For Valour – The Delhi VCs

In June 1857 in Delhi alone, 6 VCs would be won. The men thus honoured had one thing in common which is reflected in the acts for which they were singled out as VC winners – selflessness under fire. Victorians are over-fond of the word “pluck” which could denote anything from simple courage to recklessness. If pluck had been the criteria to win a VC, there would have been very few in Delhi who would have missed out – as it was, 5 of these men added morality to the formula to win a Victoria Cross. One would keep the tradition of duty in the face of immense odds – and win the day.

The youngest winner in June was Thomas Cadell of the 2nd Bengal Fusiliers.
Receiving his commission in 1854, Thomas was gazetted to the 2nd European Bengal Fusiliers and promoted to Lieutenant in 1856 at the age of 21.

Thomas Cadell, 2nd Bengal European Fusiliers, 12th of June

In a letter to his father on the 29th of June, Lieutenant Cadell wrote,

“The most severe fire I have been under was on the 12th. I went up with a party of my regiment to relieve a piquet of the 75th. We had broken off our men when I went to the front of Flagstaff Tower to see what was going on. I went to the brow of the hill with Knox of the 75th (he was knocked over five minutes afterwards) and no sooner had we got there than abouth thirty bullets whizzed over our heads. I asked the senior officer present to take out my company. He allowed me to take only a sub-division. I had just got there in skirmishing order in line with the tower when about a thousand Pandies (rebel sepoys) jumped over the brow of the steep hill like so many spectres. We kept them back for about ten minutes when we were forced to retire. Eleven out of the twenty men wo were with me were killed or wounded, so you see it was rather sharp work We soon rallied again and of course drove them back.”

It was during this attack that Cadell noticed a bugler of his own regiment laying on the ground, desperately wounded but still alive. Cadell rushed out under heavy fire and dragged the man to safety, saving him from being cut up by the advancing rebels.
Later the same day when the Fusiliers were ordered to retire to the Metcalfe Piquet, Cadell, having heard a man of the 75th had been left behind on the field, he quickly rallied three men to follow him back towards the advancing mutineers. Together they not only found the wounded man but carried him to safety under heavy fire.

If bravery can be said to run in a family it certainly ran in Cadell’s. His brother, Robert had served with the artillery in Crimea and then followed his regiment to India where he too fought in the mutiny. Another brother, Francis was ship’s captain, adventurer and black sheep of the family whose path led him to navigate the Murray River in Australia, thus opening it up for trading. Their cousin was none other than Samuel Hill Lawrence who would win his VC for the defence of Lucknow.

Thomas Cadell left his regiment in November 1858 to join the 4th Bengal Irregular Cavalry and served throughout the Oudh Campaign, commanding the Flying Column in Bundelkhand against the Bheels, receiving numerous mentions in dispatches for his conspicuous bravery, culminating in a thanks from the Government for his services. He would receive his VC from another winner, Brigadier General James Travers in a ceremony in Bhopal, India on the 29th of December, 1862.
In 1874, now a major, Cadell entered the Political Department, ending his career in 1892 as the Chief Commissioner and Superintendent of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. His experiences in the mutiny had not knocked out all humanity from Cadell – he was better known for his kindness and consideration to not just the Andamanese but to the numerous convicts held on the island, some of whom had been through the mutiny themselves.
He died in 1919 and was, at the time of his death, the oldest holder of the Victorian Cross.

Thomas Hancock and John Purcell, 9th Lancers, 19th June – Deo Notus
Private Thomas Hancock

The 19th of June could have ended very badly for Brigadier James Hope Grant. A severe attack had been launched by the mutineers against three positions on the Ridge – so desperate was the fighting, the British were very nearly forced to relinquish their position. A determined attack was made on Major Scott’s guns – amid the fray, the brigadier was unhorsed and thrown to the ground. Disorientated by the fall, Grant staggered to his feet to find he was not alone. Privates Hancock and Purcell and Roopur Khan a sowar of the 4th Irregular Cavalry had thrown themselves at his side; Purcell was unhorsed and Hancock severely wounded, but they tossed the brigadier onto the sowar’s horse and thus carried him from the field.
Private Thomas Hancock’s arm was amputated and, unable to fight any longer, he was sent back to England and discharged from the army. As for Private Purcell, he would live long enough to see Delhi fall to the British. After the final battle, Brigadier Grant visited the wounded men in the hospital. He was shocked to find the private amongst them.
“…poor Purcell, who as my orderly had behaved so gallantly on the 19th of June when in the darkness of the night I was almost alone and riderless in the midst of the rebels. He had been shot through the chest and could scarcely speak, but was full of hope. He died a few days later on the 19th of September 1857.”
Sir Henry Barnard had recommended both men for the VC before he died, thus making it possible for Purcell to receive the VC posthumously. It was presented to his brother who was also serving in the 9th Lancers.

