the utmost necessity that Sir Colin CAMPBELL have a guide well aquainted with the country; but the girdle of mutineers rendered the very thought of such a thing absurd.
During the early part of the siege KAVANAGH had been very ill, but his strength had returned, and he was at the time of his exploit a strongman, with dark hair and a red beard, speaking Hindustani fluently.
A native spy named Kunonjee LAL, a very handsome fellow, was returning to the Alum Bagh on a certain night, and after gaining his confidence and consent with difficulty, for the risk was enormous even to a native, KAVANAGH went to Col NAPIER, chief of OUTRAM’S staff, and informed him that the spy was willing to guide him to Sir Colin’s camp, and that he [Kavanagh] was ready to undertake the journey. The Colonel was amazed, and pointed out in forcible language the fate that would befall him if he was detected, but KAVANAGH persisted, and was taken to Sir James OUTRAM.
OUTRAM refused to listen to them to traverse the rebel camp in the dead of night, when eyes sharp as those of a lynx were on watch, when keen distrust prevailed amongst the mutineers themselves, and every stranger closely questioned, was on trial, to which he would subject no man, Kunonjee LAL would find it himself as much as he could manage to get through, and for a European the thing was impossible.
The Irishman persisted however and gained his point. It was decided if Sir James was satisfied with the disguise he proposed to assume he could go, and KAVANAGH left him to make his preparations.
He has told us of the revulsion of feelings that came over him as he started, his wife and little ones were utmost in his thoughts, and he was within an ace of throwing up the whole affair, but the recollection of those fearful stories that HAVELOCK’S men brought back from Cawnpore weighed strongly with him.
Accordingly , at 6 o’ clock he left the two rooms where they were living, Mrs KAVANAGH supposing as usual that he was going on duty as usual at the mines. In a quiet corner of the slaughter-yard that brave Irishman blackened his face with lamp-black put on a pair of tight silk trousers, a muslin shirt, and a short yellow silk jacket, concealed his hair in a cream coloured turban, bound a white cummerbund around his waist, slung a yellow chintz mantle from his shoulders, and slipped his feet into a pair of native slippers, turned up at the toes and painfully tight, as he found to his sorrow, and went to see Col NAPIER with amazing results.
Natives were not allowed to enter a European’s dwelling with their shoes on, nor to sit down uninvited, and to test his disguise KAVANAGH did both.
The officers were indignant to see a swaggering fellow, evidently a badmash, or worthless character as the name implies, in their midst, conducting himself with insolent familiarity, and after an angry altercation in Hindustani, Sir James OUTRAM came into the room, only to be completely decieved like the rest.
The disguise was perfect and KAVANAGH was free to go, cigar in mouth, Sir James touched up his face in candlelight, Capt SITWELL gave him a double-barrelled pistol – to use upon himself if he was taken – and after an eloquent handshake all round at 8.30, Capt HARDINGE accompanied him and Kunonjee LAL, to pass them through the picket on the river bank.
The night was dark, and the great vaulted dome overhead without a cloud as they stripped and waded through the Goomtee and stole up a trench for 300 yds to a little grove beside a silent pool, where they stayed to dress again.
A man came down to wash, and they had a narrow escape from detection, and farther on they met a Sepoy with a matchlock, to whom KAVANAGH spoke of the night.
“Yes it was very cold,” said the rebel, who appeared uncommunicative for without further parley he went his way along the river bank. At the Iron Bridge a cavalry picket challenged and Kunonjee LAL advanced. They had come down from Mundron, he said, naming a place held by the mutineers, and the picket allowed them to proceed. Crossing the Stone Bridge further on they entered the streets of the city, and then all their nerves were required for they were full of rebels, but sauntering on they travelled the main thoroughfare and reached the outskirts in safety satisfying a native watch man, and breathing more freely as they found themselves in the woods and groves that covered the plain on that side of Lucknow.
KAVANAGH plucked a carrot, and ate it, with a keen relish; but after a long tramp they discovered that they had mistaken the road, and were in the beautiful Pilkoosha Park, the “heart’s delight” of the Kings of OUDE, far out of their way, and still close to the city.
The park was swarming with rebels, whose horses neighed and answered each other under the trees; bivouac fires lit up the darkness, here and there, and poor Kunoujee LAL was in despair, imploring his companion to forgive his blunder.
They had been 4 hrs on their way and not clear of Lucknow. If daylight overtook them before they gained the Alum Bagh it would be the last sunrise they would see, and KAVANAGH was already almost lame from the tightness of the shoes.
An old countryman watching his crops in a field, declined to help them, and another whom they spoke to soon afterwards, fled shouting, to alarm a village not far off.
“Now for it,” said KAVANAGH, and they ran along the canal bank for dear life, happily leaving the shouts behind them.
