The Brian Ritchie Collection of H.E.I.C. and British India Medals

The Brian Ritchie Collection of H.E.I.C. and British India Medals

Brian Ritchie

This last part of Brian Ritchie's impressive collection of Honourable East India Company and British India awards brings to a close the most important sale in its field ever recorded. It will go down as a landmark event and the three superbly illustrated catalogues will forever stand in their own right as an important archive of information.

Having determined on British lndia up to the Great War as his universe and concentrating on the turbulent years of the nineteenth century, Brian Ritchie devoted many years to assembling a selection of decorations and medals that represent all the major campaigns fought within India and along its northern frontiers, as well as the overseas expeditions in which the Indian Army played a significant part.

No single collection of decorations and medals has celebrated the honour and the glory of the imperial Indian Army of the nineteenth century so comprehensively. It tells a story of hard service and stubborn, often recklessly brave fighting, of crushing victories and tragic defeats. It embraces the deeds of officers and men, British and Indian, of all arms. Through its concentration on battles and campaigns rather than on regiments and corps, the collection has achieved a proper balance between the H.E.I.C. Army (later the Indian Army) and the British Army regiments and corps that served in India, the whole being conveniently known as 'The Army in India', united under one Commander in Chief and general staff In the gallery of personalities portrayed in the collection are men of all ranks, British and Indian, some who received the highest honours. Others died with little to remember them by other than an entry in the casualty roll and a medal issued to next of kin.

One of truly remarkable features of the collection is the magisterial selection of sixty-three Army of India medals, encompassing many of the hard fought battles in the early conquest of India. The gallant defence of Seetabuldee is particularly well represented and typifies the sometimes incredible achievements of the old H.E.I.C. army under extremely adverse conditions. It was a turbulent time for the British throughout Mahratta country. and the small garrison at Nagpore was threatened by an encroaching army of Mahrattas and Pindarries under the influence of the disgruntled Bhonsla Appa Sahib estimated at upwards of twenty thousand troops of all arms. The British resident Sir Richard Jenkins (Ritchie 2-13) wisely tried to improve his precarious position by moving out to occupy a position astride two nearby hills at a place called Seetabuldee. The small band of desperate men, like the defenders of Rorke's Drift, was isolated and facing a fierce enemy at hugely unequal odds. There were less than 1,500 of them, including Bengal and Madras sepoys and three troops of 6th Bengal Light Cavalry commanded by Captain Charles FitzGerald (Ritchie 1-36). At sunset on 26 November the Bhonsla's troops attacked. The fighting raged for nearly eighteen hours until noon the following day. The infantry fought like demons. After eleven hours of continuous fighting the Madras sepoys were overwhelmed on the lower slopes of the smaller hill and forced to retire behind a breastwork of grain bags on top of the larger hill. Amongst these exhausted men was Lieutenant Lewis Watson, 1-24th Madras Native Infantry (Ritchie 1-31), whose battalion suffered one hundred and forty-nine casualties before the battle was over. At this stage it seemed that the entire force was doomed. Suddenly the highly disciplined troopers of the 6th Bengal Light Cavalry, in their French grey uniforms with orange facings and white lace, were given their chance. Sabres flashing, their mounts a match for anything the Mahrattas could field, FitzGerald led them in a headlong charge against the enemy cavalry and 'scattered it like a whirlwind'. With the troopers rode Prosad Sing (Ritchie 2-11) whose medal is one of no more than seven known to have been issued with the rare 'Seetabuldee' clasp Lieutenant John Hearsey (Ritchie 2-12) turned off with a half troop and charged a battery of 12-pounders that was enfilading the British breastwork. The tide was thus turned, and Captain William Lloyd (Ritchie 3-18), leading the Resident's Escort of two companies of Bengal Army sepoys and with elements of the 1/20th and 1/24th Madras Native Infantry, counter-attacked the Bhonsla's troops, driving them right off the smaller hill. Lloyd survived four gunshot wounds, two of them severe, and only nineteen days later he was again in action at the ensuing battle of Nagpore.