As for Thomas Hancock, life back in England was not easy. He had served 17 years of his life in the army for which, besides the VC he had been awarded the

Gwalior Campaign Star ( 1843 )
“Punniar Star”
Sutlej Medal ( 1845-46 )
Reverse: “Sobraon 1846”
Punjab Medal ( 1848-49 ) with 2 clasps: “Chilianwala” – “Goojerat”
Indian Mutiny Medal ( 1857-58 ) with 1 clasp: Delhi

Yet distinguished service was not enough for an ex-man of the ranks to find employment. He wrote an impassioned letter to  Captain Sir Edward Walter. Understanding the plight of unemployed soldiers, Walter had set up the Corps of Commissionaires to provide gainful employment for ex-servicemen and Hancock joined the Corps on the 12th of March 1859. He found a position with Messrs Hunt & Roskell, silversmiths and jewellers to Queen Victoria and become known as one of the ‘original eight’ Corps employees. However, his good fortune would only last some 10 years – Hancock died in the Westminster Workhouse on the 12th of March 1871 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Brompton Cemetery. Only in 2011 was his grave rediscovered and Hancock finally received a memorial stone. Private John Purcell lies buried to this day in an unmarked grave in Nicholson Cemetery, Delhi.
Sowar Roopur Khan was part of the 4th Bengal Irregular Cavalry as the 2nd Regiment of Skinner’s Horse, raised in 1814 by Captain James Skinner in Hansi. Like the 1st Irregular Cavalry (Skinner’s Horse) they were known as the “yellow boys” for the long yellow kurtas they wore as part of their uniform. Unfortunately, despite his heroism on the 19th of June, Sowar Roopur Khan has disappeared from history untraceable. Time has preserved his name but not his further deeds and scarcely remembers that Brigadier James Hope Grant owed his life to not just two gallant privates but a brave sowar, who essentially owed him no loyalty at all. For his action, equal to that of Purcell and Hancock, there was no VC.

Nicholson Cemetery, Delhi. Unfortunately this author visited in June well before grasscutters. It was impossible to venture to far into the verdure for the very real danger of snakes. Somewhere in there lies John Purcell. (Author’s own photograph, 2016)
Samuel Turner 60th Rifles 19th June

Very little is known about 31-year-old Samuel Turner before his enlistment in the 1/60th Rifles. He was a lad from Suffolk born in 1826 and had probably never imagined he would be fighting for his life before the timeless walls of Delhi. The 19th of June was a messy affair, the fighting carrying on well into the dark of night and those left on the field could only hope to be found – if not, their fate would be particularly grisly. This was not a war where anyone took prisoners – the wounded were more often than not cut up where they lay and gathered by their sorrowing colleagues the next day. To this end, Lieutenant Humphrys had been left – shot in the neck and bleeding to death on a dreadful field under heavy fire.
To his rescue came Samuel Turner – rushing out, indifferent to the hail of bullets flying around him, he hoisted Humphrys onto his shoulders and carried him to safety. To his own detriment – a mutineer, seeing Turner unable to protect himself, attacked and cut him severely across the arm.
Humphrys died later that night, the bullet winding its way to his lungs and he suffocated on his own blood, a death most regretted by Reverend Rotton who, the next day, would accompany him to his grave.
Samuel Turner was gazetted for the VC on the 20th of January 1860 and duly received his award in December of the same year in a ceremony held in Simla. He then took his pension and left the army, retiring to Meerut. He set himself up as a farrier and hotel keeper and died in 1868. He lies buried in an unmarked grave in St. John’s Cemetery in Meerut.

