53rd Regiment : The Victoria Cross for Service in India 1857-59
Sgt. Denis Dynan, 53rd Regt
Action : at Chattra, Bihar, India, 2nd October 1857.
London Gazette : 25th February 1862.
Denis Dynan’s was the earliest action for which a soldier of the 53rd received the Victoria Cross, though the medal was gazetted later than the other Mutiny VC awards to the regiment.
Little is known of the recipient’s personal history. His name is frequently given as Dynon, but is clearly Dynan in his military papers and engraved as such on his VC. Fortunately, his original discharge papers of 1861 survive in the National Archives in Kew in series WO.97. Denis Dynan was born in 1822 in the Parish of Kilmannon near the town of “Rosenallice” (Rosenallis), Queen’s County (i.e. County Leix/Laois), Ireland. A labourer by occupation, he attested for the 44th Regiment at Mountrath, Queen’s County, on 8th September 1841 and served for 19 years and 167 days prior to discharge on health grounds in February 1861.
Dynan served in the 44th for 2 years and 297 days before transferring on 1st July 1844 into the 53rd which was about to depart for India and needed extra men to bring it up to strength. He was present with the 53rd through both the Sikh Wars - the Sutlej Campaign of 1845-46 (battles of Aliwal and Sobraon) and the Punjab Campaign of 1848-49 (battle of Gujerat). He presumably served with the regiment on the North West Frontier in 1852-53.
Dynan's VC action
In May 1857, when “the Great Rebellion” began, the 53rd was based at Fort William in Calcutta. Over the next few weeks, it was involved in disarming Indian regiments stationed around the arsenal at Dum Dum and in mounting guard over Calcutta’s main commercial and public buildings. As the Mutiny spread, the 53rd was warned early in August for active service “upcountry” and on 27th the 374 Officers and men of its Left Wing (with Dynan, a Corporal since 1st July) marched for Raniganj. They then proceeded along the Grand Trunk Road for hundreds of miles towards Allahabad, the point of concentration for active operations against the mutineers and rebels further north.
In the meantime, the mutiny had spread through the Chota Nagpur district, to the west of the Left Wing’s line of march towards Allahabad. The 7th, 8th and 40th Regiments of Bengal infantry had mutinied at Dinapore in neighbouring Bihar and marched to join the rebel leader Kunwar Singh. At much the same time, part of the 8th Native Infantry at Hazaribagh, one of the four principal military stations in Chota Nagpur district, turned on their European officers and marched off into the surrounding countryside. At Ranchi, the Ramghur Battalion mutinied and ran riot through the town of Duranda, plundering the civil treasury, opening the jails and firing into the church. European residents from the whole area fled towards the supposed safety of Hazaribagh, where the Commissioner, Captain Dalton, managed to retain order aided by the local Raja of Ramghur, who remained loyal to the British.
Captain Dalton was seriously concerned that a concentration of the mutinied regiments would attack Hazaribagh and he made an urgent request to Calcutta for a British regiment to come to his assistance. At that time, none was available and instead units of the Madras Army - which remained unaffected by the Mutiny - were sent to his aid. But despite their best efforts in bringing to action the various mutined regiments in the area, the Madrassi troops failed to locate and engage the powerful Ramghur Battalion and Dalton was seriously concerned that it would attack Hazaribagh.
In response to his further requests, the Left Wing of the 53rd was ordered to divert to Hazaribagh late in September. Colonel Fischer, commanding the garrison of 18th Madras Infantry, had concluded that the Ramghur Battalion was camped near the village of Chattra (or Chuttra), 35 miles from Hazaribagh, and at the end of September, a column under Major English, 53rd Regiment, went out to bring the mutineers to battle. His force comprised only 180 men of the Left Wing of the 53rd, 150 Sikh soldiers (mainly 11th Bengal Infantry) and two guns. The Madrassis were deployed to protect the Grand Trunk Road.
