Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (19 - 21 June 2013)

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Date of Auction: 19th - 21st June 2013


Estimate: £140,000 - £160,000

Sold by Order of the Family

‘The attention of the reader is directed to the endurance of this officer. After a long day’s marching and fighting in the dark, without food and with small numbers, the man who will go on, unshaken and unflinching after he has received a severe and painful wound, has in respect of personal courage few equals and no superior in the world. It is perhaps as high a form of valour to endure as it is to fight. The combination of both is sublime.’

Winston Churchill, The Malakand Field Force, refers.

A rare and truly Churchillian Punjab Frontier operations V.C. group of six awarded to Lieutenant-Colonel T. C. Watson, Royal Engineers, attached Bengal Sappers & Miners, who displayed magnificent courage in making two attempts to clear a village of hostile tribesmen in the Mahmund Valley in September 1897, actions undertaken at night, under murderous fire, and in the midst of a violent thunderstorm - and ones that led to a gunshot wound to the thigh, a shattered left hand, and considerable loss of blood from a ruptured artery: back on active service in Mesopotamia during the Great War, he was invalided home with an illness from which he died in June 1917
Victoria Cross (Lieut. T. C. Watson, Royal Engineers; 16th Septr. 1897); India General Service 1895-1902, 1 clasp, Punjab Frontier 1897-98 (Lieut. T. C. Watson, R.E., Bl. S. & M.); 1914-15 Star (Lt. Col. T. C. Watson, V.C., R.E.); British War and Victory Medals (Lt. Col. T. C. Watson); Delhi Durbar 1911, together with related Memorial Plaque (Thomas Colclough Watson), the first, second and sixth on their original wearing bar, and the whole contained within an old metalled glazed display frame, and accompanied by his R.E. cap badge, minor contact wear, generally very fine or better (8) £140000-160000


V.C. London Gazette 20 May 1898:

‘This officer, on 16th September 1897, at the village of Bilot, in the Mahmund Valley, collected a few men of the Buffs (East Kent Regiment), and of No. 4 Company, Bengal Sapper & Miners, and led them into the dark and burning village to dislodge some of the enemy who were inflicting loss on our troops. After being wounded and driven back, he made a second attempt to clear the village, and only desisted after a second repulse and being again hit and severely wounded.’

In a hasty letter written to his wife four days after the above events, which included a sketch of the scene of battle, Watson recounts events at Bilot on the 16th with extreme modesty, if only to reassure her that his wounds were not a matter for serious concern. In point of fact the last of his wounds was sufficiently serious to put him out of action for several months:

‘My own darling, I had got as far as this - or rather I have just written the above final sketch of our movements when I think I would rather write to you an account of our doing(s) on the 16th.

I went out with the Guides under Major Campbell to burn some villages. I had 2 sections of Sappers with me. About 11 a.m. a chit to say the 35th Sikhs & the guns were hard pressed further up the valley & we were to go to their assistance. Off we went & got up about 1.30 p.m. I personally say very little of what was going on except in my immediate front where the enemy kept most tantalisingly just out of range. Finally we were told to retire & I had part of the retirement to cover. I was holding my bit of ground very nicely when the Genl. (General) sent to say he wanted a certain tower blown up - so I took 4 men & went to do it.

I found one of the enemy installed about 250 yards off with a Martini and very pretty shooting he made - getting the extreme edge of the tower 3 times - he could just see my shoulder round the corner. I had just blown the tower I got back to my place when I got the order to join the Genl. (General) with my sappers I went there & found he wanted me to act as escort to the Guns together with Colvin’s sections which in all gave me about 70 men with an average of 20 rounds a piece. Our mules with tools had gone on as I did not consider them necessary for escort work. About this time about 5.30 p.m. we got the order for the guns for the Guns and Sappers to go back, that one company of the 35th Sikhs were cut off & we must remain out the night. I rode off to try and get the tools back but failed & when I got back I found that we were to take up a position alongside a ruined village. It is too late to discuss the advisability of the position & we were paid for our stupidity. Before we had finished scratching a trench with our own hands along the dotted line a man fired a shot from A.