The history of military and political incompetence that led to the destruction of the British army in Kabul in October 1841 has been well documented. This disastrous defeat, which did untold damage to British prestige and ultimately encouraged the Sikh Khalsa to challenge the British in military conflict, had its origins in the failure of the politicians to understand the enormity of the task confronting an army of occupation in such a wild and distant land. 'They overlooked that elementary truth: you can do almost anything with bayonets except sit on them.' No doubt Sergeant Major Brown of H.M's 13th Somerset Light Infantry (Ritchie 2-25) would have agreed. His unique group includes medals for Chuznee, Jellalabad and Kabul that bear witness to the services of a hard-fighting foot soldier. He saw this difficult and unhappy campaign through from the very beginning at the storming of Chuznee in July 1839 to its inexorable end in the final retirement from Kabul in November 1842 and he may have wondered why exactly he had ever crossed the Afghan border. Yet there was scope for keen and ambitious officers to demonstrate their competence and thus further their careers. Upon the shoulders of Captain Augustus Abbot of the Bengal Artillery (Ritchie 1-58) fell the vital task of commanding the artillery during the five-month siege of Jellalabad from November 1841 to March 1842. He was not content merely to construct the batteries and sight his guns. Like so many of his fellow officers, he was determined to get involved wherever there was the chance of some action. During one of several sorties he received a shot in the chest from an Afghan jezail, but it did not keep him off his feet for more than a day.

None of the major campaigns fought in India during the 1840s have escaped Brian Ritchie's attention. There are single medals and groups to officers and other ranks who fought in China, against the unruly Amirs of Sind in the battles of Meeanee and Hyderabad and at the end of that same year at Maharajpore when, on the pretext of protecting the borders of British India, an H.E.I.C. army entered Gwalior and finished off the Mahratta nation as a fighting force once and for all. Two years later it was the turn of the Sikh Khalsa but here it was not such an easy task.

Out of the confusion following the demise of the mighty Ranjit Singh, the Sikh Khalsa army, which was a sort of military fraternity as well as a mighty army, emerged as the dominant political force. It perceived the British army as its main rival-and the feeling was mutual. There have been exaggerated estimates of the size of the Khalsa Army, although its numbers were probably not far short of 40,000 including irregulars. It possessed a fine modern artillery park of 200 guns manned mainly by Mohammedans and had received intensive training from European advisers, including French artillery experts. Drill was patterned on the French army, and words of command were given in French. The available Anglo-Indian army was close to being an equal match in numbers with 35,000 men, although its artillery strength was significantly smaller, both in number, about 100 guns, and in calibre. The contest that came to be known as the Sutlej Campaign, or 1st Sikh War, opened at Moodkee on 18 December 1845, where the Sikhs aggressively attacked Gough's tired troops who had just arrived in camp after marching over 100 difficult miles in five days. The battle commenced with a heavy artillery duel and by the time Major General Sir John McCaskill (Ritchie 2-32), commanding the 3rd Infantry Brigade on the left of Cough's advance, had progressed through the British gun line, the air was thick with dust and visibility was almost zero. The Sikh artillery fire was accurate-but this was not the only danger facing McCaskill's division. Behind him some Bengal Infantry regiments had become confused and were firing indiscriminately-some of their firing was causing casualties amongst his men. This was the scene when McCaskill, gallantly leading his men through the fog of battle, was hit in the chest by grapeshot and killed. Timely British cavalry charges on both flanks foiled any Sikh attempts at envelopment with their numerically superior cavalry, and in the end the British infantry won the day.

Casualties at Moodkee were severe on both sides, a pattern that was common to the four major battles of the Sutlej Campaign. The medal awarded to Private George Turner of H.M's 50th (West Kent) Regiment of Foot (Ritchie 2-36) demonstrates his presence in all these sanguine affairs. His regiment fought in Sir Harry Smith's division and was well acclimatised to conditions in the east, having served in Burma and India for the previous five years following a long spell in New South Wales. A typically tough foot soldier of his time, Private Turner was wounded at Ferozeshuhur on 22 December 1842, but this did not prevent him from being back in the ranks for the battle of Aliwal on 28 January 1846 when his regiment particularly distinguished itself. Likewise, his comrade in the same regiment, Sergeant-Major John Cantwell (Ritchie 3-48), who was killed in action at Sobraon at the moment of victory, having captured a Sikh standard

The heavy defeat at Sobraon on 10 February 1846, where the Sikhs lost a third of their number and sixty-seven guns, brought the Khalsa to its knees. The British army crossed the Sutlej river and marched to Lahore, where the Lahore Durbar met the Governor General of India to negotiate a peace treaty that lasted for little more than two years. The battles of the subsequent Punjab Campaign in 1848-49, also known as the 2nd Sikh War, are all featured in the collection, with the Punjab medal typically in long service groups such as the fine set of medals to Major General Henry Francis of the Bengal Artillery (Ritchie 1-37), whose field service included both Sikh wars, the Crimea and the Indian Mutiny. At Goojerat in February 1849 he galloped his horse artillery troop three-quarters of a mile ahead of the British line and commenced a punishing half-hour duel with the Sikh artillery. Later in the battle he took two guns through the lines of the hard pressed 32nd Foot and, confronting some 3,000 Sikh infantry 400 yards ahead of him, unlimbered and poured 38 rounds of canister into their midst. Later Francis intervened in a hand-to-hand contest between his troop sergeant and a cornered Sikh whom he first hit over the head. Then, jumping down from his saddle, he ran round him and 'gave him the point', throwing him off balance. He tried the take the unfortunate man into custody, but the enraged gunners pounced on him and killed him. Little quarter was given on either side in these hotly contested battles.