Major English and his small force - approx. 350 men - arrived at Chattra on the morning of 2nd October 1857 and, camping to the west of the town, soon found that Colonel Fischer’s assumption was correct: some 3,000 rebels of the Ramghur Battalion and other mutineers had occupied Chattra. Nevertheless, despite the odds, Major English decided on an immediate attack. For over an hour, there was ferocious hand-to-hand fighting in the streets of Chattra as English led his men in a direct assault; as one later historian wrote, “it is difficult to believe that three thousand men were insufficient to hold the town against three hundred and fifty”.
Mass grave of the 53rd at Chattra
By the time the mutineers broke off the action and fled, English had lost 42 men killed or wounded but had captured forty cartloads of ammunition, ten elephants, twenty teams of gun bullocks and several boxes of “treasure”. Four enemy field guns were captured, two of them being the subject of the VC award to Corporal Dynan and Lieut. Daunt, 11th Bengal Infantry.
During the fighting, these two guns had opened a well-directed and lethal fire on the attacking force. The first of the two was disabled by artillery fire and its gun-crews killed where they stood. The capture of the second gun was much more demanding and was only achieved by a direct infantry attack, led by Lieut. Daunt with Corporal Dynan. The gun, firing grapeshot at close range, was causing severe casualties (killing or wounding one third of Lieut. Daunt’s company of 11th Bengal Infantry).
The Citation to the VCs which both men were awarded tells the story:
Lieut. Daunt, 11th Bengal Infantry, and Sergeant Dynan, 53rd, are recommended for conspicuous gallantry in action on 2nd October 1857, with the mutineers of the Ramghur Battalion at Chota Bihar, in capturing two guns, particularly the last, when they rushed at it and captured it by pistolling the gunners, who were mowing down the detachment with grapeshot, one third of which was hors de combat at the time.
The action at Chattra (or Chuttra or Chota Bihar as it is sometimes called) destroyed the effectiveness of the Ramghur Battalion and “removed the greatest danger from the Grand Trunk Road”. The Wing of the 53rd under Major English continued operations against local mutineers of the 32nd Bengal Infantry and then marched to join Sir Colin Campbell’s force concentrating to effect the Relief of Lucknow. The 53rd played a major role in the initial relief of the garrison and in the later re-capture of the city.
Dynan's Later Career
Denis Dynan was promoted Sergeant in July 1858 (his VC citation, referring to him as Sergeant, was not published until 1862, but he was a Corporal in 1857) and continued to serve in the 53rd until discharged in February 1861, after the regiment’s return to the UK. His general conduct was described as “very good”, though he had been entered three times in the Regimental Defaulters’ Book, but with no instances of appearance before a Court Martial. He had been in possession of three Good Conduct badges “with pay” prior to his promotion to Sergeant in July 1858.
At the time of his discharge, Dynan was a seriously ill man, suffering from pulmonary and hepatic disease, “the result of service in India” which “unfits him for the ordinary duties of a soldier”. Described on discharge as 5 feet 61/2 inches tall, with grey eyes, brown hair and a “fair” complexion, he immediately entered the Royal Military Hospital at Kilmainham, Dublin as an in-pensioner (where he received his V.C. in May) and although quickly discharged to out-pension on 1st June 1862 he did live long to enjoy his retirement or his VC.
He died on 16th February 1863, presumably from the ailments which had terminated his military career. His “intended place of residence” is given in his papers as Clonaslee, Queen’s County, but he is believed to have died in Dublin and is assumed to be buried there; regrettably, the actual location of his grave seems to be unknown.
Dynan’s VC alone was sold by Messrs. Sotheby on 7th July 1998 for a hammer price of £20,000 and is now in the Ashcroft VC collection. The location of his other awards - his Sutlej, Punjab and Mutiny medals - is unknown.
Dynan's VC - reverse.
