Dynasties: the Gough family by Lord Ashcroft

  • 2 January, 2023
  • Bravery
  • Britain at War
  • Medals

Published in Britain at War in January 2023.

I am sometimes asked whether I think there is a “bravery gene”. The simple answer to that is “not specifically” but there is undoubtedly overwhelming evidence that some families have a greater propensity to display immense courage than others. Step forward…the Gough clan.

Their achievement over two generations of the family is nothing short of incredible. Two brothers were both awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain and the Commonwealth’s premier award for gallantry in the presence of the enemy, in the mid 19th century.

Then, early in the 20th century, one of these two VC recipients’ sons was also awarded the VC meaning that three close members of the same family each received the famous decoration in less than half a century. At the very least, this suggests that valour runs in the blood.

My interest in bravery started more than 60 years ago, when I was still a schoolboy. My late father Eric, who was a modest man, told me about his experiences as a young officer taking part in the D-Day landings. My dad and his CO were privately briefed to expect 75 per cent casualties, dead and wounded, as they landed and ran up Sword Beach at dawn on June 6 1944.

In the end, my father’s Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Burbury, was shot dead at his side and my dad was wounded by shrapnel, although he fought on until ordered from the battlefield. As a young boy and later as an adult man, I posed lots of questions in relation to my passion for courage.

What makes some people respond to danger differently to others? Are we all capable of a certain level of valour, given the right circumstances? What is the crucial factor that makes some people more courageous? Is it in their upbringing or their training? Are they motivated by patriotism, religious conviction, a respect for those fighting alongside them or simply an old-fashioned sense of duty? Or is bravery really, as I have already referred to, in some way hereditary?

Over the decades I have found it easier to ask such questions than to answer them. I have also found it easier simply to admire and champion gallantry than to fully understand it. And, in the case of the Gough family, there is ample valour to both admire and champion.

The 1850s presented severe challenges to the British Armed Forces. First, the Army and Royal Navy had to fight the brutal Crimean War in the harshest of conditions from 1854-6. Then, just a year later, the Indian Mutiny broke out and it comprised of a prolonged period of armed uprisings in northern and central India. The rebellion proper began on May 10 1857 and was targeted against the rule of the British East India Company, which operated as a sovereign power on behalf of the Crown.

The mutiny took the form of sepoys – native Indian soldiers from the Bengal Army serving under British officers – protesting against the British occupation of that part of the subcontinent. After growing unrest, the “spark” for the rebellion was the introduction of a new cartridge which had to be bitten open to pour the gunpowder contents into the muzzle.

According to local rumour, the cartridge had been greased – to make it waterproof – with lard (pork fat) or tallow (beef fat). This was offensive to Muslim and Hindu soldiers alike, who were forbidden by their religions to eat pork or beef, respectively. There were significant uprisings in Cawnpore, Lucknow (where the British residency was besieged for six months) and Jhansi, which became the heart of the rebellion.

The mutiny proper, which has been given numerous other names including the “First War of Independence”, lasted for 13 months until June 20 1858 and resulted in the award of 182 VCs, some of them for clearing-up operations lasting into 1859. Two of these VCs were to the Gough brothers, who were from a distinguished Irish military family.

Charles John Stanley Gough was the son of George Gough and his wife Charlotte (née Becher), who lived in Rathronan House, Co Tipperary. The Goughs had six children. I am going to refer to the Goughs largely by their Christian names from now on to prevent confusion as they all have the same surname.

Charles, the couple’s second son, was born on January 28 1832 in Chittagong, India, because by this point his father was working for the Bengal civil service. Part of George Gough’s job was to act as a judge for the East India Company’s High Court.

Charles was educated at Haileybury College, a public school in Hertfordshire. He was commissioned as a Cornet, unattached to any regiment, on March 20 1848, just two months after his 16th birthday. He took part in the Punjab Campaign of 1848-9, which resulted in the British annexation of the Punjab. Charles was present at the battles of Chilianwala (January 13 1849) and Goojerat (February 21 1849), serving under his great-uncle Lord (later Viscount) Gough.

