How one soldier’s valour touched Victoria’s heart

  • 25 January, 2018
  • Bravery
  • Medals

Published in the Daily Express on 25 January 2018.

No one could ever doubt the astonishing bravery of young Cornet William Bankes as he three times led a charge against rebel forces during the Indian Mutiny of 1857-8.

During the course of the bloody battle fought near Lucknow, in what was then British India, he was eventually hacked to pieces by the enemy, dying from his inevitably fatal wounds 18 days later.

Yet, the most fascinating aspect about Bankes’ courage was that he nevertheless received the VC – at a time when, in theory at least and according to the rules, it was impossible to be awarded Britain and the Commonwealth most prestigious gallantry award posthumously: in short, all “winners” at that time had to survive their act of bravery in order to qualify for the medal.

My research suggest that Bankes’ case was a unique exception and also that the award appears to have been made largely thanks to personal intervention of Queen Victoria. Bankes’ award is now recognised therefore as the only posthumous VC of the 19th century.

Although the Queen did not know Bankes personally, she somehow got to hear of his extraordinary courage while he was still alive, and wrote a touching letter to the Princess Royal, her eldest daughter, as the young officer fought for his life in the makeshift base hospital.

The story of Bankes’ bravery and his “wrongly” awarded posthumous VC has only now come to light because I have recently purchased his medal group as the result of a private sale.

Bankes’ VC and accompanying service medal for the Indian Mutiny will soon go on display in the gallery bearing my name at the Imperial War Museum – along with more than 200 medal groups that form the world’s largest collection of VCs. This is the story of this young officer’s short life and his remarkable gallantry award…

William George Hawtry Bankes was born in Kingston Lacy, Dorset, one of Dorset’s finest houses, on September 11 1836. He was the fifth child born to the Rt Hon George Bankes, the local MP, and his wife Georgina.

Young William received a good education at Temple Grove preparatory school in East Sheen and Westminster School, both in London. He then went on to attend Trinity College, Cambridge.

After working briefly as a librarian in the House of Commons, Bankes was commissioned as a Cornet in the 7th (The Queen’s Own) Regiment of (Light) Dragoons (Hussars). He initially had no great enthusiasm for the military but was apparently keen to spend time with friends who were already serving in the regiment.

Bankes and his regiment left for India aboard the chartered clipper Lightning on August 27 1857, three months after the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny at Meerut, near Delhi. After a voyage of almost another nearly three months, Lightning arrived at Calcutta on November 25 and the regiment disembarked on December 1 before proceeding to Fort William.

In early 1858, the regiment was involved in relieving Lucknow, which had been under a siege by rebel forces and, by mid March, both the Kaisarbagh Palace and the Residency were recaptured from the rebels.

Most of the city was now in British hands and a large number of rebel soldiers retreated to Musa Bagh, an extensive palace complex to the north-west of the city. A three-pronged attacked was launched by the British to oust the rebels from the palace and the 7th Hussars, including Bankes, immediately became involved in the heavy fighting.

Bankes personally led three charges against the rebels, killing three of them, but, in bitter hand-to-hand combat after his final charge, he was unseated from his horse and brutally set upon by rebels wielding tulwars (curved swords) who hacked him to pieces. He received 11 separate wounds, many of them truly terrible, and was treated by the Surgeon-General himself at the instance of the commanding general, Sir Colin Campbell.

A report drawn up at the hospital stated that “… one leg is lopped off above the knee; the other is nearly severed; one arm is cleft to the bone; the other has gone entirely, and about the body are many slashes. When a certain Dr. Russell went to see him afterwards, the brave youngster was quite cheerful and is reputed to have said ‘they tell me, if I get over this I can go yachting’…” It is understood that the “Dr Russell” was a reference to William Howard Russell, the war correspondent, who was covering the Indian Mutiny for his newspaper, The Times.

As Bankes lay desperately wounded in hospital, Queen Victoria heard of his courage and was so deeply moved by his plight that, in a letter to the Princess Royal, she wrote: “There is a poor young man, of the name Bankes, who has been cut almost to pieces, he fell and was surrounded by a set of fanatics who cut at him, his thigh was nearly severed from his body, and so was his arm! Besides six other desperate wounds! He has had his right leg and his right arm amputated, and yet they hope he will live. This is, they say, the pattern of patience and fortitude”.

Despite all the efforts to save him, Bankes died in hospital in Lucknow on April 6 1858, after contracting blood poisoning. He was aged just 21 and single.

The VC had been created by Queen Victoria in 1856 to reward bravery during the Crimean War. The original Royal Warrant did not contain a specific clause regarding posthumous awards, but official policy was not to award the VC posthumously.

Instead, on rare occasions during the 19th century, the names of exceptionally brave officers and men were published in The London Gazette with a note at the end of the citation stating that they would have been awarded the VC had they not been killed. Indeed, the precise wording was that the man “would have been recommended to Her Majesty for confirmation in that distinction [the VC], had he survived.”

It is not known exactly how Bankes came to be awarded his posthumous VC but, given Queen Victoria’s personal interest and involvement in the affair, it appears highly likely that she took the decision herself.

Either way, the Queen took the highly unusual step of travelling down to Kingston Lacy to present the VC to Bankes’ mother, even though there was never an official investiture at Buckingham Palace or elsewhere.

The Royal Warrant explicitly approving posthumous awards was not officially announced until 1920 although, in fact, posthumous awards had been allowed since 1902, after the end of the Second Boer War. Since that change, there have been hundreds of posthumous VC awards, most notably during the Great War when around a quarter of the 628 awards were to men who had died during, or immediately after, their VC action.

There are, quite rightly, several memorials to Cornet William Bankes VC, including a plaque and in the family vault at Wimborne Minster, near his Dorset home. I feel privileged to be the custodian of his medal group – all the more so because of its fascinating and apparently unique place in the history of the medal that is awarded only to “the bravest of the brave”.

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