Awards to Civilians from the Collection of John Tamplin

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Date of Auction: 19th September 2003

Sold for £12,000

Estimate: £6,000 - £8,000

The historic pair to Major Sir Louis Cavagnari, K.C.B., C.S.I., Minister and Plenipotentiary at the Court of Kabul, massacred there with his Staff and Escort in September 1879, in defence of the British Residency, an incident which caused outrage and the immediate renewal of hostilities in the Second Afghan War

India General Service 1854-95, 1 clasp, Jowaki 1877-8 (Major P. L. N. Cavagnari, Bengal Staff Corps); Afghanistan 1878-80, 1 clasp, Ali Musjid (Maj. Sir P. L. N. Cavagnari, K.C.B., C.S.I.) obverses a little polished, otherwise good very fine (2) £6000-8000


Pierre Louis Napoleon Cavagnari was born in France on 4 July 1841, eldest son of Major the Count Adolphe Cavagnari, by his marriage with Caroline, daughter of Hugh Lyons Montgomery of Laurencetown, county Down. The Count Cavagnari, belonging to an ancient and noble family of Parma, served with the French forces under the Emperor Napoleon, and subsequently became Private Secretary to Prince Lucien Buonaparte. His son, though born in France, was brought up from an early age in England, and was educated at Christ’s Hospital in London, from 1851 to 1856. Having passed the necessary examinations at Addiscombe, he became a direct cadet of the East India Company on 9 April 1858, and was appointed an Ensign in the 67th Native Infantry on 21 June. Arriving in India on 12 July, he joined the 1st Bengal European Fusiliers and served with that regiment through the Oudh campaign of 1858-59, being present at the capture of five guns from the Nussirabad brigade on 30 October 1858 (Medal).

Promoted to be Lieutenant on 17 March 1860, in July 1861 he was appointed to the Staff Corps, and gazetted an Assistant Commissioner in the Punjab, a post he continued to hold for five years. Possessed of remarkable energy, indomitable courage, and a genial character, he soon acquired distinction in the frontier service, and was ultimately appointed Deputy Commissioner of Kohat.

He held political charge of the Kohat district from April 1866 until May 1877, when he was named Deputy Commissioner of Peshawar. During this period he acted as Chief Political Officer with the Kohat forces under General Keyes in the Bazoti expedition, and was present at the surprise and destruction of the village of Gara on the 27th April 1869. He again served in the same capacity in the Waziri expedition of April 1869, and again in the blockade of the Kohat Pass Afridis in 1875-77.

In the course of these operations his marked ability brought him prominently to the fore, and his name was constantly on the public tongue. Up and down the frontier, from year to year, he added achievement to achievement, till his restless energy became a by-word amongst the turbulent hill-tribes, who were made by him to feel that their mountain strongholds were powerless to shelter them from any due retribution. For the services he rendered he received, on several occasions, the thanks of the Secretary of State for India, the Governor-General and Council, and the Punjab Government. In January 1877, on the Imperial title being proclaimed at Delhi, Cavagnari was appointed a Companion of the Star of India.

In May 1877 Captain Cavagnari was transferred from Kohat to Peshawar; and in the Jowaki expedition of that year he was again to the fore. The Sapiri expedition of February 1878, was, with the consent Of Government, arranged and carried out by him. Its objective was the capture of the principal and leader of the band of robbers who, in December 1875, had attacked and killed several native workmen near the English fort of Abazai, a raid known as the Swat Canal outrage. With this purpose in view, Cavagnari procured fifty men of the Corps of Guides, made a rapid night march, and surprised the object of his search in a mosque in Sapiri, capturing both him and his son. Cavagnari immediately afterwards undertook, too, the Skhakat expedition of February 1878, and the Utman Khel expedition of March of the same year, adding fresh honours to the long roll already acquired by him.

When the despatch of a British mission under Sir Neville Chamberlain to the Amir of Afghanistan, Shere Ali Khan, was decided upon in Spetember 1878, Cavagnari was attached to the staff, and was the officer who interviewed Faiz Mahomed Khan when that official refused to allow the mission to proceed. It was only through the great tact and diplomacy of Cavagnari that the lives of himself and the escort that accompanied him were not sacrificed.