Along the double dotted line were 12 men of the Buffs who had been [told] off as escort to a dooley but could not find it. I got these men together and we ran round the corner, clearing some 30 to 40 Pathans from that side. Then I went to the next corner & finding more collected these I came back for the Buffs and we cleared that side with a couple of volleys. Just then I got touched on the right leg, only a graze, but one of the Buffs was badly hit, so I went back to get some Sappers up & to tell Colvin the state of affairs. I hurried back & was pointing out where the devils were sneaking up when I got a slight flesh wound in the inside of the right arm - nothing of consequence but unfortunately almost immediately afterwards I got hit badly on the left hand. I asked the Buffs to hang on till I could get another officer & went & shouted for Colvin but I fear my directions to him were not very clear. The General and Hamilton put on a tourniquet for me & I hung on thro’ the night. The dooleys & doctors came out at 7 a.m., but a relief party of 2 company’s of Guides & 2 Comps (35th) Dogras came out 1.30 - but for them I do not think any of us would have got off.

I hear the wounded are to be sent down in a day or two - the usual arrangements is I believe to send them to Murree. But darling, of course I want to be with you, so make any arrangements you like & wire or write me to Malakand & Nowshera - I will try & work whatever you propose.

I can’t write anymore today. Much love my own from your loving T.’

Thomas Colclough Watson was born in Velsen, Holland, in April 1867, and was educated at Louth, Lincolnshire, and abroad, prior to being commissioned in the Royal Engineers in February 1888.

In January 1892, he married Edith Welchman, R.R.C., the younger daughter of the late Major-General John Whateley Welchman, C.B., Indian Army, and, on being awarded his Victoria Cross in May 1898, they became the only husband and wife ‘V.C. - R.R.C.’, with the exception of Lord and Lady Roberts.

Setting the scene

And so to events on the night of 16-17 September 1897, a classic example of gallantry on the North West Frontier which stirred the likes of Winston Churchill into making his glowing reference to 30-year-old Watson, the great man having joined Brigadier-General Jeffreys’ Brigade as a correspondent - he was in the main relief party of Bengal Lancers that reached the scene of the action, at the village of Bilot, early on the following morning. But, as verified by the following extract from a letter to his wife, written at camp Serai on 7 September 1897, Watson had already made Churchill’s acquaintance under somewhat irritating circumstances:

‘Sir Bindon [Blood] is surrounding himself with Lords - Fincastle & young Churchill (son of Randolph). He & they sit down to a luxurious lunch on the road whilst the rest of the staff look on! - if ever I am a G.O.C. [General Officer Commanding] hanged if I won’t see my staff are as well done as myself.’

Churchill’s campaign history aside, interested parties should refer to Gerald Napier’s The Sapper VCs, which contains a fine account of like events and, among other fascinating information, the text of a letter written by Lieutenant James Colvin, the other Sapper officer to win the V.C. that night, and a friend of Watson from R.E. footballing activities, in which he described Jeffreys as ‘an almighty thunderous fool’.

For now, however, Churchill sets the scene in his Malakand Field Force:

‘The story has now reached a point which I cannot help regarding as its climax. The action of the Mamund Valley is recalled to me by so many vivid incidents and enduring memories that it assumes an importance, which is perhaps beyond its true historic proportions. Throughout the reader must make allowances for what I have called the personal perspective. Throughout he must remember how small is the scale of operations. The panorama is not filled with masses of troops. He will not hear the thunder of a hundred guns. No cavalry brigades whirl by with flashing swords. No infantry divisions are applied at critical points. The looker-on will see only the hillside, and may, if he watches with care, distinguish a few brown-clad men moving slowly about it, dwarfed almost to invisibility by the size of the landscape. I hope to take him close enough to see what these men are doing and suffering; what their conduct is and what their fortunes are. But I would ask him to observe that, in what is written, I rigidly adhere to my role of a spectator. If by any phrase or sentence I am found to depart from this, I shall submit to whatever evil things the ingenuity of malice may suggest. On the morning of the 16th, in pursuance of Sir Bindon Blood's orders, Brigadier-General Jeffreys moved out of his entrenched camp at Inayat Kila, and entered the Mamund Valley. His intentions were to chastise the tribesmen by burning and blowing up all defensible villages within reach of the troops. It was hoped that this might be accomplished in a single day, and that the brigade, having asserted its strength, would be able to march on the 17th to Nawagai and take part in the attack on the Bedmanai Pass, which had been fixed for the 18th. Events proved this hope to be vain, but it must be remembered that up to this time no serious opposition had been offered by the tribesmen to the columns, and that no news of any gathering had been reported to the General. The valley appeared deserted. The villages looked insignificant and defenceless. It was everywhere asserted that the enemy would not stand. Reveille sounded at half-past five, and at six o'clock the brigade marched out. In order to deal with the whole valley at once the force was divided into three columns ... ’