Their troubles, however, were not nearly over; several villages they roused, and the barking of dogs continued long after the two companions had stumbled out of earshot – over paddy fields, and along irrigation cuts, where KAVANAGH more than once received an unwelcoming ducking.
Crawling into a miserable hut, his hand encountered a sleeping woman, who proved a friend for them, when she recovered from the fright, and who pointed out the way, along which they hurried as the moon was rising.
Up it came, silvering the still country, showing each clump of trees, and the white, unhealthy haze that lay above the water, as they neared Alum Bagh, round which a strong body of mutineers were posted to resist the advance of Sir Colin.
“It is important to get through,” whispered Kunoujee LAL, “There are scores of pickets, and rifle-pits full of men; we must go round by Bunee." And around they went, shortly coming on another cavalry patrol, to which they walked up boldly.
Confidence helped them and they soon left the unsuspecting sowers in the rear; but about 3 o’ clock in the morning, when moving cautiously through a mango grove, a Sepoy on sentry, singing at the top of his voice to keep his courage up, raised the alarm, and the guard of 25 men surrounded them, all clamouring at once.
Poor Kunoujee LAL lost heart, and threw away the despatch he carried, but the Irish badmash kept his in his turban, and palavered so cleverly that the rascals believed his tale.
They were then, “two poor men walking to the village of Umzoula on a sad errand, namely, to inform a friend that his brother had been killed by a ball from the British encampments at Lucknow.” And the guard showed them the route they must follow.
It was the most serious encounter they had had, but at the end of half an hour they met with another misfortune, for they stumbled into a marshy jheel, and were up to their waists in reeds and water for 2hrs, sometimes to their necks. KAVANAGH became fully exhausted when they scrambled out as he had to support the spy, who was much shorter than he, and washed the black from his hands in so doing.
At the other side of the swamp he lay for a quarter of an hour, before he could continue the walk, and they reached the village to find a number of men sleeping near the chubootra or native office.
Rousing one of them they told him they were spies, sent to discover the number of Feringhees, but the man was surly, and would tell them nothing, and they had to run the gauntlet of two strong pickets, drowsing round their fires, 300 yds apart; that they accomplished; and several other narrow shaves they had, KAVANAGH at last insisting, in spite of the warnings of the spy, in sleeping for an hour in the grove, after they passed some natives who said they were fleeing from the English.
It was good news; and about 4am when, absolutely weary and footsore, they struggled on again, a voice called, “Who comes there?” and they knew their mission had ended.
Liverpool Mercury 19th Jan 1907
FIFTY YEARS AFTER
The London Gazette announces that the King has been graciously pleased to approve the decoration of the V.C. being delivered to the under-mentioned officers and men, who fell in the performance of acts of valour, and would have been recommended to Her Majesty for the V.C, had they survived.
Private Edward SPENCE, 42nd Regt, who on the 15th April 1858 volunteered to assist Capt CAFÉ, commanding the 4th Punjab rifles at the attack of the Fort Ruyha, in bringing the body of Lieut WILLOUGHBY, and placed himself in the exposed position to cover the party bearing the body and died of his wounds.
Ensign Everard PHILLIPS, for many gallant deeds he performed during the Seige of Delhi, during which he was wounded three times, and was finally killed on the streets of Delhi, 18th Sept 1858.
Lieut MELVILL of the 24th Foot, for gallant efforts to save the Queen’s colours, after the Battle of Isandlwanha.
Lieut COGHILL, 24th Foot, for his heroic conduct in endeavouring to save his brother officer’s life.
Trooper Frank William BAXTER of the Buluwayo Field Force, in having on the 22nd Apr 1896, dismounted and gave up his horse to a wounded comrade.
Lieut Hector MACLEAN, Indian Staff Corps, who on the 17th Aug 1897, during the fighting in Upper Swat, proceeding to the rescue of Lieut R. T. GREAVES who was lying disabled by a bullet and surrounded by the enemy’s swordsmen.
Feedback from Mark TURNBULL
Re: Thomas Keep 'Boy Hero" who is said to have done a remarkable feat during the Crimean war aged 10.
From a letter sent to The Times and published, his father corrects the mistake in age to 16
To The Editor Of The Times. (Letters to the Editor) THOMAS KEEP, No. 2 Company, 2d Battalion Grenadier Guards, Wellington Barracks.
The Times Friday, Feb 23, 1855; pg. 5; Issue 21985; col F
The error comes from
A YOUTHFUL HERO.-A sergeant-major, now in (News)
The Times Thursday, Feb 22, 1855; pg. 12; Issue 21984; col F
which gives his age as 10 the previous day.
1st Miner's V.C 1908
1st Miner's V.C 1908
Copyright 2002 / To date