Lieut. Alfred Kirke Ffrench, 53rd Regiment
Alfred Kirke Ffrench (or ffrench) was born in Meerut, India, on 25th February 1835, the son of Lt. Col. Thomas Ffrench of the 53rd Regiment. He also had a brother serving as an officer in the regiment. Educated privately, he entered the army by purchase in 1854 and was commissioned as Ensign in the 53rd on 10th February, joining the regiment at Dagshai in India. Promoted to Lieutenant on 21st October 1855, he was advanced to Captain on 3rd September 1863.
French served with the 53rd in India from June 1854 to April 1860, in Canada from April 1860 to May 186 and then in Bermuda.
Alfred Kirke French
Hart’s Annual Army List for 1871 gives his “War Service” as:
Served with the 53rd Regiment in the Indian campaign of 1857-59, including the Relief of Lucknow by Lord Clyde, battle of Cawnpore on Dec. 6th , the pursuit of the Gwalior Contingent to Serai Ghat, action at Khodagunge and entry into Futteghur, storm and capture of Meangunge, siege and capture of Lucknow, affair of Koorsie, passage of the Goomtee and occupation of Sultanpore, passage of the Gogra at Fyzabad on 25th November ; minor affairs; attack and destruction of the fort of Bungeon.
(Medal with two clasps and Victoria Cross.)
Ffrench's VC Action
The attack on the Sikandar Bagh, 16th November 1857 :
Although the standard Regimental History by Colonel William Rogerson quotes Sir Colin Campbell’s statement that "The storming of the Sikanderbagh and Shah Najaf has never been surpassed in danger", he makes no reference to the actual attack nor to any of the regiment’s V.C. winners on that day, other than to say that the 53rd were "well to the front - with the Colours - all through the relief, notably at the capture of the Sikandarbagh"!
The gateway to the Sikander Bagh : modern view
The leading historians of the Mutiny, Sir John Kaye and Colonel G. B. Malleson, described the attack on the Sikander Bagh in some detail:
“Having made all the arrangements which skill and foresight could suggest, Sir Colin Campbell [commanding the relief force] signalled to Sir James Outram [commanding the besieged garrison at Lucknow] by a code previously arranged, that he would advance on the morrow [16th November 1857].
....The men first breakfasted. Then a strong body of cavalry with Blunt’s troop of [Bengal] Horse Artillery and a company of the 53rd, forming the advance guard, moved forward from the extreme right. The way crossed the canal, then dry, followed then for about a mile the bank of the Gumti, led them through a narrow lane, through thickly wooded enclosures and then made a sharp turn to the left on to a road, which turning again, ran between low mud houses for about a hundred and twenty yards parallel to the Sikander Bagh. Following the advance guard came Adrian Hope’s brigade, then Russell’s, then the ammunition and the engineers’ park ....
The precautions taken by Sir Colin the preceding afternoon and evening had been successful, for the enemy’s attention had been completely diverted from the line of advance he had contemplated. His advance guard, then, marched along the bank of the Gumti, through the lane and enclosures, without meeting an enemy. Suddenly, it amde a sharp turn to the left already described. Then the enemy for the first time took alarm. First men occupying huts and enclosures in advance of the building, then from the mass of the men in the Sikander Bagh [i.e. “the Garden of Alexander”] itself, poured an overwhelming fire on the troops forming the advance. Their position, from a military point of view, was desperate, for they were exposing their flank to the enemy. For a distance of a hundred and twenty yards to the walled enclosure of the Sikander Bagh, they were broadside on to the enemy’s fire. Our officers saw the position clearly. Before a shot had been fired, one staff officer remarked to his right-hand comrade, “If these fellows allow one of us to get out of this cul-de-sac alive, they deserve every one of them to be hanged.”
The situation was indeed critical. The gallant 53rd (one company only), in skirmishing order, lined the enclosures bordering on the lane but their numbers were few and the fire of the enemy was concentrated; the cavalry were jammed together, unable to advance, and the high banks on either side seemed to offer an impassable barrier to artillery.