On September 1 1848, he was promoted to Lieutenant in the 8th Bengal Light Cavalry. Charles subsequently served during the Indian Mutiny, during which he was promoted to Captain in June 1857, by which point he was 25 years old. He initially served with the East Indian Company’s Guides Cavalry and later transferred to Hodson’s Irregular Horse.

Charles was Mentioned in Despatches for his courage during the Siege of Delhi from June to September 1857, which ended in a key victory for the British/East India Company forces.

His VC was, unusually, awarded for four separate acts of courage during the mutiny. The first took place in mid-August 1857 and involved him saving his own brother’s life.

On August 14, a cavalry detachment led by Lieutenant W.S.R. Hodson left the British camp outside Delhi, with the intention of intercepting a group of mutineers who had left the city heading north west. The British forces feared that the rebels would attempt to cut the Grand Trunk Road, a key route that connected Delhi with the Punjab.

On August 15, the British forces attacked a house at Khurkowdah, near Rohtak, in which some of the mutineers had barricaded themselves. Part of the attacking force included both Captain Charles Gough and his brother, Lieutenant Hugh Gough. At the height of the battle, Hugh was wounded and looked likely to be killed. However, Charles raced to his brother’s aid, killed two rebels and pulled his brother to safety.

Just three days later, Charles was back in the fray, this time leading a Troop of the Guides Cavalry in a charge against the mutineers. At one point, he was engaged in what was later described as “desperate hand to hand combat” with one of the rebels.

More close combat with the enemy took place on January 27 1858 at Shumshabad. Again at the forefront of a cavalry charge, he attacked one of the rebel leaders and pierced him with his sword. However, in the frenzy of battle, Charles lost his sword and was forced to defend himself with his revolver, killing two rebels in the process.

His fourth act of gallantry for which he was awarded the VC came on February 23 1858 at Meangunge. On this occasion, Charles raced to the aid of Brevet-Major O.H. St. George Anson, killing his comrade’s opponent and then cutting down another mutineer.

Unrelated to his VC actions, he was also present at the final capture of Lucknow in November 1857. In all, he was Mentioned in Despatches five times for his actions during the mutiny.

Charles’ VC was announced some time after the mutiny, on October 21 1859. He received his VC from Queen Victoria at an investiture in Windsor Castle later the same month.

He took part in the Bhootan expedition in 1864-6 and in the 2nd Afghan War in 1878-80. Having been appointed KCB for his services in the latter conflict, he was advanced to General in 1894 and elevated to GCB in 1895, the year of his retirement, when he returned to his native Ireland.

Charles had married Hariette Power, the daughter of an MP, on June 16 1869 in Killaloan Church, Killadean, Co Tipperary, and the couple went on to have six children.

Charles died on September 6 1912 at Innislonagh, Clonmel, and was buried in St Patrick’s churchyard in Clonmel. There is a memorial plaque and window in St Patrick’s church.

A dramatic painting by Chevalier L. W. Desanges, belonging to the National Army Museum, in London, depicts Charles going to the aid of his brother Hugh in 1857.

I am delighted to say that I am the proud custodian of the Charles Gough medal group having purchased it at a Spink auction in London in 1996. This brave man’s gallantry and service medals are on display at the gallery bearing my name at the Imperial War Museum, London.

The second member of the family to be awarded the VC was Hugh Gough, the very same man whose life had been saved by his brother at Khurkowdah.

Hugh Henry Gough was the third son of George and Charlotte Gough and was born in Calcutta, India, on November 14 1833. Like his elder brother, he attended Haileybury College. Hugh was commissioned as a Cornet into the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry on September 4 1853, aged 19.

During the Indian Mutiny, he was promoted to Adjutant, serving in Hodson’s Horse and, as already stated, it was on August 15 1857 that his brother saved his life. During this battle, Hugh was wounded but he made a quick recovery.

