Maghera man wins Victoria Cross!

Robert Hawthorne VC (1822 – 2nd February 1879) won the Victoria Cross (the highest and most prestigious award given for valour in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British or Commonwealth forces) for his actions during the siege of Delhi, during the Indian Mutiny.

The Victoria Cross was a medal personally requested (and its design overseen) by Queen Victoria in the aftermath of the Crimean War of 1853-1856, to honour acts of valour during that war. Originally, the Army wanted the words ‘For Bravery’ on the medal, but Victoria objected, pointing out that those words would suggest that her other soldiers weren’t brave. She said it should be ‘For Valour’. Since the 29th January 1856, only 1357 VCs have ever been awarded, so perhaps from that small number, you will get an idea of how rare this medal award is. The VC even predates the United States Congressional Medal of Honour and is regarded as the most coveted military bravery award in the world.

Robert Hawthorn was born in Maghera. Times were hard and steady work not always available, and like a lot of Maghera men in that time, he enlisted in the army. He was a Bugler in the 52nd (Oxfordshire) Regiment of Foot (later became the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry), of the Honourable East India Company Army. To say that the Honourable East India Company operated in India, would be a gross over simplification. The Company began in the 17th Century with the Royal prerogative and through trade with India and beyond, had became so powerful that they were loaning the British Government funds (£3,200,000 in 1708) in return for certain ‘privileges’ in India. This situation only changed after the end of the Indian mutiny of 1857 when the Crown dissolved the Honourable East India Company in 1858 and assumed control of the colony. There are many theories or reasons as to why the mutiny happened. One suggestion is that rumours spread in local Sepoy troops in the East India Company’s army regarding the new 1853 Pattern Rifle; the Hindu troops believed that the new British army rifle cartridges were greased with cow fat (the cow being a forbidden sacred animal to the Hindu belief), whilst the Muslim troops heard that it was pig fat (forbidden to them).  Another theory is that the local troops were being asked to do more for less pay (something we all probably can identify with!) whilst another has it that so many Christian missionaries were in India by 1857 that the local Hindus and Muslims feared they would be forced to convert to Christianity. Whatever the cause, the powder keg that was India exploded. In the City of Meerut 50 European men, women and children were murdered by rebelling native troops (including the 3rd Cavalry) and civilians. Not all local units rebelled though, and some continued to support and defend the Company personnel and their families.

The 3rd Cavalry reached Delhi on the 11th May 1857 and the city broke out in rebellion. In the afternoon a violent explosion rocked the city, and 9 British Ordnance officers decided to try to defend the Arsenal (which contained large stocks of weapons, ammunition and gunpowder). When they realised the hopelessness of their situation, the nine decided to blow up the arsenal.. and themselves in the process. Remarkably, 6 of the 9 survived and subsequently won the Victoria Cross for their valour in the face of the enemy. But Delhi had fallen to the insurrection. It took the Honourable East India Company two months to receive reinforcements from Britain, but after they arrived and they had diverted troops from the Crimea and China, the new forces marched on Delhi. They established a base on the Delhi ridge (to the north of the city) and the Siege of Delhi began.. a siege that lasted from 1st July to 21st September 1857.

However, the encirclement was not exactly what you might describe as total, and for much of the siege, the Company troops were outnumbered. It often seemed that it was the Company forces who were under siege and not Delhi, because the rebels could easily receive resources and reinforcements. For several weeks, disease, exhaustion and continuous attacks by rebels from the city of Delhi seemed like they would force the withdrawal of Company troops. However, the outbreaks of rebellion in the Punjab were suppressed, which allowed the Punjab Movable Column of British, Sikh and Pakhtun soldiers under John Nicholson to reinforce the Company troops on the Ridge on 14th August 1857. On 30th August 1857, the rebels offered terms, which were refused by the Company.

An eagerly awaited heavy siege train joined the Company forces, and from 7th September 1857, the siege guns battered breaches in the walls and silenced the rebels’ artillery. An attempt to storm the city through the breaches and the Kashmiri Gate was launched on 14th September 1857. Two Lieutenants and 9 other men, just after sunrise, advanced from Ludlow Castle in the face of heavy enemy fire. They had to cross a bridge to get to the Kashmir gate..except the bridge was almost totally destroyed, but they made it to the other side. Upon reaching the wall, the soldiers placed their gunpowder bags and blew a hole in the wall of the gate, thus permitting the Company forces to enter and gain a foothold within the city. Bugler Hawthorne bandaged the mortally wounded Lieutenant Salkeld and carried the him back to Company lines under heavy enemy fire. Of the original 11 in the breaching party, 5 were killed. These loses were mirrored by the Company troops now in the city, who had suffered heavy casualties, including John Nicholson himself. The British commander wished to withdraw, but was persuaded to hold on by his junior officers. After a week of street fighting, the British reached the Red Fort and had effectively retaken the city.

For his actions at the Kashmiri gate, the 35 year old Bugler Robert Hawthorn was awarded the Victoria Cross.

According to the London Gazette of 27th April 1858 (page 2051):

52nd Regiment, Bugler Robert Hawthorne

Date of Act of Bravery: 14th September, 1857

Bugler Hawthorne, who accompanied the explosion party, not only performed the dangerous duty on which he was employed, but previously attached himself to Lieutenant Salkeld, of the Engineers, when dangerously wounded, bound up his wounds under a heavy musketry fire, and had him removed without further injury.

He died in Manchester, Lancashire on 2nd February 1879 and is buried Ardwick Cemetery, Manchester, England. The Victoria Cross he won that day is displayed at the Royal Green Jackets Museum, Winchester, Hampshire, England.

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