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

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Date of Auction: 19th - 21st June 2013

Sold for £10,000

Estimate: £8,000 - £10,000

The Dargai D.C.M. group of four awarded to Colour Sergeant James Mackay, Gordon Highlanders, who was wounded in the thigh storming the heights in this historic Victoria Cross action

Distinguished Conduct Medal, V.R. (Sergt. J. Mackay, Gord. High’rs.); India General Service 1895-1902, 3 clasps, Relief of Chitral 1895, Punjab Frontier 1897-98, Tirah 1897-98 (2465 Sgt. J. Mackay, 1st Bn. Gord. Highrs.); Queen’s South Africa 1899-1902, 5 clasps, Cape Colony, Paardeberg, Driefontein, Johannesburg, Belfast (2465 C.Sgt. J. Mackay, Gordon Highrs.); King’s South Africa 1901-02, 2 clasps, South Africa 1901, South Africa 1902 (2465 Clr.-Sjt. J. Mackay, Gordon Highrs.) light contact marks, otherwise very fine (4) £8000-10000


Ex Ritchie Collection, March 2005.

D.C.M. Recommendation submitted to The Queen, 9 July 1898: 2456 Sergeant James MacKay, 1st Gordon Highlanders, Dargai 20 October, 1897. Two Victoria Crosses and seven Distinguished Conduct Medals were awarded to the Gordon Highlanders for gallantry in this action.

In the autumn of 1897 the Government of India reacted to the unprovoked aggression of the Afridis and Orakzais by mounting an expedition of 44,000 men to enter their summer homelands of Tirah. The expeditionary force was commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir William Lockhart, and the 1st Gordon Highlanders were brigaded with the 1st Dorsets, 1st/2nd Gurkhas, and the 15th Sikhs, to form Brigadier-General Ian Hamilton’s 1st Brigade in Major-General Yeatman-Biggs’ 2nd Division. The brigade marched on 7 October via the Kohat Pass for Shinawri which was reached on the 15th. Hamilton, having met with an accident, was replaced by Brigadier-General Kempster, and the brigade, now styled the ‘Third Brigade, Tirah Field Force’, prepared to resume the advance with the rest of the expedition on the 20th. But it was found that the Alikhels had skilfully, though only lightly, occupied the village of Dargai, perched on a rocky spur forming the western side of the Chagru valley and dominating the road by which Lockhart intended to march.

On the 18th the 2nd Division under Sir Power Palmer, standing in for Yeatman-Biggs who was ill, moved out to dislodge the enemy. Westmacott’s brigade was to engage the enemy in front, while Kempster’s was to make a wide detour and get round on his right flank. After a long a wearisome approach the Gurkhas, Sikh and British infantry swarmed up the steep ascent and took the position at a cost of only two killed and thirteen wounded. During the afternoon however it was decided to abandon the position due to difficulties of supply and water. It was thought that the tribesmen would not follow but as Kempster’s brigade began to withdraw some 4,000 fresh tribesmen, having determined to reinforce the Alikhels, advanced from the Khanki valley and began to closely press the rearguard, killing seven men and wounding thirty-four before the brigade reached camp.

Lockhart felt that the presence of working parties with their strong covering parties improving the road through the Chagru Valley would deter the enemy from reoccupying the Dargai Heights but on the evening of the 19th he received information that some 12,000 of the enemy were in evidence. The 1st and 2nd Divisions were accordingly put under orders to retake the heights next day and thus open the way through the pass into Tirah.

Sir George MacMunn, then a young gunner officer, was an eyewitness: ‘Many hours before dawn on October the 20th in the year of grace 1897 the troops commenced the ascent of the pass. The leading brigade, which was to storm the heights was commanded by Brigadier Kempster ... The Gurkhas were to lead, supported by the Dorsets, and so that the Brigadier should not draw to heavily on his own battalions at that stage, the Derbys were lent him also. From the top of the pass a long narrow ridge connected with the heights, running parallel with them for some hundreds of yards, and then was joined to the foot of the actual cliffs by a narrow neck with steep sides that fell away to the gorges below.

Until this neck was reached the attackers were more or less under cover, but as they emerged on the neck they would be swept by hundreds of rifles posted on the cliffs above. The rest of the division was now crowded on the Chagru Kotal and as far as the eye could see long lines of transport animals stood under their load, and down in the plains below tens of thousands more waiting for the leading troops to clear the way. Three mountain batteries perched on the Kotal ... commenced to bombard the heights ... Then suddenly Colonel Travers and his leading Gurkhas dashed out on to the neck and gained the cover of a mass of overhanging rock. The riflemen above had not expected it, but now hundreds of muzzles were turned on this sole alleyway of the neck that lay below them ... in vain more men tried to join Colonel Travers so that he might attempt to scale the now defiant heights! In vain, officer after officer tried to lead and dribble his men over. A storm of rifle bullets swept them away and the fallen rolled down the precipitous slopes of the neck. The waiting army saw little of the trouble and waxed impatient. The Dorsets came up to give the Gurkhas a lead which they did not in the least want, only to be swept away by the hail of fire from above ... Still the flying bullet down the pass was master and the cold steel and fixed bayonets had no say. The brigadier swore, not at his troops who were doing their best, but at the difficulties which had not been foreseen.’

‘Up on the Kotal the divisional general was much concerned; here was he blocking the movement of the whole army, the hours were slipping away, and he was due to have his division assembled in the Khanki valley that night and pass God-alone-knows how many thousand transport animals over the Kotal too ...’ Indeed all that Yeatman-Biggs could do was to send in more troops, and so the Gordons were ordered up with the 3rd Sikhs. ‘The constant stream of the dead and wounded [who had tried before] ... was not an encouraging sight to the Gordons; while the enemy, full of confidence in the impregnability of their position, were waving their standards, beating their drums, and shouting defiance. On reaching the spot where the Derby’s and Dorsets were, the Highlanders lay under cover while the guns concentrated their fire for three minutes on the summit. When the moment for action came, Colonel Mathias addressed them in these simple and soldier-like words, which sent a thrill not only through his own men but through the whole of the British Empire - “The General says this hill must be taken at all costs - the Gordon Highlanders will take it.”

‘Mathias decided that as it was useless to make the ascent in dribs and drabs, the regiment would advance en masse, reasoning that some would surely reach the crest. After a momentary hush the Highlanders assured their Colonel with a hearty cheer that his confidence in them was not misplaced - “The Gordon Highlanders will advance in close order! Officers and pipers to the front!” The pipe-major swung his plaid and his drones over his shoulder with a magnificent gesture, and struck up “Cock of the North.” and then, with their Colonel at their head as in the days of old, the Highlanders rushed forth and with them the impatient remnants of those who had tried before. Furious volleys swept from above, and many a bullet found its billet on that jostling crowded neck, but nothing could stop the rush.’

The Highlanders swarmed up the steep slope with such determination that the enemy did not wait for the final assault but fled in all directions. In the rush Mackay was unfortunately wounded suffering a gunshot wound in the right side, thereby contributing to the overall casualty figures of four officers and thirty-four men killed and fourteen officers and 147 men wounded. No less than five Victoria Crosses were awarded for the famous but controversial storming of the heights, with two going to the Gordons, on the recommendation of General Yeatman-Biggs, who further brought to the notice of Sir William Lockhart the services of Sergeant Mackay and six other N.C.O’s and men, all of whom received the Distinguished Conduct Medal.