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

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Date of Auction: 19th - 21st June 2013

Sold for £11,000

Estimate: £8,000 - £10,000

A fine Victorian D.C.M. for hand to hand combat in Afghanistan awarded to Colour Sergeant John Woods, Northumberland Fusiliers, who was recommended for the Victoria Cross and later fought with the Grenadier Guards at Abu Klea, at which battle Colonel Burnaby fell, mortally wounded, into his arms

Distinguished Conduct Medal, V.R. (2027 Cr. Sergt. J. Woods, 1/5th Foot 19th May 1880); Afghanistan 1878-80, no clasp (2027 Colr. Sergt.J. Woods, l.B. 5 Foot); Egypt and Sudan 1882-89, 2 clasps, The Nile 1884-85, Abu Klea (9034 L/Corp. J. Woods, 1/Grenr. Gds.); Khedive’s Star 1884-6, reverse of lower arm impressed (9034, IGG) considerable contact wear and edge bruising therefore fine and better (4) £8000-10000


Previously sold by D.N.W. in October 1993 and June 2007.

D.C.M. recommendation submitted to the Queen, 4 June 1881. The following details were published in the despatch from Brigadier-General J. Doran, dated, Besud, 27 May 1880 (G.G.O. 383/2 July 1880): ‘... a desperate hand to hand fight ensued, in which three Afghans were killed... as soon as the conflict in the courtyard had ended Co. Sergeant Woods with dashing gallantry rushed up the debris and disappeared into the tower, closely followed by Captain Kilgour, and there these two found and slew five desperate men at bay. A finer display of courage cannot well be imagined.'

John Woods was born in the Parish of Benow, Cork, in 1852, and enlisted into the 5th Fusiliers in Glasgow on 18 June 1870, aged 18 years, a carpenter by trade. He was promptly sent to India to serve with the 1st Battalion where he rose to the rank of Sergeant in May 1877. The battalion was engaged during the Afghan War of 1878-80, taking part in various small actions during 1879.

On the 18 May 1880, Head-quarters and 200 men of the 5th Fusiliers, with other details, crossed over the Kabul River into the Besud district, and forming part of the force commanded by Brigadier-General Doran, were engaged in the defeat of the Safis near the village of Beninga on the following day. Twenty-five of the enemy shut themselves up in a tower, and resisted to the last. Several of them made a sortie but were met hand to hand by Col. Rowland, Capt. Kilgour, Colour-Sergt. Woods, and Private Openshaw, and were killed; and five who still remained alive were subsequently despatched, after a desperate encounter in the fort itself, by Capt. Kilgour and Colour-Sergt. Woods, who had charged in to close the conflict. In this affair Colonel Rowland and three men of the regiment were wounded.

In a communication of Major-General R. O. Bright, C.B., Inspector General of Communications Khyber Lines, from Colonel H. C. Wilkinson, Military Secretary to the Commander-in-Chief’s office, dated the 29th July 1880, he was notified that Kilgour and Wood had been recommended for the Victoria Cross, and Openshaw and Longworth for the Distinguished Conduct Medal. However, the Commander-in-Chief refused to confirm these awards. Captain Kilgour received the Brevet of Major and Colour-Sergt. Woods was awarded the D.C.M., as also were privates Openshaw and Longworth. Woods received his medal at a presentation by the Queen at Osborne House on 17 August 1881.

Because of the Victoria Cross recommendation Colour-Sergeant Woods was required to make a statement of his part in the action at Besud which he described in his own words:

‘At the taking of the tower, on the 19th May 1880, myself and Pte Openshaw charged into a small place at the foot of the tower - Pte Openshaw shot one and before he had time to recover himself another of the enemy attacked him and gave him a severe wound on the wrist. Col Rowland got wounded at this time.

‘I also noticed Pte Longworth of the 12th Regiment on my right engaged with the enemy. I saw one of the enemy making a severe cut at him with one of those long knives, and saw he could not parry it. I tried to do so but failed as the knife gave him a severe wound on the shoulder. My sword had got bent a few seconds before this by one of the enemy jumping out of the tower at me. I transfixed him with my sword and the weight of his body bent it in the manner described. I then helped to despatch any of the enemy I saw at the bottom of the tower.

‘I then made a charge for the hole in the tower and was met at the entrance by a fellow I took for one of the priests as he flung a book of the Koran in my face and attacked me at the same time with a hatchet; he flung the hatchet at me but I warded the blow with my rifle. I must have put the sword through his heart, as his death appeared to be instantaneous. After withdrawing my sword my foot slipped and I fell, about four of them caught my sword and tried to drag me in but my rifle was loaded so I pulled the trigger and blew their hands and fingers off. I at once got to my feet and engaged with the nearest fellow. I put my sword through his windpipe and the weight of his body falling before I could withdraw it bent it more and made it useless. I got the fellow’s sword and shield and used that. They then commenced to hurl their rifles at me and one struck me on the forearm and gave a bruise which is rather painful.

‘One fellow fired at me inside, he was kneeling down but fortunately missed me. I thought it had hit Capt Kilgour who was just in the rear of me, I forgot to mention his name before. He was second into the tower and it was not his fault that he was not first and did some splendid work when he did get in. When I first got into the tower I thought there were about twenty of the enemy there, but I could not exactly say. I can’t remember anyone but Capt Kilgour following me into the tower as I was much too occupied with the work that had to be done.’

A few weeks after receiving the D.C.M., Woods went absent without leave for about 3 months. When he returned he was immediately demoted to private and transferred out of the regiment into the Durham Light Infantry, and a month later he moved on to the Grenadier Guards. Woods served in the Nile Campaign with the 1st Bn. Grenadier Guards and, as part of the Guards Camel Regiment, was one of 40 officers and men of the battalion who fought at the battle of Abu Klea. According to the regimental history, ‘Colonel Burnaby, dying in the square, fell back into the arms of Corporal Woods of the Regiment, who had dismounted from his camel.’

Further mention of this incident was published in St George’s Gazette which stated: ‘The other day (26th Aug. 1885) we interviewed Cpl. Woods of the Grenadier Guards (late of the 5th Fus.) who had just returned from the Sudan and heard a most descriptive account of the battle of Abu Klea and the hard work up the Nile. Colonel Burnaby, when he was mortally wounded, fell back into the arms of Cpl. Woods and his last dying words were spoken to him.