But only “seemed”. Up the steep bank the daring Blunt led his gallant troop and “conquering the unconquerable” brought them, guns and all, into an open spacve between the Sikander Bagh and another large loop-holed building, exposed as he galloped on to a terrible cross-fire. Here, unlimbering with remarkable coolness and self-possession, he opened with his six guns on the Sikander Bagh. Never was anything done better.
While Blunt was engaged on this daring deed, Adrian Hope’s brigade, disengaging itself, had come up with a rush and driven the enemy from the enclosures bordering the lane and then from the large building of which I have spoken opposite the Sikander Bagh. This gave it access to the open space on which Blunt had unlimbered. Travers followed with his heavy battery and ... was able to bring two of his 18-pounders into position and to open fire against the angle of the enclosure [i.e. the Sikander Bagh]. In less than half an hour, their fire opened a hole in the wall which might be practicable for stormers.
Meanwhile, the infantry of Adrian Hope’s brigade, after the achievement already related, had been ordered to lie down, covered by a small bank and some trees. But the moment the breach was considered practicable, the bugle-sound gave the signal for assault. It was made by the 93rd Highlanders and the 4th Punjab Infantry, supported by the 53rd Regiment and a battalion of detachments. Springing to their feet, the Highlanders unelr Lt. Col. Ewart and the Sikhs under Lt. Paul, dashed forward.... All ran towards the hole - a small hole in a bricked-up doorway, about three feet square and the same distance from the ground. A Sikh of the 4th Regiment reached it first but he was shot dead as he jumped through. A similar fate befell a Highlander in his track. A young officer of the 93rd, Richard Cooper ... flying through the hole, landed unscathed. Cooper was almost immediately followed by Col. Ewart of the 93rd, Ewart by Capt. John Lumsden of the 30th Native Infantry ... Lumsden by three privates of the 93rd, they again by eight or nine men, Sikhs of the 4th Punjab Regiment or men of the 93rd....Altogether, besides the three officers, about a dozen men, Sikhs and Highlanders, had jumped within the enclosure, when for some reason yet undiscovered, the supply of men stopped.
The courtyard looking north from the gateway (modern view)
[The 93rd lost 2 officers and 20 men killed and 7 officers and 61 men wounded; the 4th Punjabis lost two (out of four) officers killed and one wounded and 69 men killed or wounded; the 53rd lost 76 men killed or wounded in this day’s fighitng and over the next few days.)
What exactly Alfred Kirke Ffrench and his Grenadier Company did during the assault is, regrettably, not recorded. The citation - typical of the fairly bland versions that were issued at that time - simply says:
For conspicuous bravery on 16th November 1857 at the taking of the Secundra Bagh, Lucknow, when in command of the Grenadier Company, being one of the first to enter the buildings. His conduct was highly praised by the whole company.
(Awarded by the terms of Clause 13 of the VC Warrant: by Ballot of the officers and men of his Regiment).
French’s V.C. is in the regimental collection in Shrewsbury Castle but the whereabouts of his Mutiny medal are unknown.
Ffrench's later career
Ffrench lived latterly at “The Manor House”, Chiswick, London (demolished c.1890) but died at the family home 41, Grove Place, Brompton, on 28th December 1872 aged 37. He was still a serving officer of the 53rd at the time of his death, the regiment then being in Bermuda, and was taken ill whilst serving with there. He was sent back to England on “leave of absence” where it was hoped that his health would improve but, as the Regimental Order notifying his death related, “it has not so happened and this gallant soldier died at Chiswick on 28th December 1872”. It continued that “as a mark of respect to the memory of a lamented and esteemed brother officer, the Commanding Officer directs that all Officers of the Regiment will wear black crape on the left arm for six weeks from this date”.