Hugh was awarded his own VC for two acts of bravery at Lucknow in late 1857 and early 1858. The citation for his decoration stated:

“Lieutenant Gough, when in command of a party of Hodson’s Horse near Alumbagh, on the 12th of November, 1857, particularly distinguished himself by his forward bearing in charging across a swamp, and capturing two guns, although defended by a vastly superior body of the enemy. On this occasion he had his horse wounded in two places, and his turban cut through by sword cuts, whilst engaged in combat with three Sepoys.

“Lieutenant Gough also particularly distinguished himself, near Jellalabad, Lucknow, on 25 February 1858, by showing a brilliant example to his Regiment, when ordered to charge the enemy’s guns, and by his gallant and forward conduct, he enabled them to effect their object. On this occasion he engaged himself in a series of single combats, until at length he was disabled by a musket ball through the leg, while charging two Sepoys with fixed bayonets. Lieutenant Gough on this day had two horses killed under him, a shot through his helmet, and another through his scabbard, besides being severely wounded.”

Both VC actions should be put in context. The first took place on November 12 1857  as Sir Colin Campbell began the final leg of his march towards Lucknow, where the rebels had a substantial force. Campbell’s advanced guard was attacked by two guns and enemy infantry near Jellalabad Fort, south of Alam Bagh. It was at this point that Hugh Gough and his party from Hodson’s Horse outflanked the mutineers and then charged them, forcing them to flee.

His second VC action once again took place near Jellalabad Fort, this time on February 25 1858. On this occasion a party of Hodson’s Horse attacked a force of rebels who were in the process of retreating towards Lucknow.

Once again, Hugh Gough made a fine recovery from his serious injuries received during his second VC action. His decoration was announced on Christmas Eve, 1858. It is not known where and when he was presented with his VC. During the Indian Mutiny, he was Mentioned in Despatches on several occasions for “distinguished bravery,” and was twice publicly thanked by the Governor-General of India.

Like his elder brother, Hugh went on to have a splendid military career in the wake of his gallantry during the Indian Mutiny. In 1868, he took part in the Abyssinia campaign. He commanded the 12th Bengal Cavalry, and was present at the capture of Magdala, being Mentioned in Despatches for his courage.

He next served in the rank of Colonel during the 2nd Afghan War of 1878-80 and was Mentioned in Despatches no less than six times over the duration of the war.

During the conflict, he commanded the cavalry of the Kurram Field Force in 1878-9. At Peiwar Kotal on December 2 1878, he was the first to reach the crest and, with his cavalry, pursued the enemy as it fled along the Alikhel road.

He was also in the thick of the action at Matun, where he took part in dismounted fire and several bold charges. He thereby succeeded in driving the tribesmen to the highest ridges, from which they were dislodged by artillery in January 1879.

In September of the same year, he served with the Kabul Field Force as Brigadier-General of Communications. He was present at the engagement of Charasia on October 6 and he was wounded during operations close to Kabul in December 1879. As the war drew to a close, he was in command of the troops engaged in the cavalry pursuit after the Battle of Mazra on September 1 1880.

Hugh was promoted to General in 1894 and retired from the Armed Forces in 1897 after 46 years of loyal and distinguished service. He had been appointed KCB in 1881 and was elevated to GCB the year before he retired in 1897 and published his thoughts on the Indian Mutiny in a work called “Old Memories”. In 1898, he was appointed Keeper of the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London, a position he held for the next six years.

Hugh had married Annie Hill in Simla, India, on September 8 1863, and the couple went on to have four sons and four daughters. He died in St. Thomas’s Tower on May 12 1909, aged 75, and was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery, London.

There is a memorial plaque to Hugh Gough at Haileybury College, which is now known simply as Haileybury and is an independent co-educational boarding school. There is also a plaque in his honour at Lahore Cathedral in Pakistan.

John Edmond Gough was born on October 25 1871 at Murree, India. He was the second son of General Sir Charles Gough VC and his wife Henriette and his uncle was General Sir Hugh Gough VC.

