This article was first published in the Daily Express on 18 March 2015
Her bravery astounded an entire regiment and, to this day, she remains the only woman in history to be “awarded” the Victoria Cross (VC), Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious award for gallantry.Now the decoration awarded to Elizabeth Webber Harris for her courage in colonial India is to go on public display – and the moving story of her prolonged courage will be brought to a wider audience.
The second daughter of a couple from Bexley Heath, Kent, seemed destined for a dutiful role as an Army officer’s wife until circumstances conspired to present her with an opportunity to show her heroism.
In 1869, a cholera epidemic swept across India, where Mrs Harris was living with her husband of 10 years, Colonel Webber Desborough Harris, who was commanding the 104th Regiment (Bengal Fusiliers, and latterly known as the Munster Fusiliers).
By August that year, the month that Mrs Harris celebrated her 35th birthday, the cholera epidemic had reached the regiment’s depot in Peshawar on the country’s troubled North West Frontier.
It was not long before members of the regiment and their families became infected and many died.
On September 17, and in order to try to contain the disease, the remainder of the regiment marched into the countryside.
Mrs Harris was the only woman to go with them, despite having recently recovered from a fever herself, and she spent the next three months living among the soldiers as they moved through the Indian countryside.
A pattern soon emerged whereby they set up camp each night, buried their dead in the morning and then the survivors moved on.
Mrs Harris spent day after day tending the sick men and keeping up their spirits as scores fell ill from the disease, which is contracted from infected water supplies and causes severe vomiting and diarrhoea.
On one night alone, 27 men died from cholera but Mrs Harris later wrote how she had, on that occasion, helped to save the life of one man.
“I saw a soldier fall to the ground.
“I called my servants; we picked him up and sent for the doctor,” she said.
“While waiting I got some mustard, tore my handkerchief in half and put on two mustard plasters, and the doctor arriving, he was sent off to hospital, and am thankful to say he eventually recovered.”
The North West Frontier in the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny of 1857-8 was a dangerous place and, at one point, Mrs Harris was attacked at night by two tribesmen who seized her horse in what she later described with typical understatement as “an alarming incident”.
When the regiment returned to Peshawar after the end of the epidemic, Mrs Harris was widely praised for her selfless devotion to the men, and for her endurance and tenacity.
The regiment’s officers felt that she had lived up to the traditions of the Victoria Cross (VC), which had been instituted by Queen Victoria in 1856 during the Crimean War.
Although women became eligible for the VC in 1921, no female has yet received the award and so this honorary VC presented to Mrs Harris remains the only one ever “awarded” to a woman.
The presentation was made to her in India by General Sir Sam Browne, himself a VC recipient for bravery during the Indian Mutiny, and who was in command of the British garrison at Peshawar.
Mrs Harris certainly treasured her “VC”, declaring “It is a most beautiful ornament, and will always be my most cherished possession.”
Predictably enough, her husband, who reached the rank of major general, took huge pride in his wife’s courage and that his fellow officers were so generous towards her.
He once said of her bravery: “My wife has been my helpmate during the whole course of my command and none of those who were with the Regiment during the awful cholera season in 1869 will ever forget Mrs Harris’s devotion to the sick.”
Mrs Harris, who did not have any children, died in London in July 1917, aged 82.
Her ashes were buried next to those of her husband who had died 14 years earlier.
I purchased Mrs Harris’s replica VC, which came with a delightful portrait miniature of the recipient, privately last year after learning that her descendants had decided to sell it.
I was hugely taken with her courage and grit and with the regiment’s magnificent gesture in “awarding” her such a wonderful tribute.
There is no doubt that Mrs Harris put her own life on the line in order to save the lives of ordinary British soldiers as well as their officers, and boosted their flagging spirits at a time of utter misery and crisis.
I am delighted to say that, after a sterling effort by a lot of people, Mrs Harris’s replica VC will go on display in the gallery bearing my name at the Imperial War Museum in London, in a few weeks’ time.
The gallery is home to the largest collection of VCs and George Crosses (GCs) in the world, including the 189 VCs that I have amassed over the past three decades.
I feel privileged to have played a small part in ensuring that the courage of a truly exceptional Victorian heroine will become better known, and therefore appreciated by thousands of visitors to the gallery in the future.