But as coming events would shortly confirm, the assertion that the enemy would not stand was woefully inaccurate. And chief among those to feel the brunt of such misguided intelligence was Watson and his half-company of Sappers, so, too, Churchill, attached to a squadron of the 11th Bengal Lancers, and the remainder of the strength of Jeffreys’ centre column, namely six companies each of the Buffs and 35th Sikhs, and four guns of No. 8 Mountain Battery. For, on 16 September, 1897, after advancing northwards to Inayat Kila in the Mahmund Valley, Jeffreys’ force launched two separate attacks on Shahi Tangi, the second of them successful but late in the day, thereby leaving his men exposed to the risks of a night march back to camp. Gerald Napier’s The Sapper VCs takes up the story:

‘But by now it was mid-afternoon and it would be a race against time to withdraw to base before dark. There then followed a confused and desperate fight as the forward troops were extricated from the dangerously exposed position they were now in and the general retirement took place. The enemy, sensing an opportunity, now broke out of the north-western end of the valley ‘which had been swarming with them all day’ and advanced ‘in a great half-moon nearly three miles long and firing continually’. Casualties occurred.  A thunderstorm broke, its black cloud blotting out the fading light and its flashes of lightning illuminating targets for the enemy. Contact was lost between units as, by now totally exhausted and having had no food since dawn, individual groups staggered back into camp to spend the night bedded down where they could in the mud, the tents having been struck and the perimeter reduced to facilitate protection. The wounded, who had had to endure torments as they were carried back, now had to wait until daylight and the abatement of the storm before they could be given any attention but the most basic.’

Three V.Cs in a night

And amidst this scene of confusion, a small contingent of men never even made it back to camp. Napier continues:

‘Worse still, part of the force had not made it back at all. The brigade commander, the gunners and their guns, a party of 12 of the Buffs and 45 sappers including Watson and Colvin had come together at the village of Bilot and decided to take shelter there. Unfortunately, the Mamunds had beaten them to it and a bitter struggle now ensued. The area round the houses was full of burning ‘bhoosa’, a kind of chopped straw, so that attempts to break in were prevented and the beleaguered party were illuminated as targets for the enemy fire at 30 yards range, from loopholes on two sides of their position.’

At this juncture, Watson gallantly went forward with charges to destroy the main tower of Bilot village, an action carried out successfully under a tremendous fire, and an incident to which he alludes in his own account of the action - see accompanying archive.

Napier continues:

‘Watson and Colvin [next] led a party of sappers and the 12 Buffs in repeated attempts to break in and drive the enemy out with the bayonet - ‘Watson returned, hit in the thigh. He insisted on going out again, telling me to report to the General that we had only a few rounds left. While I was looking for the General, Watson reappeared, swaying about. He had been hit again, in the hand and arm, and was in great pain’ [from The Military Engineer in India, by Lieutenant-Colonel E. W. C. Sandes]. Colvin then led two sorties climbing on to the roofs; and firing down on the enemy to try and eject them from their firing positions, and when he brought his men back to the gun position, he learned that Jeffreys himself and another officer had been wounded and that only he and Lieutenant Wynter, R.A. remained to conduct the defence.