John, known affectionately by family and friends as “Johnnie”, was educated from 1881 at Bucklands’ School in Laleham, Middlesex, and, from 1885, at Eton College, before attending the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. It was unsurprising that he opted for a military career given the courageous exploits of his father and uncle three decades earlier.

Johnnie was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Rifle Brigade in March 1892 and joined the 1st Battalion in India. He was promoted to full Lieutenant in December 1893 and he transferred to the 2nd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade in Ireland in March 1895. After a period on “special service” in British Central Africa from 1896–7, he returned to regimental duty. Johnnie served during the Nile expedition of 1898, being promoted to Captain in December of the following year.

In October 1899, Johnnie was posted with his battalion to South Africa and served during the Second Boer War, from 1899-1902. The conflict was fought between the British Empire and two independent Boer republics: the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (Transvaal). After a long and hard-fought campaign, the two republics were defeated and absorbed into the British Empire.

Johnnie took part in the defence of Ladysmith and later served as Aide-de-Camp to Major-General Francis Howard of the 8th Brigade and as Signals Officer to the brigade. He was appointed District Commissioner at Lydenburg in the Transvaal in October 1900 and was promoted to Brevet Major the following month.

After leave in England, Johnnie was posted with his comrades from the Rifle Brigade (The Prince’s Consort Own) to Somaliland to take part in the operations against the forces of Mohammed-bin-Abdullah Hassan.

Known as the “Mad Mullah”, Hassan led forces that were raiding into British territory. However, after Johnnie was placed in command of the Bohotle column, his force engaged the Mullah’s troops at Daratoleh on April 22 1903. During the battle, Gough went out under heavy fire to help one of his officers, Capt. C. M. Bruce, who had been fatally wounded. Gough and two captains risked their lives to prevent Bruce falling into the hands of the enemy where he would almost certainly have faced a terrible death.

Of the three officers who took part in the rescue, the two most junior ones were the only ones to be awarded the VC in The London Gazette on August 7 1903. The citation detailed how Captain William Walker and Captain George Rolland had raced some 500 yards to get assistance for the stricken soldier.

They had succeeded in their aim but Captain Bruce was hit by a second bullet as he lay wounded on a pathway. Their joint citation ended, “But for the gallant conduct displayed by these Officers and men, Captain Bruce must have fallen into the hands of the enemy.”

There was no mention of Johnnie’s involvement for one simple reason – his modesty. He had personally drawn up a report on the rescue and the role played by the two Captains. Yet, he had made no mention of his own key involvement in the rescue. However, his men felt this was such an injustice that they drew the attention of the authorities to Johnnie’s own role.

The result was that Johnnie was awarded the VC and this was announced in The London Gazette on January 14 1904. His short citation read: “During the action at Daratoleh, on 22nd April last, Major Gough assisted Captains Walker and Rolland in carrying back the late Captain Bruce (who had been mortally wounded) and preventing that Officer from falling into the hands of the enemy.

“Captains Walker and Rolland have already been awarded the Victoria Cross for their gallantry on this occasion, but Major Gough (who was in command of the column) made no mention of his own conduct, which has only recently been brought to notice.”

He was awarded his VC by King Edward VII at an investiture at St James’s Palace, London, later in 1904. His father and his uncle, both VC recipients from the late 1850s, were still alive at the time and so this created the unique situation in which three living members of the same family held the VC simultaneously. This was quite astonishing, even an era in which the VC was undoubtedly far more frequently awarded than it is today.

In December 1905, Johnnie was appointed as Deputy Assistant Adjutant-General in Ireland and he was promoted to Brevet Colonel in August 1907 and was also appointed as Aide-de-Camp to King Edward VII. By this point, he was married having wed Dorothea Keyes, the daughter of General Sir Charles Patton Keyes, at Hampton Court Palace on June 29 1907. The couple went on to have a daughter.

In January 1909, Johnnie was appointed Officer Commanding of the British troops in Somaliland. However, he fell ill and was invalided home in June of the same year with suspected hepatitis. In October 1913, he was appointed Chief of Staff of the Aldershot command, with the rank of Brigadier General. His commanding officer was Lieutenant-General Sir Douglas Haig, who hugely valued his more junior officer’s advice.