French was unmarried at the time of his death and his effects were bequeathed to his mother, Louisa, his only surviving next-of-kin, his estate being valued at just under £3,000. His father, Lt. Col. Thomas Ffrench, had died on 15th October 1871 and his brother was also dead by then. This brother, Thomas Charles Ffrench, was also born in Meerut and was commissioned into the 61st Regiment in 1852. But he served for most of his career in the 53rd, including during the Indian Mutiny (wounded at Khudjwah) and, like his brother, saw service in all of the major actions in which the 53rd was engaged, receiving the medal with two clasps. He exchanged into the 72nd Highlanders in 1863 and into the 49th Regiment in 1867. He appears to have died before 1873.
The Commanding Officer of the 53rd whilst it was in Bermuda was Colonel A. R. Harenc, who was appointed to the 57th Brigade Depot at Perth a few months after French’s death. He issued the following “address” to the Regiment, to be published in Regimental Orders:
The Commanding Officer regrets to have to announce the death of a gallant officer of the 53rd, Capt. A. K. Ffrench, VC. He joined the Regiment in February 1854, served throughout the Indian Mutiny, was present with his Regiment all its actions and was distinguished in his bravery in a regiment exceeded by none in the army for its dash and gallantry under fire. He obtained the Victoria Cross, the highest mark of distinction that can be bestowed upon an officer or soldier. He was, moreover, at all times essentially a good soldier; in feeling devoted to his profession, having at heart the most earnest desire for the credit and good name of his regiment and animated always by the determination to do his duty so long as it pleased God to continue him the strength and power of doing it.
Capt. Ffrench, his father and brother all served in the Regiment together. Major Ffrench, as a boy, had accompanied his father in the war in the Peninsula.
Capt. Ffrench’s servcies were as follows : campaign of 1857-59; Relief of Lucknow; Battle of Cawnpore, pursuit of the Gwalior Contingent to Serai Ghat, action at Khodagunge and entry into Futteghur, affair at Shumshabad, storm and capture of Meangunge, siege and capture of Lucknow, affair of Koorsie, passage of the Goomtee and occupation of Sultanpore, passage of the Gogra at Fyzabad ; action at Toolsipore and minor affairs. Awarded the Medal with two clasps.
Kirke Ffrench's uninscribed grave marker (flat stone, centre) in Brompton cemetery
A Notice of Death appeared in The Times on 1st January 1873 and French was buried on 4th January in a family plot (now badly overgrown) in Brompton Cemetery; the flat concrete grave marker does not record any of his details.
There is a memorial to Ffrench in the portico of St. Chad’s Church in Shrewsbury which reads:
In Memory of Alfred Kirke French, V.C.
Captain 53rd Regiment
Died 28th December 1872 aged 37 years.
Erected by his brother officers.
Pte. James Kenny, 53rd Regiment
Action : the attack on the Sikandar (Secundra) Bagh, Lucknow, India, 16th November 1857.
London Gazette : 24th December 1858.
James Kenny is very much “the unknown soldier” in terms of the Shropshire VC winners. It is unfortunate that no service records survive for him in the National Archives in Kew (in the archive of Attestation and Discharge papers in series WO.97) nor in any other source, apart from skeletal details in the Pay and Muster lists of the 53rd. This means that just about nothing is known about him - family background, date of birth, occupation, dates and details of service etc.
He is believed to have been born in Ireland, probably in Dublin, in 1824. He does not appear in the 53rd regimental rolls for the first Sikh War (1845-46) - he may not even have been in the army at that time, let alone the 53rd, or may have been serving with another regiment or based elsewhere. There is, however, a Private James Kenny, no. 1841, in the 53rd roll for the second Sikh War (1848-49) and in receipt of the Punjab medal with clasp Goojerat. This may be the later VC winner.
We do know, however, that Kenny was amongst the men of the 53rd who attacked the Sikander Bagh in Lucknow on 16th November 1857 and was one of the men chosen by Ballot to receive the VC for their gallantry in the action.
