Civilian Recipients of the Victoria Cross

Thomas Kavanagh VC

Thomas Kavanagh VC

Since its inception, the Victoria Cross warrant has undergone several amendments, initially it was only to be awarded to those acts of specific valour in the face of the enemy, or behind the scenes in an act of preservation, which were survived by the nominee. The deed had to be witnessed by an officer however now is accepted when independently confirmed by three other witnesses. The recipient also had to be a serving member of Her Majesties Forces. Over time, these criteria have been amended to state action must be in the face of the enemy, but now to include (amongst others) posthumous awards – although this amendment was not made official until 1920 – , acts not witnessed by an officer and group acts, for which a nomination process was included. It was also expanded to include foreign nationals serving in or as part of Imperial and Commonwealth forces and civilians working with or as part of the same military forces. Since this addition, five civilians have been awarded the Victoria Cross. Here are their stories.

After many years of what they saw as systematic destruction of their traditions and culture at the hands of their Colonial governors, Indian Sepoys of the 19th Bengal Infantry rebelled and refused to accept paper cartridges for their new Enfield rifles, which they believed to have been wrapped with cow and pig lard, an affront to the Muslim and Hindu beliefs of the majority. This was, they perceived, the final insult to their culture. Trouble began brewing in February, when the 19th Bengal refused to accept the cartridges. The unit was disbanded and replaced by British soldiers from Burma. In April, 85 troops at Meerut Garrison also refused to accept the cartridges, and were subsequently stripped of their uniforms, clapped in irons and sentenced to ten years hard labour on 9th May.

The following night, after ensuring the unarmed officers were attending a church parade, and the majority of the British troops were in their quarters, they attacked the garrison and killed the majority of the British within, including women and children. As natives joined them from the surrounding area, the rebellion took hold, their numbers swelling to around 2000 people. They went on a rampage of rape, looting and murder throughout the area as they advanced on Delhi. During their progression their force was increased significantly by both other native troops and local civilians. The ensuing conflict lasted into late 1858, when it was finally subdued. During this time there were many brave acts committed by British and loyal native troops, leading to the award of many decorations, including the Victoria Cross. Sadly at this point in time, the warrant had not allowed for posthumous awards and as a result several notable actions went unrewarded. Unusually, three recipients during the rebellion were British civilians, working for the Bengal Civil Service, two of them awarded on the same day.

On 30th July 1857, during the retreat from Arrah, Mr Ross Lowis Mangles happened across a wounded soldier, Richard Taylor, who begged Mangles not to leave him to fall into enemy hands. Mangles bound up the soldiers wounds and lifted him onto his back. He carried him for six miles in torturous heat, through a swamp despite not having eaten or slept in over 24 hours. When he reached the river, Mangles swam to a waiting boat, still carrying the wounded soldier on his back. The boat was found to be tethered to the bank, holding the rudder hard to the right. Under heavy fire from the enemy who were closing in, Mr William Fraser McDonnell worked quickly to cut the rudder free, before steering the boat and gaining a decent wind which helped carry the boat to the safety of mid-river, from where they were able to swim to safety over to the far shore, saving all but two of the men on board, a total of 34 men. For their actions, in assisting the British forces, Mr Mangles and Mr McDonnell were the first civilian recipients of the Victoria Cross.

In November of 1857, just a few months following the brave deeds of Mangles and McDonnell, a Mr Thomas Kavanagh, also of the Bengal Civil Service was to demonstrate bravery beyond the usual, during the second relief of Lucknow. Being held somewhat to siege inside the compound, and with word that a relief unit led by Sir Colin Campbell was on its way, it was a concern to Major General Sir James Outram, who held the residency, that the relief would not be able to find their way through the intricate alleys past the armed rebels, without a guide.

A native spy was therefore given the task of making his way to the camp, to give instructions and lead the company back to the compound.
The only fly in the ointment was the very real possibility that the relief commander may not believe or trust a native. On this basis it was decided that a British man should accompany him. Thomas Kavanagh, a civilian employee with a less than perfect working record, volunteered for the task, in an attempt to absolve himself of some of the blots on his profile. Despite misgivings that the plan would not work, which could ultimately lead to Kavanagh’s death if discovered, he stained his skin and dressed in native attire, before walking uninvited into the commander’s office and seating himself, in front of the officers there gathered. Shocked at the insubordinate behaviour of this native, the company present began their objections, Outram included, before Kavanagh revealed his identity. Added to which his fluent Hindustani, they had their man.

