Victorious Cross

The passing of the last surviving Indian Victoria Cross winner, Umrao Singh, marked the end of an era. Vijay Mohan reports the heroic deeds of other Indian recipients of the award, cherished as an epitome of heroism and bravery.

On October 31, 1914, at Hollebeke, Belgium, Sepoy Khudadad Khan from 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis, was in the machine-gun section of his battalion and was working one of the two guns. The British officer in charge of the detachment had been wounded and the other gun was put out of action by a shell. Sepoy Khudadad Khan, although wounded himself, continued working his gun after all the other five men of the detachment had been killed. He was left by the enemy for dead. He later managed to crawl out and rejoin his unit. For his heroic deeds, he was awarded Britain’s highest medal for valour, the Victoria Cross (VC). At 26, Khudadad, who later rose to the rank of Subedar, became the first native-born Indian to win the medal.

Here began the story of Victoria Crosses won by Indians. A story immortalised by deeds of heroism. A story whose mortal link with the present generation snapped with the passing away of Subedar and Hony Capt Umrao Singh, a resident of Haryana, last month. At 86, Captain Umrao Singh was the last surviving Indian VC winner.

According to Brig Sant Singh (Retd) President of the War Decorated India, an association of Indian gallantry awardees, as many as 40 VCs were awarded to Indian soldiers (including those who later moved to Pakistan) for gallantry in various campaigns around the globe as part of the British Indian Army during the era of the Raj.

Sub Darwan Singh
Sub Darwan Singh

Though the story of Indian VCs started from the battle at Hollebeke, the first Indian soldier to receive the VC was Subedar Darwan Singh Negi of the 1st Battalion of 39th Garhwal Rifles.

According to his citation, when on the night of November 23-24, 1914, near Festubert in France, when the regiment was engaged in retaking and clearing the enemy out of the British trenches, although he had been wounded at two places in the head, and also in the arm, he was one of the first to push round each successive traverse, in the face of severe rifle fire and bomb explosions at close range.

Though Subedar Khan’s actions pre-dated those of Subedar Negi, he was in fact the second recipient of the VC. Subedar’s Negi’s VC is reported to be on display at the Garhwal Rifles Centre at Lansdowne in Uttaranchal. Subedar Khan is said to have retired from the Army before the Partition and settled down in an area that is now in Pakistan.

Though instituted in 1856, the right to receive the VC was extended to Indian native soldiers only in 1912. Till then, the Indian Order of Merit (IOM) was the highest decoration for gallantry that could be awarded to Indian soldiers. This is interesting as the largest number of VCs won in a single day—24—was in India in 1857 at Lucknow during what in India is called as the First War of Independence and the British refer to as the Sepoy Mutiny. All awardees were British.

"The award of the VC to Indian soldiers greatly enhanced their prestige and respect," says Mandeep Bajwa, a Chandigarh-based defence analyst. "The VC is recognised the world over as a symbol of extreme courage and it gave Indian troops their due," he adds. Post-Independence, the VC was replaced by the Param Vir Chakra.

Till date, 1,355 VCs have been awarded. With the death of Capt Umrao Singh, the number of surviving VC winners has come down to just 12. Till he was alive, Capt Umrao Singh was a legend in his home district of Jind in Haryana.

A tribute to women’s bravery

Although no woman has won the VC, a gold representation of the decoration was presented to Mrs. Webber Harris, wife of the Commanding Officer, 104th Bengal Fusiliers, by the officers of the Regiment for her "indomitable pluck" in nursing the men of the Regiment during a cholera outbreak in September 1859. The outbreak was so bad that 27 men died in one night. In post-Independence India, though no woman has been awarded the Param Vir Chakra, Neejra Bhanot, a flight purser with Pan Am was awarded its "peace-time" equivalent, the Ashoka Chakra, for showing extreme courage during a hijack situation.

Double gallantry

Naib-Sub Nand Singh
Naib-Sub Nand Singh

Naib Subedar Nand Singh, who fell on the battlefield on December 12, 1947 is the highest decorated Indian soldier. He was awarded the Victoria Cross in World War II and in 1947 was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra (posthumously), India’s second highest gallantry award, in operations against Pakistani invaders.