In 1856 the Shah of Persia invaded Afghanistan, precipitating the Persian Expedition mounted by a joint force of Queen's and H.E.I.C.'s Bombay troops in more or less equal numbers. After first capturing the old Dutch port of Reshire on the south coast and then dealing with the heavily defended town of Bushire with remarkable ease, the army under Major General Sir James Outram marched into the interior in search of the Persian army. The extraordinary events that then unfolded have some prominence in the Ritchie collection. At first light on 8 February 1857, as the early mist cleared, the Persians were found at Khooshab, formed up in classic infantry squares. Seeing that the opening salvoes of the Bombay Arlillery were disturbing the Persian infantry, the cavalry charged. It was an impetuous decision and, as it turned out, the right one. It was taken without getting clearance from Outram who, by this time, had been knocked unconscious by a fall from his horse. It seems that Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Tapp (Ritchie 3-63), commanding the Poona Irregular Horse and the senior cavalry officer present, acted entirely on his own initiative. Without waiting for the 3rd Bombay Light Cavalry, or even signalling what he was doing, he took off with his irregulars and headed straight for the nearest section of the Persian line-an infantry square formed by eight hundred of the 1st Khusgai Regiment of Fars. As the Poona Horse approached the square, the mist now mingled with gun smoke, adrenaline pumping though their veins, the order to charge was given. Warriors to the core, living their lives for the opportunity to find glory on the field of battle, this frightening phalanx smashed into the Persian square, riding their horses into the crouching infantrymen, razor-sharp sabres cutting and slashing. Within minutes the square no longer retained any semblance of order. It was a matter of sauve qui peut. In the meantime, having been left by Tapp to establish its own objectives, the Bombay Cavalry selected the square formed by nine hundred men of the Persian Imperial Guard. Lieutenant Arthur Moore, who was awarded the VC for this action (Ritchie 1-75), was arguably the first, by a horse's length, to reach the square. He literally jumped his horse on top of the bayonets of the terrified guardsmen. He was followed into the square by his elder brother, Lieutenant Ross Moore (Ritchie 1-76). At six foot seven inches tall and weighing all of eighteen stone he must have been a formidable figure. In no time the square had been completely destroyed, a feat generally considered impossible - particularly for light cavalry. Both brothers survived the battle. Sir James Outram generously recommended no less than fourteen VC awards for Khooshab. In the event, two were awarded, both to the 3rd Bombay Light Cavalry, together with four admissions to the Order of Merit, all to the Poona Irregular Horse.

The Indian Mutiny marked a turning point in the history of British India, and it also heralded the end of the old H.E.I.C. army. It is natural that the dramatic events that took place between 1857 and 1859 feature very significantly in Brian Ritchie's collection, encompassing as they did several major campaigns covering huge tracts of land in dreadful climatic conditions and involving vast resources of men and materials. There arc more than one hundred Indian Mutiny medals of exceptional quality and interest, including no less than thirty with the coveted Defence of Lucknow clasp awarded to the original defenders of the Residency compound. Of the four VCs in the collection, two were granted for gallantry during the Mutiny including the outstanding award to Lieutenant (later General Sir) Deghton Probyn of the 2nd Punjab Cavalry (Ritchie 3-123) for several acts of bravery. On one occasion he singled out an enemy standard bearer and, under the noses of several of his comrades, killed him and captured the standard. Becoming an important and trusted member of the Royal Household, Probyn faithfully served his crown and country till his death, assembling in the process what must be the greatest array of orders and decorations of any VC winner. He was the only holder outside the Royal family of the highest grade of the Order of the Bath in both the civil and military divisions. Of great historical importance is the magnificent and exceptionally rare 1st Class Order of Merit group to Risaldar Maun Singh of Hodson's Horse (Ritchie 3-70). Immediately after the fall of Delhi, he was the senior Indian officer with the squadron sent out with Captain William Hodson and Lieutenant McDowell to apprehend the King of Delhi and his retinue. The subsequent assassination of the two Delhi princes by Hodson remains one of the most controversial episodes of the Mutiny campaign.