At 9.00 p.m. there was a pause in the firing while the downpour threatened to wet the enemy's powder but it started again at 10.00 p.m. They hung on desperately gaining what protection they could from saddles removed from the mules and continuing to suffer casualties, including Wynter who was shot through both legs, until a relief force arrived at midnight.’

Relief did indeed arrive, initially in the form of two companies of the Guides and 38th Dogras and, around dawn, a squadron of the 11th Bengal Lancers, the latter with Churchill, who once more takes up the story:

‘Half an hour before dawn on the 17th the cavalry were mounted, and as soon as the light was strong enough to find a way through the broken ground, the squadron started in search of the missing troops. We had heard no more of their guns since about two o'clock. We therefore concluded they had beaten off the enemy. There might, of course, be another reason for their silence. As we drew near Bilot, it was possible to distinguish the figures of men moving about the walls and houses. The advanced files rode cautiously forward. Suddenly they cantered up to the wall and we knew some at least were alive. Captain Cole, turning to his squadron, lifted his hand. The sowars, actuated by a common impulse, rose in their stirrups and began to cheer. But there was no response. Nor was this strange.

The village was a shambles. In an angle of the outside wall, protected on the third side by a shallow trench were the survivors of the fight. All round lay the corpses of men and mules. The bodies of five or six native soldiers were being buried in a hurriedly dug grave. It was thought that, as they were Mahommedans, their resting-place would be respected by the tribesmen. Eighteen wounded men lay side by side in a roofless hut. Their faces, drawn by pain and anxiety, looked ghastly in the pale light of the early morning. Two officers, one with his left hand smashed [Watson], the other shot through both legs, were patiently waiting for the moment when the improvised tourniquets could be removed and some relief afforded to their sufferings. The brigadier, his khaki coat stained with the blood from a wound on his head, was talking to his only staff-officer, whose helmet displayed a bullet-hole. The most ardent lover of realism would have been satisfied. Food, doolies, and doctors soon arrived. The wounded were brought to the field hospitals to be attended to. The unwounded hurried back to camp to get breakfast and a bath. In half an hour the ill-omened spot was occupied only by the few sowars engaged in shooting the wounded mules, and by the vultures who watched the proceedings with an expectant interest.’

Churchill goes on to relate his own account of the night action, an account ending in high praise for Watson:

‘The General now ordered the battery and sappers to go into the village, but it was so full of burning bhoosa that this was found to be impossible, and they set to work to entrench themselves outside. The village was soon full of the enemy. From the walls and houses, which on two sides commanded the space occupied by the battery, they began to fire at about thirty yards' range. The troops were as much exposed as if they had been in a racket court of which the enemy held the walls. They could not move because they would have had to desert either the guns or the wounded. Fortunately not many of the tribesmen at this point were armed with rifles. The others threw stones and burning bhoosa into the midst of the little garrison. By its light they took good aim. Everybody got under such cover as was available. There was not much. Gunner Nihala, a gallant native soldier, repeatedly extinguished the burning bhoosa with his cloak at the imminent peril of his life. Lieutenants Watson and Colvin, with their sappers and the twelve men of the Buffs, forced their way into the village and tried to expel the enemy with the bayonet. The village was too large for so small a party to clear. The tribesmen moved from one part to another, repeatedly firing. They killed and wounded several of the soldiers, and a bullet smashed Lieutenant Watson's hand. He however continued his efforts and did not cease until again shot, this time so severely as to be unable to stand. His men carried him from the village, and it was felt that it would be useless to try again. The attention of the reader is directed to the bravery of this officer. After a long day of marching, and fighting, in the dark, without food and with small numbers, the man who will go on, unshaken and unflinching, after he has received a severe and painful wound, has in respect of personal courage few equals and no superior in the world. It is perhaps as high a form of valour to endure as to dare. The combination of both is sublime.’

Watson’s hand wound - which he received through a loophole at point blank range, leaving his uniform sleeve smouldering - was actually his final wound, the resultant loss of blood causing him to faint on two occasions. Nonetheless, he continued the fight. Moreover, as Sir O’Moore Creagh and E. M. Humphris conclude in The Victoria Cross 1856-1920, it was owing to Watson’s foresight in grasping the fact that at one spot the enemy could be held, that he, in all probability, saved the whole force from being wiped out.