At this point, the situation became complex in Ireland with the country pushing for independence but Protestants in the north of the country also alarmed at the prospect of being ruled by a Catholic majority in the south. Johnnie was an intelligent man with a strong grasp of Irish history: increasingly concerned with the volatile political situation in Ireland, he began to voice his worries regarding the position of the Army in any future crisis.

Indeed, such were his fears that Johnnie engineered a meeting in Buckingham Palace with Lord Stamfordham, the King’s Private Secretary, during which he stated that he thought it was unlikely that the Army would act against the Ulster Volunteers if ordered to do so.

The situation reached crisis point in March 1914. At this point, Johnnie’s elder brother, Brigadier-General Sir Hubert de la Poer Gough, was in command of the 3rd Cavalry Brigade at the Curragh. He made it clear that his own refusal to contemplate suppressing resistance to home rule in Ulster was supported by many of his officers. This, in turn, led to the “Curragh Mutiny” in Co Kildare. It was referred to as a “mutiny” although no orders actually given were disobeyed.

However, a series of telegrams passed between the two Gough brothers, and in England Johnnie obtained the support of officers in the Aldershot and London commands. He also made a series of telephone calls, and had meetings with Field Marshal Sir John French, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and others, explaining his own attitude and the stand that his fellow officers were prepared to take.

At an historic meeting at the War Office on March 23 1914, the Gough brothers were given an assurance that officers would not be compelled to act against those in Ulster seeking home rule. For many years, Johnnie’s elder brother was portrayed as the ringleader of the “Curragh Munity”. However, it later emerged that Johnnie himself played a significant role.

It seems that just two months later the pressure he had been under over the situation in Ireland took its toll. Johnnie collapsed with severe abdominal pains and underwent surgery. This was, in fact, a recurrence of a problem that had plagued him since his time in Somaliland five years earlier. He recovered sufficiently to be appointed Chief-of-Staff of I Corps, British Expeditionary Force, on the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914.

Johnnie took part in the retreat from Mons and was Mentioned in Despatches for his courage. In December 1914, he was appointed Chief-of-Staff of First Army. However, on February 20 1915, he was seriously wounded in the stomach by a sniper’s bullet while inspecting the trench system near Fauquissart crossroads in France. He underwent emergency surgery at the Field Hospital at Estaires but, two days after being wounded, he suffered a fatal heart attack, aged only 43.

Johnnie was buried at Estaires Communal Cemetery and, unusually, he was posthumously created KCB by the King in April 1915. His name is on the VC/GC memorial at Eton College and he is also honoured at Winchester Cathedral, Hampshire. His VC is on display at the Royal Green Jackets Museum, Winchester.

I would like to thank Turtle Bunbury, the Irish historian, author and broadcaster, for putting me in touch with several members of the Gough family and for his excellent research in his paper, The Gough Family – Irish War Heroes. [NB PLEASE KEEP].

The fifth Viscount Gough, aged 81, who is related to all three VC recipients, told me: “Our family is very proud of the gallantry displayed by all three VC recipients, while other family members, including my own father, have also received gallantry awards. The award of three VCs to two generations of the same family will almost certainly never be repeated.”

My admiration for the Gough family is immense and I remain intrigued that there are so many other occasions where members of the same family have been highly decorated. The history books show that, over the past 167 years, since the VC was created, three fathers and sons been awarded the decoration, along with four pairs of brothers. Furthermore, there are numerous other cases of blood relatives being awarded two or more gallantry awards.

I have already confessed to not fully understanding what makes some people braver than others. However, I do believe that the late, great Nelson Mandela was right when he said: “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

I suspect that Charles, Hugh and Johnnie all felt afraid during their respective VC actions but they showed the mental and physical strength to overcome that fear. Their unprecedented achievement of having three VC awards undoubtedly entitles them to be regarded as “Britain and Ireland’s bravest family”. Their collective valour must be cherished for ever more.

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