The loss of life on either side was frequently brutal. The tragedy that overcame the British garrison defending the entrenchment at Cawnpore is brought home by simple no-clasp Mutiny medals to six casualties including Captain John Moore, commanding the detachment of H.M.'s 32nd Light Infantry (Ritchie 3-67) and Lieutenant Francis Wren of the 2nd Bengal Light Cavalry (Ritchie 7-82). Victims of the treachery of Nana Sahib, whose promise of safe conduct for the refugees was wantonly abused, they were amongst the many unfortunates slaughtered in the Ganges at Satichaura ghat on 27 June 1857. Lieutenant Frederick Saunders of H.M's 84th Foot (Ritchie 2-48), having escaped death in the river, was captured and taken before Nana Sahib. The gallant Lieutenant had managed to conceal his revolver and attempted to assassinate the Nana with it. He failed, although five rebels were shot down before he was overwhelmed. His reward was a slow and terrible death.

There were plenty of opportunities for field service during the turbulent years of imperial policing along the wild frontiers of India and overseas in Burma, China and Abyssinia, Egypt and the Sudan. These campaigns have all been recognised by Brian Ritchie and there are important medals and groups to the soldiers of all armies who fought in them. However, particular attention has been paid to the disaster that overcame General Burrow's Girishk Field Force at Maiwand on 27 July 1880, during the second phase of the Afghanistan War of 1878-80. The officers and men who died in this terrible defeat have always been considered amongst the bravest of the brave. They sold their lives dearly and their medals are rare and highly coveted. One of the major achievements of the Ritchie collections is that thirteen of them are assembled in the three catalogues. They include the highly evocative award to Lieutenant Richard Chute of H.M.'s 66th Foot (Ritchie 2-100), killed in the famous stand of the 'Last Eleven' when only two officers and nine other ranks were left alive on the field of battle. Surrounded by the whole of the Afghan army, they were defending a quite hopeless position in a walled garden. They refused to surrender, choosing to fight to the last out in the open rather than being boxed in by mud walls. They charged out of the garden and died with their faces towards the enemy. Such was the nature of their charge and the grandeur of their bearing, that although the whole of the ghazis were assembled around them, no-one dared approach to cut them down. Thus, standing in the open, bad to back, every shot telling, surrounded by thousands, these officers and men died; and it was not until the last man was shot down that the ghazis dared advance on them. Another important casualty was Major George Blackwood, commanding E Battery B Brigade Royal Horse Artillery (Ritchie 1-1 20), who was wounded early on at Maiwand and killed in the walled garden sometime before Lieutenant Chute. A fortunate survivor who managed to retire from Maiwand was Battery Sergeant Major William Paton, senior NCO of E/B Royal Horse Artillery (Ritchie 2-95), one of three Maiwand DCMs that feature in the collection.

There are many examples of the first two India General Service medals spanning the period 1854 to 1902, with one or more of all but one (Lushai 1889-92] of the total thirty-one clasps issued for the campaigns and expeditions commemorated by the two medals. Many of the clasps were awarded for service across the wild northwest frontier region when the Great Game was at its most intense. In 1895 a small garrison of Indian Army and Kashmir Imperial Service troops was trapped in the remote fort at Chitral and closely besieged for six weeks. The two rare bronze medals awarded to non-combatants who served in the defence of Chitral, Dhooly Bearer Narig Narsimloo of the Transport Department (Ritchie 3-1 27) and Bhisti [water carrier] Galhodu of the 4th Kashmir Rifles (Ritchie 2-7 7 7), take their place proudly alongside the fine Order of Merit to Naik Lal Singh of the 4th Kashmir Rifles (Ritchie 3-1 79), whose unusually complete group includes the recipient's India General Service and Jumoo-Kashmir medals. Great efforts were made to relieve the garrison, and this was not accomplished without severe loss. A column fighting its way there was ambushed and decimated at the Koragh Defile on 10 March 1895 and the Order of Merit group of medals to Havildar Sundar Singh of the 14th Sikhs (Ritchie 2-772), one of the few survivors of this costly set-back, has an important place in the collection.

From the exceptional six-clasp Army of India medal for the Mahratta wars awarded to Major John Greenstreet of the H.E.I.C.'s 15th Bengal Native Infantry (Ritchie 2-5), and the historically important group of orders and medals Lo Sir James Hope Grant, brilliant Mutiny general and eventual C-in-C of the North China Expeditionary Force in 1860 (Ritchie 1-110), to the stirring Dargai Heights DCM group of the gallant Gordon Highlander, Colour Sergeant James Mackay (Ritchie 2-7 23) and the more modest yet rare and honourable group of five bronze and silver medals to Mate Laloo of the Army Bearer Corps (Ritchie 2-118), the Ritchie collection enables the historian and the collector alike to study and admire the military achievements of an array of personalities who were the heart and soul of the imperial British and Indian armies at the zenith of their power and prestige. Above all, it demonstrates how vividly the field of military endeavour can be brought to life through the collection and research of medals. I doubt we shall see its like again.