Canada And The Victoria Cross: Of Rebellion And Rescue Part 2 of 18

March 1, 2004 by Arthur Bishop
From top: Victoria Cross recipients Campbell Mellis Douglas, Herbert Taylor Reade and William Edward Hall. ILLUSTRATIONS: Sharif Tarabay

Two doctors and a black marine. At first glance an unlikely trio to make up the next three Canadian recipients of the Victoria Cross after Alexander Dunn, who had been the first to be awarded the British Empire’s highest award for valour for his gallantry during the Crimean War in 1854 (It Started With Dunn, January/February). But collectively these men had a lot in common. Herbert Taylor Reade and William Edward Hall—the son of a slave—were both decorated for valour on the frontier during the Indian Mutiny variously known as the Sepoy Rebellion. Campbell Mellis Douglas also earned his VC on the frontier on the island of Little Andaman in the Bay of Bengal.Both Reade and Hall played crucial roles in helping to quell the revolt of native Sepoy troops against the British East Indian Company for imposing its will on the Hindu way of life. Campbell Douglas took charge of the rescue of British sailors and army personnel in danger of attack by natives on Little Andaman.

Herbert Reade was born in Perth in Upper Canada on Sept. 2, 1828. His father, an Irish veteran of the Napoleonic wars, retired to Canada as apothecary to the Imperial Army. When the Lower Canada Rebellion took place he was recalled to the militia and posted to the Quebec Citadel where Herbert spent his youth. When his father returned to his native Ireland, Herbert attended university graduating with a Doctor of Medicine degree in 1850. In November of that year he enlisted in the 61st Gloucestershire Regiment in which he was appointed assistant surgeon. Later he joined the regiment at Peshawar on the northern frontier of India where he spent the next six years. When the Indian Mutiny broke out on May 10, 1857 he was stationed at Ferozepore (now Firozpur) in Punjab, the ancient capital of Hindustan located 250 miles northwest of Delhi.

During the War of 1812, the British frigate Leonard intercepted a slave ship bound from Africa to the United States and forced it to deposit its “ivory cargo” at Halifax. Among the freed captives hitherto marked to be auctioned as slaves in the southern states was William Hall’s father Jacob. Hall’s mother, Lucinda, who was a slave on a plantation near Washington, escaped her bondage when the British sacked and set fire to the American capital. She boarded one of the British warships that had conducted the raid and put into Halifax afterwards.

Jacob and Lucinda were married and through the auspices of the Nova Scotia government found employment as cook and gardener on the shipping magnate Sir William Cunard’s estate at Hantsport in the Annapolis Valley. Later they moved to Horton Bluffs where Jacob farmed for Peter Hall, from whom he took his surname.

A son was born to the couple on April 28, 1827, whom they named William Edward. From an early age the young lad showed a keen interest in shipping and the sea. In his teens he signed on with the merchant marine and served on a number of trading vessels as a deck hand. When he turned 20 he enlisted in the Royal Navy and joined his first ship the Rodney. His initial naval career, considering his later achievements, is somewhat puzzling and obscure. In an entry in Rodney’s ship book on March 12, 1856, he is listed as “R” (for Run) which indicates he was a deserter and that automatically meant forfeiture of all rank, pay and property. Nevertheless, whatever the circumstances, the dilemma persists because he was apparently allowed to re-enlist, joining the Shannon in October of the same year he allegedly deserted.

For all of that, Hall subsequently became a marine and from all reports an exceptional one. During the Crimean War as a member of Shannon’s crew he served with such distinction that he earned two British medals: one with the Sebastopol clasp, the other with the Inkerim clasp, as well as the Turkish medal. By the time the Indian Mutiny started Hall had been promoted to captain of the foretop for Shannon. Along with the British warship Pearl, the vessel was rerouted to Calcutta from Hong Kong, where both ships had been escorting British troops in anticipation of a Chinese insurrection. The two warships sailed with a force of 450 marines. Their weapons consisted of six 18-inch guns, two 24-pounder howitzers and a pair of field guns.