(see details on Lieut. Ffrench, above, for an account of the fighting) :
“For conspicuous bravery on 16th November 1857 at the taking of the Secundra Bagh, Lucknow, and for volunteering to bring up ammunition to his company under a very severe cross-fire.”
His Mutiny service with the 53rd earned him the medal with clasps “Relief of Lucknow” and “Lucknow” but when the 53rd was ordered to the UK in 1861, Kenny was one of many who chose to continue their service in India. He transferred into the 6th Bengal European Fusiliers - a regiment not destined to remain in existence itself for very long, with the transfer of military power away from the East India Company. He then passed into the 101st Regiment (later Royal Munster Fusiliers) made up of those men of the various Bengal European regiments who chose to remain in service when the Bengal Fusiliers were taken onto the British establishment.
He did not live long to enjoy his VC status; Kenny died of disease in Multan in the Punjab on 2nd or 3rd October 1862 and was buried in the cantonment’s European cemetery. Recent work on the Multan cemetery and its registers would indicate that Kenny was buried in an unmarked grave; if not, any memorial to him certainly does not survive.
There are no known photographs of Kenny and his VC and medal(s) have never been reported as sold or seen. It is just possible that they were buried with him.
Pte. Charles Irwin, 53rd Regiment
Action : the attack on the Sikandar (Secundra) Bagh, Lucknow, India, 16th November 1857.
London Gazette : 24th December 1858.
“For conspicuous bravery on 16th November 1857 at the taking of the Secundra Bagh, Lucknow. Although severely wounded in the right shoulder, he was one of the first men of the 53rd who entered the buildings, under a very severe fire.”
(Chosen by Ballot of his comrades as per Rule 13 of the VC Warrant)
For details on the action at the secundra Bagh, see the entry under Lieut. Ffrench
Irwin was born in Manorhamilton, Leitrim, Ireland, in 1824. By trade a cutler, he enlisted into the 18th (Royal Irish) at Sligo on 4th September 1842.
His discharge papers, which survive in series WO.97 in the National Archives at Kew, detail his “war services”:
Served [in the 18th Regiment] in the Campaign in Burma in 1852 and 53 under Major Genl. Godwin, CB. Was present at the attack and capture of Martaban 5th April 1852, the attack and capture of Rangoon from 11th to 14th April, the attack and capture of Prome 9th October 52 and other minor skirmishes on the right bank of the Irrawaddy.
Served [in the 53rd Regiment] during the suppression of the Mutiny in India in the years 57,58 and 59. Present at the skirmish of Bunnee 2nd Nov. 57 and the Relief of Lucknow from 13th to 24th November. Relief and Battle of Cawnpore 6th Dec 57, actions of Sheerghat 9 Decr and Kalla Nuddee 2nd Jany 58, skirmish of Shumshabad 28th January, storming of Meeangunge 23rd February, and at the siege of Lucknow from 2nd to 21st March under Lord Clyde GCB, the affair of Courcy, 22nd March, the passage of the Goomtee at Sultanpore 27th Augt, the action and passage of the Gogra on 25th Novr., the skirmish at Bungeon 3rd Decr. under Major Genl. H. Grant, KCB.
Received the Victoria Cross for conspicuous bravery in the assault of Secundra Bagh 16th Novr 1857, though serverely wounded through the right shoulder he was one of the forward men of the 53rd Regt. who entered the building under a severe fire.
The attack and skirmish on the mud fort of Bungoyn 27th April 1859.
Irwin's later career
Along with many other men of the 53rd, Irwin clearly wished to continue service in India or the East. In 1859-60, over 190 men of the 53rd volunteered for the 99th Regiment, then en route for active service in China, and another 250 volunteered to serve in other regiments remaining in or arriving in India. When the 53rd left the sub-continent in 1860, Irwin was one of a large number of “other ranks” who volunteered for service in the 87th Regiment (Royal Irish Fusiliers) which was under orders for Hong Kong.
