Object Advent Calendar Day 13

Victoria Cross

For today’s object we have the Victoria Cross posthumously awarded to Private Edward Spence in 1907. Private Spence was put forward for the medal in 1858 after assisting with the retrieval of the body of Lieutenant Willoughby at the attack on Fort Ruhya, during the Indian Mutiny. His citation reads:

“Private Edward Spence (Age 20) would have been recommended to Her Majesty for the decoration of the VC had he survived. He and Lance Corporal Thompson volunteered at the attack on the Fort at Ruhya to assist Captain Cafe commanding the 4th Punjab Rifles in bringing in the body of Lt Willoughby from the top of the glacis. Private Spence dauntlessly placed himself in an exposed position so as to cover the part bearing away the body. He died on the 17th of the same month from the effects of the wound received on the occasion.”

As the text makes clear VC’s were originally awarded only to those who survived the action and between 1857 and 1899 6 officers and men had their citations published in the London Gazette, including Private Spence, all stating that they would have been awarded the VC had they lived. During the 2nd Anglo Boer War, 1899-1902, several posthumous VCs were awarded, and this change of policy resulted, in 1907, in the retroactive awarding of the Victoria Cross to those 6 men.

 

Spence VC obverse #1 (768x1024)The attack of Fort Ruhya by a small force led by Lieutenant General Sir Robert Walpole occurred on 15th April 1858. Walpole had been ordered to march through the rebellious province of Rohilkhand following the recapture of Lucknow, and came upon a rebellious Rajah occupying the fort. Walpole ordered his men to storm the fort, expecting an easy assault. The men formed up in column about two miles from the fort, with a battery of siege guns in support. The soldiers of the 42nd, along with accompanying regiments made good progress, but soon came under a fierce fire from the defenders. The British and loyal sepoys opened fire but the defenders refused to show themselves and as a result this musketry achieved little. The Highlanders were left horribly exposed with ho cover but for a small ditch. This small obstacle was to prove a deathtrap, for those that decided to shelter there were soon shot and killed.

After nearly two hours of fire the guns arrived, but her Walpole, in a decision that has never been satisfactorily explained, ordered the guns to be moved from the unguarded side of the fort, towards the defended side. While this was going on the rebellious sepoys in the fort were taking great pleasure in shooting the Highlanders down in droves. For six more hours the men under Walpole’s command attempted to storm the fort in an action that became known as ‘Walpole’s Folly.’ All attempts proved fruitless and eventually Walpole ordered a withdrawal. To make matters worse for the Highlanders, who were by now thoroughly discouraged, the heavens opened and the band started playing the cheery tune ‘We Will Never March Again.’ As they departed the occupants of the fort, who were to flee in the night, were heard howling and cheering.

During this action three soldiers of the 42nd were to be awarded the Victoria Cross for their extreme bravery. Quarter Master John Simpson who went forward under very heavy fire to bring in a wounded Lieutenant and Private, and Privates James Davis and Alexander Thompson who both brought in bodies under that murderous fire. Private Spence’s award, who assisted Thompson, in 1907 brought the total for the day eventually up to 4.

 

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The Museum of The Black Watch offers an insight into one of the British Army's if not the world's most famous fighting units. Scotland's Black Watch is an elite military regiment whose history stretches back almost three centuries.
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