Campbell Douglas was born in Quebec City on August 5, 1840, and educated at St. John’s College and Laval University. Later he attended the Edinburgh School of Medicine, where he received his Doctor of Medicine degree and became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. He joined the British Medical Service in 1862 and was posted to the 2nd Battalion of the 24th Regt. of Foot at Rangoon. By 1867 he had attained the rank of major.

What precipitated the rebellion of the Sepoys was a piece of incredible folly on the part of the British East India Company. To the Brahmin a cow is sacred; to the Muslim a pig is unclean. A new rifle—the British Enfield—needed greased cartridges which the men had to bite. When the rifle was dealt out to the company’s Indian soldiers the troops soon discovered that the cartridges were greased with the fat of cows and swine. That did it! A long-suppressed insurrection was inevitable.

The Indian Mutiny started at the musketry depot at Meerut, 60 miles north of Delhi. The Sepoys unleashed their pent-up rage, killing most of the officers and massacring all the white women and children. Native prisoners were released from jail and the Sepoys began their march on Delhi.

On March 13, 1857—three days after the outbreak of the rebellion—three Sepoy regiments revolted at Ferozepore, resulting in a brief skirmish with the Gloucesters. Meanwhile the native mutineers took possession of Delhi, repeating their earlier massacre at Meerut and proclaiming the King of Delhi as emperor. Later the British Army Headquarters at Cawnpore (now Kanpur) on the Ganges River, 250 miles southeast of Delhi, and the British relief garrison at Lucknow, 50 miles northeast of Cawnpore, came under native siege. Now the Sepoys were in complete control.

Inside the walled city of Delhi were 40,000 well-armed and highly trained (ironically by the British) Sepoys seething with hatred. Outside on a seven-mile perimeter around the wall, the outnumbered British troops, including Reade’s 61st Gloucestershire Regt. of 6,000, had to bide their time until they could organize a proper assault.

It took until Sept. 14, 1857, before they were in shape to launch an attack which began at 3 a.m. Once inside the Kashmir Gate as they advanced steadily into the city through its tortuous, winding alleys, Reade began administering to the wounded. Suddenly a large number of Sepoys appeared scurrying up to the rooftops from which they rained down fire on everyone in sight.

This bloodthirsty, heartless, treacherous act of firing on unarmed, defenseless wounded men so enraged Reade that he temporarily shed his role as a non-combatant and organized an ad hoc posse of 10 men to drive off the inhuman rebels. In the process two of his group were killed and six were wounded, but Reade was able to continue his work with the injured uninterrupted.

But his anger over the incident could not be quelled and two days later he traded his scalpel for a sword and went on the prowl with a vengeance. By this time the British troops had reached the Royal Palace and Reade led a charge by the Gloucesters on the breach of the city’s powder magazine in the full face of enemy cannon fire. Lunging and slashing with his sword, Reade made his way through the barbaric mutineers and in hand-to-hand fighting managed to spike one of the enemy’s guns. This feat earned the Fighting Surgeon the VC as well as credit for being largely responsible for the fall of Delhi five days later.

In the meantime, before the British attack on Delhi, in mid-August the war ships Shannon and Pearl reached Calcutta and the former, with its complement of 450 marines proceeded up the Ganges River taken in tow by the steamer Chunbar. Their aim was the recapture of the British Army headquarters at Cawnpore and the relief garrison at Lucknow, two vital strategic positions that gave the Sepoys control of the rebellion.

Shannon reached Allahabad, 800 miles upriver from Calcutta on Sept. 2, and began the long slow, difficult trek to Cawnpore. Sporadic fighting along the way necessitated abandoning the two 18-inch guns. By the time the marines arrived at Cawnpore on Oct. 28, the British Army had recaptured it where, according to William Hall, there was still “women’s blood on the walls.” There the marines joined forces with British reinforcements from England and began the historic march across the dusty Indian plain to relieve the besieged city of Lucknow, where a beleaguered British relief garrison of 5,000 which had been cut off was bravely holding out against a force of 50,000 Sepoys.

