Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (11 & 12 December 2019)

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Date of Auction: 11th & 12th December 2019

Sold for £19,000

Estimate: £10,000 - £15,000

The Crimean War D.C.M. awarded to Private John ‘Butcher Jack’ Fahey, 17th Lancers, one of the most colourful characters who rode in the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava

Distinguished Conduct Medal, V.R. (John Fahey. 17th Lancers) suspension neatly re-affixed, edge bruising and contact marks, otherwise nearly very fine £10,000-£15,000


Provenance: Fleming Collection 1871; J. Lawson Whalley Collection 1877; Gaskell Collection 1911; Needes Collection 1939; Sotheby’s, March 1975 and March 1986; Christies, November 1989.

Although entitled to the Crimea medal with 4 clasps, this D.C.M. has always been sold as a single medal. The medal rolls give his name as Vahey in every case and indicate that his medal was sent to the Mint to be named [officially impressed]. Some sources state that he is entitled to the Indian Mutiny medal and, whilst he did serve in India, his name does not appear on the Indian Mutiny roll.

The footnote in Whalley’s privately printed catalogues states: ‘John Fahey, generally known as the Balaklava butcher. He was engaged cutting up meat for the messes, when the trumpet, sounding the charge, he sprang on the nearest horse (a Russian), made his way, axe in hand and did terrible execution. In Elliot’s picture of the “Charge of the Six Hundred” he is seen well in front of the 5th Dragoons. This Medal came from the Fleming collection.’

D.C.M. Recommendation dated 19 January 1855.

John Fahey (Vahey, Vey, Veigh) enlisted circa 1839 and served as regimental butcher with the 17th Lancers in the Crimea. On the day of the charge, 25 October, 1855, he was slaughtering for the Commissary and joined his Regiment just prior to the charge of the Light Brigade. According to witness accounts he rode down the valley wielding his butcher’s axe, causing death and mayhem amongst the Russians. He afterwards served in India where he often acted as a grave digger. Whilst on the march from Gwalior to Secunderabad, when the Regiment lost 38 men, Fahey died of cholera, 8 March, 1860, and was buried, with six others, in a grave which he himself had prepared.

The following account by ‘Butcher Jack’ appeared in the contemporary magazine entitled “Soldiering and Scribbling” by Archibald Forbes:

‘It was in the autumn of 1854 that the English and French armies were lying lovingly enough together in front of Sebastopol, that nut which it took them such a time to crack. Our cavalry had a camp of their own upon the hillside near Kadikoi, and the old “Death’s-head and Cross-bones”, to which I belonged, were there among the rest, forming part of the Light Brigade. We had a separate commissary of our own, and handy men were told off from the various corps to act as butchers. I never was backward when there was any work to do; and when some fellows were moping helplessly in the tents, or going sick to hospital, every morning I was knocking about as jolly as a sandboy, doing a job here and one there, and always contriving to get more or less tipsy before nightfall. If you ever drop across any of the old Crimean Light Brigade, just you ask them if they remember “Butcher Jack” of the Lancers, and see what the answer will be. I was as well known in the Brigade as old Cardigan himself, and in my rough-and-tumble way got to be quite a popular character. Indeed, had it not been for my inordinate fondness for the drink, I might have got promotion over and over again. But I used to find my way shoulder-high into the guard-tent pretty regularly once a week, and more than once I only saved the skin of my back by being known as a willing, useful fellow when sober.

One “slaughtering day” at the Commissary we had killed, flayed, and cut up our number of beasts, and there was a lot of rum knocking about, for the Commissary Guard knew how to get at the grog, and were free enough with it among the butchers, for the sake of a nice tender steak. Paddy Heffernan, of the Royals, and I, managed to get as drunk as lords before we found time for a wash, and one of the Commissary-officers came across us while in this state, and clapped us in the guard-tent before you could say “knife.” One place was as good as another to us, so we lay there contented enough all night, taking an occasional tot out of a bottle which Paddy managed to smuggle into the tent where we were confined. It was getting on for morning before we dropped off into a heavy, drunken sleep, out of which the Commander-in-Chief himself would have had a tough job to have roused us. We must have had a long snooze, for it was broad daylight before we were wakened by the loud thundering of a tremendous cannonade close by, making the very tent-poles quiver again. I still felt decidedly muzzy, for Commissary rum, as you would know if you ever got tight on it, is hard stuff to get sober off, yet I managed to pull myself together enough to know where I was, and could give a shrewd guess what all the row was. I sat up with the intention of hearing more about it from some of the guard; but to my surprise there was not a soul in the tent but Paddy and myself, and there was not even a sentry upon the door. So we both got up on end and had a stretch, and then walked coolly out of the guard-tent, only to find the camp utterly deserted, not a man being apparently left in it. Turning into our own tent, we sat down, and over a refresher out of the inexhaustible rum bottle, we tried, in a boozy sort of way, to argue out the position.