At 8pm that night, as darkness fell, Kavanagh and Kanauji Lal set off on their mission. Through the night, they walked unimpeded through the city, encountering several armed rebels along the way, some of whom Kavanagh stopped to chat with casually when engaged. They crossed swamps and rivers, despite Kavanagh’s shoes crippling him to the point of pain yet they managed to escape detection. At midnight, they stumbled into a village on the outskirts of the city, having slightly lost their direction. Kavanagh entered a hut and groped about until his hand landed upon a sleeping resident who awoke and without raising the alarm, gave him directions. After back-tracking, for some time, as a result of walking in the wrong direction, at three o clock in the morning they encountered a party of 25 Sepoys who challenged them. Lal panicked and threw away his despatches, and Kavanagh quickly used the other man’s fear as an excuse, claiming they were scared as a result of the torture inflicted on his family at the hands of the British. The Sepoys believed their story and let them on their way.

Reverend James William Adams VC

Reverend James William Adams VC

At daybreak, after wading up to neck deep in a swamp for two hours, they were challenged by the English command “Halt, who goes there?” They had found a Sikh cavalry officer, guarding the perimeter of the relief camp. After being taken to recover, with a well-earned glass of brandy, Kavanagh was able to hand over his directives to Sir Colin Campbell, who with Kavanagh at his side relieved the siege within a few days. Kavanagh was awarded the Victoria Cross. Lal sadly was outside of the warrant criteria and was not to receive similar recognition.
In June of 1858, the bulk of the rebellion reached a critical climax. The British forces were rapidly putting down any further skirmishes and were gaining the upper hand. During one last ditch effort during the clearing of the road out of Lucknow to Kalpi, the 22 year old Rani of Jhansi leading her troops had met her death when she was shot by a British soldier when he mistook her for a rebel, after she put on the red coat of the Sepoys. The Rani had the year before guaranteed the safe passage of the besieged British forces at Cawnpore, in return for their leaving the garrison to the rebels. As they left, the waiting rebel forces had gone back on the word of the Rani and massacred them all. Now the garrison held around eleven thousand of the rebels, and this was the final objective of the British, to rout the garrison and re-take it.

In September of 1858, a small unit of 108 mounted British forces, including Mr George Bell Chicken of the Indian Naval Brigade, happened upon a rebel camp at Suhejnee containing around 800 men. Loudly declaring his intentions of winning a coveted Victoria Cross, Chicken charged his horse towards a group of around 20 rebels, cutting down five with his sword before being dislodged from his horse. His death was prevented by four others in his unit coming to his assistance. He was rewarded for his charge with the Cross he so desired. With the leader of the local rebel forces dead, the momentum of the mutiny stalled, and all that was left was to put down a series of minor last ditch skirmishes as the British forces finally regained control. The mutiny finally ended in November 1858.

After relations settled down somewhat in India, and Britain once again commanded her own interests, a watchful eye was kept on the border areas to prevent further insurgency from outside forces. After some 18 years of calm, the Afghan Emir allowed a Russian envoy and his contingency to enter Afghanistan to the North West of India where they took up residence in Kabul. Despite assurances of support In the form of arms and funds, the British had promised no other support. Following the Russian settlement, the Emir refused access to Afghanistan for the British Viceroy appointed to oversee matters, so in 1878, three units of British forces entered Afghanistan in order to depose the Emir in favour of his son. The Emir fled, leaving his son Yakub Khan to sort out the growing issue. Following some encounters with their opposition, Khan was forced to sign a treaty turning over certain powers to the British. After his removal, in favour of his cousin, the Afghan army rebelled killing the British envoy and his party in the process, leading to an all-out conflict, now known as the second and third Afghan wars. It was during 1879, the second Afghan war, that the fifth and final civilian recipient was to earn his Victoria Cross.

Reverend James William Adams was to become known as the ‘Fighting Parson’. He had joined the British forces as their religious mentor, in the absence of an enlisted Army chaplain, attached to the Bengal Ecclesiastical Department. Aged 40 years old, he had been born in Cork, Ireland. In 1879 during a skirmish at Killa Kazi on 11th December, he found two lancers drowning in a water-filled ditch, trapped beneath their horses. With the enemy yards away and bearing down upon them, Adams dismounted his own horse, which scattered, and leapt into the ditch. He pulled the men clear of their horses, allowing their escape, before making his own escape on foot. This being one action of three that each earned him a mention in dispatches, he was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross, the first clergyman to receive the honour. He later took part in the third Anglo-Burma conflict, and became honorary Chaplain to Edward VII, before taking up a civilian post as Rector of a small Rutland Village, Ashwell, where he died in 1903 aged 63. The Reverend Adams is interred within the churchyard of his Church, St Mary’s. After some concern that the inscription on his gravestone was becoming illegible, his memorial was renovated in 2007 before his whereabouts were lost. The location of Reverend Adams’ Victoria Cross is recorded as unknown.

Phoebe