The rescue party of 5,000, made up of Royal Marines, a Highland regiment and Sikh troops, reached the outskirts of the city on Nov. 16 to begin its assault. The key to the city was the Shah Nulliff Fort, a former temple pocked with holes for muskets which was enclosed within a walled avenue fortification named Dekandarhagh. This had to be taken first. By early afternoon that had been accomplished at bayonet point. Now the rescue party converged on the Shah Nulliff Fort, a half mile to the west.

This strategic position and centre of resistance was defiantly defended by 30,000 vengeful Sepoys. The Sharron Brigade of marines dragged its guns within 200 yards of the wall to begin the initial bombardment. The crew of one of the 24-pounders was a man short so Hall, who had been in charge of a gun aboard ship, filled in for him.

The detachment began laying down the barrage at 4 p.m., pounding the wall but with no effect. Meanwhile the Sepoys had been inflicting appalling casualties on the marines with a curtain of fire. A crisis had been reached. It was critical to the rescue to breach the wall. There was only one answer and it was a dangerous one—a barrage at close range.

The marines now dragged the two 24-pounders to within 20 yards of the obstruction, but one of the crew was cut down by the mutineers’ fire. That left only Hall and a wounded gunner with a single howitzer to blow a hole in the wall. In the face of relentless fire they reloaded the gun and finally a shell blew a hole in the wall that allowed the highlanders to advance into the Shah Nulliff Fort and relieve the besieged British relief garrison.

They found the place deserted; the Sepoys had fled in disarray leaving Lucknow in British hands—but only temporarily. The British were soon forced to retreat and it was not until March 1858 that they were strong enough to return and reclaim the city and clear out the Sepoys once and for all. The Indian Mutiny was coming to an end and it was all over by November. William Hall and his gunner were each awarded the VC for their heroic action. Hall’s citation reads: “Finally in one of the most supreme moments in all the age of a long story of courage, Hall fired the charge which opened up the wall and enabled the British to push through to the relief of the garrison and ultimately to the quelling of the mutiny and the restoration of peace and order in India.”

Late in April, 1867, a British naval frigate, Assaw Valley, put in to the island of Little Andaman in the Bay of Bengal, at the time a British protectorate of Burma. Some of the crew of the ship ventured ashore to reconnoitre the area. When they did not return after several days it was feared they might have been murdered by natives. The Burmese chief commissioner ordered an army detachment to go ashore and investigate.

A contingent of Campbell Douglas’s 2nd Bn. of the 24th Regt. of the Foot sailed from Rangoon, arriving off the island on May 7. A small contingent landed on the island and was immediately set upon by natives. Meanwhile a heavy storm blew up, turning the surf into a boiling sea, cutting off the soldiers ashore and placing them in grave danger.

A rescue force of four troopers led by Douglas immediately went into operation. Manning the oars of a gig—a skiff-like craft—they plunged into the churning sea and rain. But the light little boat was no match for the raging waters which threatened to capsize it and when it filled with water they were forced to abandon the rescue, but only temporarily. After bailing the water out of the gig, an hour later they made another attempt to rescue the trapped men even though the storm had in no way abated. This time Douglas stood in the bow directing his four oarsmen, balancing the boat by shifting his weight from one leg to the other like a bonafide mariner. This second attempt was successful; five of the Assaw Valley crewmen were rescued and brought back to the ship. The force returned to the island a second time and brought back the rest. For his part in the drama, Douglas, surgeon cum seafarer, was awarded the VC for acting “in an intrepid and seamanlike manner, cool to a degree, as if what he was doing was an ordinary act of everyday life.” In addition to the VC he was also awarded the Royal Humane Society Silver Medal.