Stephen Garvin 60th Rifles 23 June

Born in Tipperary in 1826, Stephen Garvin enlisted with the 1st Battalion, 60th Rifles at the age of 16. His regiment was sent to India in 1845 and would serve in the Punjab between 1848-1849, earning two clasps on the campaign medals, for Mooltan and Goojerat. Garvin would see active service shortly after on the North-West Frontier Province (1849-50) for which he received the Indian General Service Medal and promotion to Colour Sergeant. At the time of the outbreak, his regiment was in Meerut; following the mutiny there, they would join the Delhi Field Force and fight their way through Badli-ki-Serai before alighting the Ridge on the 8th of June.
The 23rd of June – the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Plassey – would not turn out so well for the mutineers. Despite launching a severe attack on the Ridge at 5 in the morning, they would eventually be forced to draw their forces back to the walls of Delhi by sunset, but not before giving up valuable ground to the British forces.
One of the objectives of the rebels that day had been to secure the southern tip of the Ridge and establish a post at Swansi, or as the British called it, “Sammy House, an old, abandoned temple. They succeeded in so far as planting a few pieces of artillery on the grounds and occupying the temple itself – the location made it impossible for the British to depress their guns sufficiently (being located above the position) and it became, instead of an artillery battle, an infantry one. Lieutenant Hare Jackson called for volunteers to clear out Sammy House and Colour Sergeant Garvin answered the call.
With a small party of men following, Garvin charged the temple.
Facing heavy fire from the rebel guns and a force which they could not estimate, Garvin rushed the temple and in the ensuing hand-to-hand fighting, Garvin managed to wrestle control of the temple away from the rebels, securing the position for the British. By securing Sammy House, the British now had control over nearly all of the Ridge, allowing them to further their position with piquets not just at Sammy House but in the Sabzi Mandi itself.
His action on the 23rd of June would secure him notice – he received the Distinguished Service Medal for his gallant conduct throughout the operations during the remaining months of the Siege of Delhi. Severely wounded in the groin on the 3rd of September he would miss the final assault on the city – for the 23rd of June, he received the Victoria Cross.
Garvin returned to England in 1860, receiving his medal from Queen Victoria the same year. He transferred to the 64th (North Staffordshire) Regiment and briefly returned to India; however, in 1865, Garvin took his discharge and returned England. In 1870, he was appointed a Yeoman of the Guard but died on the 23rd of November, 1874, at the age of 48.

John McGovern, 1st Bengal European Fusiliers, 23rd June

By all means, 32-year-old Private John McGovern was not an exemplary soldier. Throughout his career in the Fusiliers, which started in 1845 when he signed for ten years service in Limerick, McGovern was better known for brawling and fighting in camp, excessive drinking and finding himself too often in trouble with his officers. he served in the Burmese War of 1852-53, receiving the campaign medal with a clasp for Pegu but it would take winning the VC, by all accounts, twice over, that would change his life.
During the attack on the Ridge on the 23rd of June, McGovern ran out into a field to carry back a wounded comrade from under very fire from an enemy battery. His act of valour saved the man’s life and earned McGovern for once a citation for bravery and the Victoria Cross.
However, it was the second action on the 16th of December 1857 at the Battle of Narkoul, that McGovern showed his superiors what he was made of.
When three sepoys took refuge on the roof of a small fortified tower and were proving difficult to dislodge as they snipered their way through the attackers, the Fusilier’s sergeant-major received an order from his officer to clear the tower by any means. McGovern happened to be nearby and volunteered to go. As he made his way up the winding stairs, he heard the sergeant-major say to the officer, “Never mind, sir, he’ll be no loss.”
The effect the words had on McGovern was electrifying. Without waiting for anyone to follow him, he charged up the stairs and as he opened the door at the top, the sepoys opened fire but McGovern managed to jump back a few steps without a single shot hitting him. Before the sepoys could reload, he charged the men, shooting one dead and bayonetting the other two, thus singlehandedly carrying the tower. It should have gained him a second citation for a VC but McGovern would only be rewarded for the action in Delhi.
Determined not to the disgrace the VC he received, McGovern became a changed man. He stopped his drinking and brawling and transferred to the 101st Fusiliers when his regiment was transferred into the British Army in 1861 as McGovern preferred to stay in India.
The wound he received in the arm during the Mutiny never stopped troubling McGovern and he finally gave up the soldier’s life and emigrated to Canada where he lived on retirement until his death in 1888 at the age of 63.

The Victorian Crosses that Saved a Empire – Brian Best (2016)