Canon William Lummis, who compiled the “VC Registers” now in the National Army Museum, had little to say about Irwin, other than that his frequent appearances in the Defaulters’ Book showed him to be “something of a bad character”!
By the time of his discharge from the 87th “at his own request” in 1864, Irwin had served for 21 years and 1 month. He was described as 40 years old, 5’ 117/8” tall, with brown hair, brown eyes and a fresh complexion. He bore “the mark of a bullet wound on his right shoulder and sabre cut to his left hand”. Admitted as an out-pensioner of the Royal Hospital at Chelsea on 2nd August 1864 (i.e. granted an army pension), he was awarded 8d per pay for life.
Irwin died in Newton Butler, Fermanagh, on 8th April 1873, aged 49. He is buried in St. Mark's Churchyard, Magheraveely, Co. Fermanagh.
George Irwin’s VC and campaign medals - India General Service (1854-95) with clasp Pegu for the Burma campaign of 1852-3 and the Indian Mutiny medal with claps Relief of Lucknow and Lucknow - are in the K.S.L.I. regimental collection and on display in Shrewsbury Castle.
Sergt. Major Charles Pye, 53rd Regiment
The career of Charles Pye is better recorded than most of the “other ranks” of the 53rd who were awarded the V.C. in the Mutiny - though his place and date of death have frequently been misquoted, confused with those of an officer of the same name.
Pye was born in Rickerscote, Staffs., on 24th September 1820 (not 22nd November 1822 as sometimes stated). He came from a family of railway workers.
Pye began his military career by enlisting into the 40th Regiment in Coventry on 18th November 1840 and served with them in India. He was present at the battle of Maharajpoor (during the Gwalior Campaign) in December 1843 and around 1844 transferred into the 21st Foot. He served with that regiment through the 1st Sikh War (the Sutlej Campaign of 1845-46) and fought in the battles of Mudki, Aliwal and Sobraon.
Pye transferred into the 53rd in time to serve in the second Sikh War (Punjab Campaign of 1848-49) and was present at the defeat of the Sikh army at Gujerat and later served with the 53rd “in the campaign against the Hill Tribes on the Peshawar Frontier” in 1852. His “war services” with the 53rd during the Indian Mutiny campaign state that he “served in the Indian Campaign of 1857-59, including the action at Khudjwah, Releif of Lucknow by Lord Clyde (severely wounded), Battle of Cawnpore on 6th December and pursuit of the Gwalior Contingnent to Serai Ghat; action of Khodagunge and entry into Futteghur, affair of Shumshabad, storming and captur eof Meeangunge, siege and capture of Lucknow, affair at Koorsie, passag eof the Goomtee and occupation of Sutlanpore. He received the medal and clasps; was promoted Ensign 2nd July 1858 and awarded the Victoria Cross”.
Pye’s Victoria Cross was another of those awarded as a result of a ballot of his comrades, allowed according to the unusual Rule 13 of the V.C. Warrant - where a number of men displayed equal gallantry, those who were present in the action could choose amongst themselves who was to receive the award.
The citation stated:
“For steadiness and fearless conduct under fire at Lucknow on the 17th November 1857, when bringing up ammunition to the Mess House and on every occasion when the regiment has been engaged.”
A notification of his V.C. award was published in The Staffordshire Advertiser on 8th January 1859 :
Among the brave soldiers who recently had the V.C. conferred upon them, we find the name of Sergt. Major (now Ensign) Charles Pye of the 53rd Regiment. Ensign Pye was, we understand, educated at Stafford and his uncle is at the present time residing at Milford near this town.
Pye's VC action
The citation implies that Pye was part of the group which stormed the Sikander Bagh on the 16th November but specifically refers to the fighting at the Mess House in Lucknow the next day. The building was close to the Sikander Bagh and, like the other houses in the vicinity, had been strongly fortified.