From where the camp was we could not see what was going on down in the valley by reason of a low ridge which intercepted the view; but we could tell it must be pretty warm work, from the hot and continuous firing which was being kept up. At last says I to Paddy, “Why the devil should we be out of the fun? Let's go up to the sick horse lines, and see if there be anything left there fit to put one leg in front of another.” “Agreed,” cries he, heartily enough; so I got hold of a butcher's axe for a weapon, and he a sword, and, half-drunk as we were, and just in the condition we had left off killing the night before, we started off for the sick horses. But is was no go for a moment here, for there were but two brutes left, and one of them had a leg like a pillar letter-box, while the other was down on his side, and did not look much like rising again. Determined not to be beaten, we started off on foot, and making our way round by the rear of the staff, who were on the edge of the little ridge, we dodged down into the valley just in the rear of the position of the heavy cavalry.

Fill the pot again, governor, and I may as well tell you it was Balaclava morning, and the heavies had already charged the Russian cavalry, and emptied a good many saddles. Russian horses were galloping about riderless, and Paddy and myself parted company to give chase to a couple of these. With some trouble I captured my one, a tidy little iron-grey nag, which I judged from the saddle and accoutrements must have been an officer's charger. It was easy to see from the state of the saddle that the former rider had been desperately wounded, and the reins too were bloodier than a dainty man would have liked; but I was noways squeamish, and mounted the little horse in a twinkling. The moment I had got my seat, I galloped up to the Heavy Brigade, and formed up coolly on the left flank of the old Royals. They laughed at me as if I had been a clown in a pantomime; and I had not been in position a couple of minutes when up came Johnny Lee, their adjutant, on his old bay mare, at a tearing gallop, and roared to me to “Go to H- out of that.” There's no mistake, I was not much of a credit to them. I was bareheaded, and my hair was like a birch-broom in a fit. I was minus a coat, with my shirt-sleeves turned up to the shoulder, and my shirt, face, and bare hairy arms were all splashed and darkened with blood, which I had picked up at the butchering the day before, and had never wiped off. A pair of long, greasy jack-boots came up to the thigh, and instead of a sword I had the axe over my shoulder at the slope as regimental as you please. The Russian must have ridden very short, for my knees were up to my nose in his stirrups, and so you may imagine that, taking me all in all, I was a hot-looking member, especially if you remember that I was fully halfseas over.

The heavies were in position to support the Light Brigade, which had just got the word to advance. So when the adjutant of the Royals ordered me off I looked straight before me, and saw the light bobs going out to the front at an easy trot, and on the right of the front rank I caught sight of the plumes in the lance hats of my own corps, the old seventeenth. My mind was made up on the instant. Ramming my spurless heels into the ribs of the little Russian horse, I started off in pursuit of the Light Brigade as fast as I could make him go, with shouts of laughter from the heavies ringing behind me, and chased, unsuccessfully by a couple of officers of the Greys, who tried to stop me for decency's sake. As the light bobs were only advancing at the trot, I wasn’t long before I ranged up alongside their right flank, and there was old Nosey, as we used to call Cardigan, well out to the front, and in front of him again was young Nolan of the 15th, with his sword down at the “right engage” already, although we were a long way off any enemy. Just as I came up in line with the flank sergeant of the front rank, who looked sideways at me as if I had been a ghost, Cardigan turned round in his saddle to say a word to the field trumpeter riding at his heels, and then with a wave of his sword went off at score out to the front. In another second, all the trumpets of the brigade sounded the “charge,” and sitting down on our saddles and setting our teeth hard, off we went across the valley as hard as ever horse could lay foot to ground.