Jeffreys’ duly sent his senior, General Sir Bindon Blood, his official report of the action, of which the latter noted noted in his subsequent despatch:

‘Brigadier Jeffreys further refers in the strongest terms of commendation to the gallant conduct of Lieutenants T. C. Watson and J. M. C. Colvin, R.E., and of the handful of men of the Buffs and No. 4 Company, Bengal Sappers and Miners, who spent the night of the 16th-17th with him in the village of Bilot. The conduct of these officers and men entering the village several times in the dark in face of a heavy fire directed upon them at close quarters, seems deserving of the highest recognition, and I have consequently made a special communication to you on the subject’.

Here, then, the foundation stone that led to V.C.s being awarded to both Sapper officers; and a third V.C. was to follow in due course, on the back of Watson’s report, namely that awarded to Corporal James Smith of the Buffs, who carried out equally gallant work that night with his small detachment of 12 men, two of whom were killed and four wounded, himself among the latter, and four of whom were awarded D.C.M.s. Casualties among the Sikhs and Indian gunners were heavy, too, and they added four I.O.M.s to their accolades.

Watson, who was also twice mentioned in despatches (London Gazettes 11 January and 18 March 1898 refer), was incapacitated for several months, but was sufficiently recovered to receive his V.C. from the Queen’s hands at Windsor Castle during a period of home leave in June 1898. And he was advanced to Captain at the year’s end.

Durbar and demise

Having then been promoted to Major in August 1906, and awarded the Delhi Durbar Medal in 1911, Watson was quickly back in action in the Great War.

Appointed Commanding Engineer of 12th Indian Division, in the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, in February 1915, he went out to Mesopotamia, but contracted an illness while so employed and was invalided home, where he died in London in June 1917.

to be sold with the following artefacts and extensive archive

Please note no reference has been made to condition, owing to the fact content is good throughout, any signs of wear and tear largely being to binding and spines

(i) The recipient’s commission warrant for the rank of 2nd LIeutenant, Royal Engineers, dated 24 February 1888.

(ii) An important series of letters (approximately 35), some in diary format, from Watson to his wife, at the time of his active service on the Punjab Frontier, covering the period 5 August to 20 September 1897, written in the field in pencil or ink, sometimes in moonlight, and containing a hitherto undocumented first hand account of activities in Brigadier Jeffreys’ centre column in the Mahmund Valley, not least events on the 16-17 September, with related sketch map of Bilot village (as cited above), and further family correspondence from the same period, in addition to another separate hand written account of his V.C. action, this partly missing text at page ends - all in all a fascinating record, well worthy of full and proper collation with a view to publication.

(iii) A further series of letters and diary format entries encompassing Watson’s Great War career, in pencil or ink, approximately 110pp.

(v) A ‘Record of Services - Thomas Colclough Watson, Royal Engineers’, being a full list of appointments, qualifications and services 1886-1916, in the recipient’s hand, the final entry confirming his treatment for illness had been taken over by Sir Ronald Ross in April 1916, and that he had been granted extended leave until January 1917, 33pp., blue leather bound journal.

(vi) A family photograph album covering the period 1897-1906, with much seaside and boating activity, but also images of military interest, including Watson returning from Malakand on the S.S. Nubia, approximately 140 images, green leather binding.

(vii) A photograph album covering the period 1902-11, with numerous scenes from home and abroad, but primarily scenes from India, including both Delhi Durbars, approximately 275 images, green leather binding, and a most evocative photographic record from the days of the Raj.

(viii) A small album with newspaper obituaries, together with a privately printed ‘In Memoriam’ booklet with Watson’s funeral service, Golder’s Green, 18 June 1917.

(ix) A silvered-bronze memorial plaque with embossed central R.E. badge and motto, and ‘Thomas Colclough Watson, Lieut. Col., V.C., R.E.’ engraved above, and the dates ‘1888’ and ‘1917’ below, together with an old pair of silver cufflinks.

(x) And an Indian dagger, with decorated steel blade, and ivory grip, in its brown leather scabbard.