In his history of the Mutiny, Sir George Malleson wrote :
“It appeared to Sir Colin [Campbell] that the Mess House might be stormed without much risk. He ordered on this duty a company of the 90th Foot under Captain Wolseley [later Field Marshal Lord Wolsleley] and a picket of 60 men of the 53rd under Captain Hopkins .... The feat of arms devolving on these men to attempt was no light one. The Mess House, a building of considerable size, was surrounded by a loop-holed mud wall, covering a ditch about 12 feet broad, scarped with masonry. The ditch was traversed by drawbridges, but whether these were down or up was unknown to the storming party.
Never was a daring feat of arms better performed. Leading his men at the double across the the intervening space, exposed to a hot fire from the neighbouring buildings, Hopkins of the 53rd, known as one of the most daring men in the British Army, reached the mud wall of which I have spoken, dashed over it, crossed the drawbridge - fortunately left down - and entered the Mess House. He had but just gained the place when Roberts, now the Commander-in-Chief in India, galloped up, handed him a Union Jack and requested him to hoist it on one of the turrets.
Followed by one of his men (Pte. Susans), Hopkins climbed onto the roof and, giving three cheers, planted the flag on the summit. The cheers were responded to by a shout from his men, but the flag had not been up ten minutes before a round shot cut the staff and sent and sent it down into the garden. Again did Hopkins plant it and again was it knocked down. He asked to hoist again but, just at that moment, an order arrived from the Commander-in-Chief forbidding any further display of it”
In correspondence on this subject many years later, Roberts recollected that as he was taking the flag up the staircase, he was met by Captain Hopkins by whom he was helped to get it on the roof. They together planted the flag - the Queen’s Colour of the 2nd Punjab Infantry - on the turret near the Kaiser Bagh. The flag was twice shot away. Sir Colin had wanted it to be hoisted as a signal to Sir James Outram (commanding the besieged garrison) to show how close the relief force was.
Pye's later career
Sgt. Major Pye was promoted to Ensign on 2nd July 1858 for his services “in the field” in India and was advanced to Lieutenant on the regiment’s return to the UK in 1861.
He was Adjutant of the 53rd in 1861-62.
On 27th August 1862, he and his wife emigrated to New Zealand aboard the African. Pye then became caught up in the Maori Wars (1860-66) and, not surprisingly given his military experience, was commissioned as a Captain into the Colonial Defence Force (or New Zealand Militia), taking part in active operations during 1863-65.
Colonial claimants of the campaign medal had actually to have been “under enemy fire” and the medal roll states that Pye saw action at Rangiawhia and Orakau in 1864. The medal was duly granted in 1871.
Near Tauranga, there is a “Pye’s Pa Road” (a pa being a Maori stockade) and a Pye’s Pa School - but the link with Pye V.C. (if any) is unclear. There appears to have been no pa in that area during the Maori Wars, but Pye is believed to have been responsible for erecting a permanently-manned militia blockhouse in the area of the school c.1867.
After settling in New Zealand, Pye actually died in Australia on 14th July 1876, aged 56. Whilst visiting relatives in Kirkstall, Victoria (about 160 miles from Melbourne), he was taken ill with bronchitis which proved fatal and was buried in the Tower Hill cemetery at Koroit near Warrnambool.
A new headstone has been erected by the Australian War Memorial Society.
Most published registers state that Pye died in August 1890 and is buried in Edmonton, London. But this appears to be a case of mistaken identity, repeated from book to book; the Charles Pye buried there is a Lt. Colonel Charles Pye - and not the V.C. winner.
Apart from his VC, his medal group comprised the Maharajpore Star, the Sutlej Medal for Moodkee, with clasps Aliwal and Sobraon, the Indian Mutiny Medal with clasps Lucknow and Relief of Lucknow and the medal for the Maori Wars, 1863-65. These are now on display in New Zealand.