Presently we got within range of the devilish Russian battery which was playing right into our teeth, and I saw Nolan, who was a long way out to the front, galloping as if for a wager, toss up his arms, and with a wild shriek fall from his horse. On still, on we went, faster and faster as our horses got excited and warmed to their work, heedless of the torrent of shot that came tearing through us, and stopping for ever many a bold rider. As for myself, what with the drink in me, and the wild excitement of the headlong charge, I went stark mad, and sent the plucky Russian horse ahead at a pace which kept me in line with the very foremost. Nearer and nearer we came to the dreadful battery, which kept vomiting death on, us like a volcano, till I seemed to feel on my cheek the hot air from the cannons mouth. At last we were on it. Half a dozen of us leaped in among the guns at once, and I with one blow of my axe brained a Russian gunner just as he was clapping the linstock to the touch-hole of his piece. With another I split open the head of an officer who was trying to rally the artillery detachment in the rear; and then what of us were left went smack through the stragglers cutting and slashing like fiends, right straight at the column of cavalry drawn up behind the battery.

What happened then, say you? I can't tell you much more than this, that they were round us like a swarm of bees, and we, not more seemingly than a couple of dozen of us to the fore, were hacking and hewing away our hardest, each individual man the centre of a separate melee. I know I never troubled about guards myself, but kept whirling the axe about me, every now and then bringing it down to some purpose; and ever as it fell, the Ruskies gave ground a bit, only to crush denser round me a minute after. Still nothing seemed to touch me. They dursn't come to close quarters with the sword, for the axe had a devil of a long reach; and they dursn't use pistols, for they were too thick themselves. I'm hanged if I don't half think I should have been there till now, had I not chanced to hear above the din a trumpet from somewhere far in the rear sound “Threes about.” Round I wheeled, still thrashing about me like a windmill, slap through the heart of the battery again, knocking over an artilleryman or two as I passed, and presently overtook a small batch of men of various regiments, who under Colonel Sewell of the 8th Hussars, were trying to retreat in some kind of order. I was as sober as a bishop by this time, take my word for it, and I joined them right cheerfully; but the chances of getting back again to our own side of the valley looked very blue. The Russian cavalry were hard on our heels, and we suffered sorely from the devilish battery in our rear, which kept pelting into the thick of us, without much discrimination between friend and foe. The guns on those forts on our left, out of which the cowardly Turks had sneaked, and which had been pounced upon by the Russians were not doing us much good neither, I assure you, and it was for all the world like being between the devil and the deep sea. Soon what little formation we had got was knocked to pieces, and then the word was, “Every man for himself, and God help the hindmost.” A young fellow of the 11th Hussars and myself hung together for a while, both of us trying to make the most of our blown and jaded horses; but at last down he went, his horse shot under him, and himself wounded. As the lad's busby rolled off when his head touched the ground, he gave a look up at me which went to my heart, rough as I was. God pity him, he was little more than a boy, and I had a mother myself once. I was out of the saddle in a twinkling, and had him across the holsters and myself in the seat again only just in time, for the damnable Cossacks were down upon us like so many wolves. Oh! he was a good plucked one, was that little Russian horse; right gamely did he struggle with the double load on his back, and hurrah! here were the heavies at last, and we were safe.

As I was riding to the rear to give the wounded man up to the doctor, I passed close under the staff, who were on the brow of the hill above me, but there was no notice taken of me that I perceived. I rode up to our own camp, and by and by a Sergeant came and made a prisoner of me, for the crime of breaking out of the guard tent when confined thereto-a serious military offence, I can tell you. I wasn't shot for it, though; for next day I was brought in front of Lord Lucan, who was in command of the cavalry, and who told me, that although he had a good mind to try me by court-martial, as, he said, I certainly deserved, he would let me off this time, in consideration of the use I had made of the liberty I had taken, and perhaps he would do more for me if I kept sober. And that's how, sir, I came by this little medal, which is Britain's reward for distinguished conduct in the field. Thank you sir, I'll be sure to drink your health.’

"Butcher Jack" finally met his end during the Indian Mutiny, but this somewhat macabre tale is best described by Fortescue, in his History of The 17th Lancers (1905): “On 10 January 1860, it [the regiment) was ordered to Secunderabad, and proceeded thither by rapid marches under the command of Major White. On the way it lost thirty-eight more men of cholera and other diseases, among them Veigh (Vahey), the butcher of the Balaklava charge, whose end was decidedly tragic. The deaths on the march, of course, entailed the digging of graves for the dead, in which work Veigh [Vahey], who was a strong man and a thirsty soul, always glad to earn a few extra rupees, was particularly zealous. One day when his task of grave-digging was complete he was suddenly struck down by cholera, and in a few hours was buried in the grave which he had made for another. It was his final distinction to have dug his own grave.’