Herbert Reade was eventually promoted to the rank of surgeon-general. When he retired from the army on a pension in 1887 he was appointed surgeon to Queen Victoria in 1895. He died two years later at age 68 in Surrey Park Gardens—near Bath in Somerset—and was buried in Locksmith Cemetery. Reade’s VC was presented to the Gloucestershire Regt. In 1966, a memorial plaque in his honour was unveiled at The Royal Canadian Legion building on Beckwith Street East in Perth, Ont.

On Oct. 25, 1859, William Hall’s VC was formally presented to him at an investiture aboard Donegal at the port of Queenstown, Ireland. It not only made him the first Black recipient of the award, but also the first person from the British Dominion to receive it (Nova Scotia had yet to join Confederation).

After 25 years on active service, seven of them as a gunnery instructor, Hall retired from the RN on July 10, 1876 with the rank of petty officer first class and a certificate of good conduct. After turning down an honorary appointment at Whitehall, he returned to his native Nova Scotia and bought a farm at Hantsport overlooking the Minas Basin close to where he was born. There he raised cattle and poultry and engaged in his favourite pastime, shooting crows.

In 1901 the Forgotten Hero came out of obscurity to take part in a ceremony in which the Duke York, the future King George V, unveiled a monument to the South African war veteran on the grounds of the provincial Parliament Buildings. To the delight of the cheering crowds, Hall joined in the royal procession in a carriage provided for him.

Three years later, on Aug. 25, 1904, he died of paralysis at age 77, and was buried without honours in an unmarked grave at Lockhart. In 1954, his remains were re-interred at the front of the Hantsport Baptist Church. Two years later the Hantsport Branch of the Legion erected a cairn in his honour bearing a bronze replica of his VC. In Halifax, a branch of the Legion was named after him, and a memorial plaque stands at Cornwallis United Church in that city.

Hall’s VC was presented to the Nova Scotia Museum in Halifax along with his other medals. For a number of years his VC was displayed on loan at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, but today it is back in the Nova Scotia Museum.

Campbell Douglas was promoted to the rank of surgeon lieutenant-colonel in 1882. In October that year he retired from the army with the rank of honorary brigade surgeon. Returning to Canada he married and settled down to practice medicine in Lakefield, Ont., but his days of heroics were far from over.

Early in 1885, the minister of militia and national defence authorized the organization of a medical service to handle casualties in connection with the North-West Rebellion. Two field hospitals were set up, one under the command of Douglas who, with the rest of his hospital team arrived at Swift Current by rail—Canada’s first hospital train. On April 25 the stern-wheeler Northcote, carrying a hospital detachment along with medical and hospital supplies, sailed from Saskatchewan Landing for Saskatoon to evacuate the wounded. Two days later, Douglas—concerned over the ship’s progress—set off down river in a 12-foot long canoe he nicknamed Saskatoon. As he had feared, Northcote had become wedged among the sandbars and the crew was busy trying to extricate the vessel. Douglas continued on to Saskatoon, where the wounded were being brought in from the Battle of Fish Creek—which took place on May 4—and were billeted among the residents. Finally, when Northcote arrived the wounded from Fish Creek as well as the Battle of Batoche on May 14 were treated in houses requisitioned as hospitals.

Douglas, who had been appointed director of the ambulance corps, directed the evacuation of the wounded from Saskatoon to a base hospital in Moose Jaw. They travelled aboard Northcote as far as Elbow, Sask., where they were transferred to carts. However, Douglas considered the journey too arduous and had the men transported by barge to Winnipeg. For his efforts Douglas was awarded the North-West Canada Medal. Following the rebellion he returned to England taking Saskatoon with him. Ever the intrepid embryo mariner he paddled across the English Channel in the canoe, no mean feat in itself.

On Dec. 31, 1909, he died at age 69. In May 1988 his daughter-in-law donated his VC and his other decorations to the Canadian Forces Medical School at the Canadian Forces Base at Camp Borden, Ont. Later they were transferred to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

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