After the death of the Amir in February 1879, and the succession of Yakub Khan to the government of Afghanistan, Cavagnari, in a personal interview with the new ruler, negotiated and signed the treaty of Gandamuck on 26 May 1879. “Although there are certain names not mentioned amongst those who are most conspicuous in the field and in council,” observed the Secretary of State for India, Viscount Cranbrook, in motioning a vote of thanks in the House of Lords to the Army, “still I think your lordships would not feel justified in passing them over, and among them is the name of that distinguished person who negotiated the treaty with the Amir, Major Cavagnari. Before the affairs in Afghanistan, his name was not much known in England, but now it is well known for the intelligence and sagacity which enabled him to bring about the treaty of peace which in less skilful hands might have failed.” In recognition of these important services Cavagnari was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, in the Civil Division, on 19 July 1879.

Cavagnari was not surprisingly selected to proceed to Kabul as Envoy and Minister Plenipotentiary of the British Government to the Court of His Highness the Amir Yakub Khan. Accompanied by a small escort of Guides Cavalry under Lieutenant Wally Hamilton, a dashing young officer who was to be awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry at Fatehabad the previous April, Cavagnari arrived at Kabul to a friendly reception on 24 July 1879, and took up his residence in the Bala Hissar. However, as time went on, relations between the Embassy and the Amir became strained, and the agitation of the general populace held an attitude of menace. To urgent warnings of impending disaster, Cavagnari is reported to have responded: “Keep up your heart, dogs that bark don’t bite.” And to further insistent iterations his reply was characteristic of that man when he said quietly, “They can only kill the three or four of us here and our death will be avenged.”

Despite these warnings, no cause for immediate alarm seems to have been felt at the Embassy, and, even up to the last, the Viceroy of India was able to telegraph to the home Government, “All well at the Kabul Embassy.” Finally, on the morning of the 3rd of September, several of the Afghan regiments mutinied and stormed the citadel where Cavagnari and other members of the embassy were living. It not being possible to mount a successful defence of the Bala Hissar, the men of the escort were withdrawn from their quarters into the main building, Cavagnari himself helping to cut slits for the rifles in the parapet of the roof. The soldiers who had forced their way into the fort soon began firing on the Residency, and Cavagnari is said to have fired the first shot in reply, killing a man in the doorway of the Arsenal. Then more troops, together with ‘all the scum of the city, armed with swords and knives’, streamed into the Bala Hissar.

At about mid-day Cavagnari was wounded in the head by a rifle bullet and appeal was made to the Amir for protection, but made in vain, and after a prolonged and gallant resistance they were overpowered by numbers and all killed with the exception of six men of the Escort. After the firing of the Residency, Cavagnari had been conveyed to the Hammam (bath house) where he and other wounded were tended by Doctor Kelly. There, a final stand was made but eventually the hordes overwhelmed them and Cavagnari was rendered senseless by a sword-cut from behind which clove his head and he was immediately afterwards crushed to death by portions of the burning wall and roof falling in upon him. Shortly afterwards, the door of the Hammam was blown in and the surviving men inside, headed by the gallant Hamilton and Mr Jenkyns, of the Civil Service, rushed out to meet the entering crowd, and died, fighting bravely to the last.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Stafford Northcote, was the first government minister to comment on the deplorable news of the disaster at Kabul when he said: “It is impossible that England can fully appreciate the very serious loss we have sustained by the death of one so eminent, so worthy of our gratitude, as that distinguished man Sir Louis Cavagnari.”

Lady Cavagnari received the personal expression of sympathy of the Queen, who described the death of Sir Louis as “a loss to the nation at large.” In June 1881, she was sent his medal for the Jowaki expedition, and, in July 1883, that for Ali Musjid. Cavagnari’s orders and his Indian Mutiny medal perished with him at Kabul so these two posthumous awards are all that remain to provide a lasting memorial to one of India’s most tragic episodes.

Fictionalised in the best-selling novel by M. M. Kaye, The Far Pavilions became a highly successful television series in 1984, with a star-studded cast including Robert Hardy, Ben Cross, Omar Sharif, and John Gielgud as Cavagnari himself. Sold with extensive research.