“In Victorian Britain Sir Harry was what we call today an A-List celebrity,” says Pierce Noonan, a partner in Dix Noonan Webb. “He was nicknamed ‘Cupid’ by ladies because of his good looks and even the great military commander Lord Roberts described him as ‘unusually handsome’. But he was equally famed for his bravery, winning the Victoria Cross for saving a comrade from certain death and being mentioned in despatches for every campaign in which he fought. His premature death sent the nation into mourning.”
Sir Harry – at that time a Major - won his VC for saving the life of Second Lieutenant James Hills during the Indian Mutiny in 1857. The two officers were serving in the Bengal Horse Artillery during the siege of Delhi when mounted mutineers launched a surprise attack. Hills charged the enemy single-handed and, after killing and wounding several opponents, was knocked from his horse and had his sword wrenched from his hand. One of the mutineers was about to kill Hills when Sir Harry rushed in and shot his assailant dead. A second man then attacked and wounded Hills and once again Sir Harry intervened, running the attacker through with his sword. A report by Lieutenant Colonel M. Mackenzie, their brigade commander said that the wounded officer “would have no doubt been killed had not Major Tombs rushed in”.
Both Hills and his rescuer were awarded the VC on the recommendation of Mackenzie but only after the latter tore up Sir Harry’s report in which he did not mention his own part in the affair. Instead Mackenzie praised him for his “noble behaviour ......in twice coming to his subaltern’s rescue and on each occasion killing his man”.
Sir Harry was born in Calcutta, the seventh and youngest son of a major-general. He went to the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst when he was just 14 years old and joined the Bengal Artillery in 1841. During the 1840s the British expanded and consolidated their control over India and Sir Harry fought in the Gwalior campaign, the Sutlej War and the Punjab campaign. As well as receiving campaign medals, he was mentioned in despatches for bravery in all of them.
In 1856 he was given command of the 2nd Troop, 1st Brigade Bengal Horse Artillery, which he was to make famous during the Indian Mutiny, after it broke out the following year. In the advance on Delhi during the Mutiny, the troop repeatedly distinguished itself. Sir Harry was at the heart of the fighting, being wounded and having five horses shot under him. Lord Roberts, one of the greatest military commanders of the Victorian age, wrote later that his men “gave him their entire confidence and were ready to follow him anywhere and everywhere”. In addition to the Victoria Cross, Tombs was mentioned in despatches on several occasions for his gallantry during the Mutiny campaign, which ended in 1858.
After returning to England in 1867, he was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath. He married Georgina Stirling, the daughter of an admiral, in 1869 and the couple had two daughters and a son, who died in infancy. The family went back to India in 1871 but there he became ill and in February 1874 he returned to the United Kingdom on sick leave. Told that his illness was incurable he went to live on the Isle of Wight, where he died on 2 August 1874 before he was fifty. He is buried in Carisbrooke cemetery. Queen Victoria constantly inquired after him during his illness and his death was widely mourned. Hills, the man whose life he had saved, wrote: “He was the finest commander I ever served under”. The Tombs Memorial Scholarship for artillery officer cadets was founded. Today there is still a Tombs’ Troop in the Royal Artillery.
His honours and awards are being sold by the family and are expected to fetch £200,000 to £250,000. They are: Victoria Cross, neck badge and breast star of a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, Punniar Star, Sutlej Medal for Moodkee with clasps Ferozeshuhur and Aliwal, Punjab Medal with clasps Chilianwala and Goojerat, Indian Mutiny Medal with clasps Delhi and Lucknow, and India General Service Medal 1854-95 with clasp Bhootan.
Dix Noonan Webb Ltd is one of the world’s leading specialist auctioneers and valuers of coins, tokens, medals, militaria, paper money and jewellery. Established in 1990, the company boasts over 250 years' combined experience in this field and stages regular auctions throughout the year.
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