At Arakan in Burma, he had single handedly charged and captured three trenches held by the Japanese. Although wounded and the sole survivour of his section, he personally killed seven of the enemy with his rifle bayonet. In Uri, he led his men to evict the enemy from bunkers. Wounded and under heavy fire, he pressed on and engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat, killing five of them. His personal example inspired his men and the enemy fled before their onslaught. He captured the position but as he stood atop the bunker, a burst from an enemy machinegun killed him.

"A few years ago the Punjab Government granted a Class I job to his grandson," Brig K S Kahlon (Retd), former Director Sainik Welfare, Punjab said. "It was as a tribute to the gallant soldier and age-old rules were amended for the same," he added.

All for valour

The Victoria Cross was instituted during the reign of Queen Victoria and is the highest award for gallantry in Britain and the Commonwealth. It was instituted by Royal Warrant in 1856 but was made retrospective to the Autumn of 1854 to cover the period of the Crimean War.

The warrant ordained that the Cross shall only be awarded for most conspicuous bravery, or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy. Later, the warrant was amended to allow award "under circumstances of extreme danger". At least three witnesses must make sworn written statements as to the exact circumstances of the action involved for the citation for award of the VC.

It is described as a Maltese Cross, 1.375 inches wide and dark brown in finish. It is suspended from a crimson ribbon by a horizontal 1.5 inch long bar ornamented with laurels. The words "For Valour" are inscribed in the central roundel of the cross.

The VC is made from the metal of the guns captured by the British from the Russians at Sebastopol, the last great battle of the Crimean War in 1854-55. The metal is kept in the custody of the 15 Regiment Royal Logistic Corps in Donnington and rarely sees the light of theday as it is secured in special vaults. Since its inception, the VC has been made by the same London jewellers, Messrs Hancocks and Co. Its design is attributed to H.H. Armstead, who was working for the jewellers at that time.

Till date 1355 VCs have been awarded. The youngest winners were 15-year olds Andrew Fitzgibbon and Thomas Flinn, while the oldest was 61-year-old William Raynor. Only three men have won the VC twice. These are Arthur Martin-Leake, Noel Chavasse and Charles Upham. There have been three cases where both father and son have received the VC, though in different battles.

He was also a powerful motivating force for youngsters, a large number of whom have joined the forces.

Capt Ganju Lama
Capt Ganju Lama, known as “Tank Killer” by his mates, was awarded the VC during the Burma Campaign in 1944 for destroying two Japanese tanks despite a broken wrist and two other wounds. He then engaged the escaping tank crew. Just a few weeks earlier, he was decorated with the Military Medal for destroying an enemy tank. Though belonging to 7 Gurkha Rifles, which went to Britain after Independence, he opted to remain in India and was absorbed into the newly raised 11 GR.

According to records, Capt Umrao Singh was awarded the VC for fighting off repeated attacks made on his section by the Japanese during the Arakan advance in December 1944. When all ammunition had been expended, Captan Singh closed in upon the enemy by engaging in hand-to-hand fighting. He felled three enemy soldiers before being knocked unconscious. Later, when a counter-attack regained the position, he was found badly wounded beside his gun, with 10 dead Japanese lying around him. He was awarded his VC by King George VI in October 1945. He retired from the Army in 1965.

The VC is arguably the most widely recognised gallantry award in the world and some say, also the most prestigious. In India, which has a chequered history of warfare, not much, however, is known about the gallantry award winners, including post-Independence awards. Unfortunately, in India gallantry award winners do not get public recognition and respect as they do in many other countries where many honours are bequeathed on heroes.

In the United States, for example, the winner of the Medal of Honour, its highest gallantry award, is saluted first by any uniformed person regardless of rank. In Britain, it is always "VC first!" Surviving members of the Victoria Cross Association hold a convention in the United Kingdom once in two years. "A dinner is hosted in their honour by the ruling monarch," Brig Sant Singh said.

Sub Khudadad Khan
Sub Khudadad Khan

"Indian soldiers played a crucial role in both World Wars, but their role is relatively unknown. History taught in schools and colleges makes little reference to wars and battles, both pre and post-Independence in which Indian troops won laurels," says the Brigadier. The most striking example is the epic battle of Saragarhi, fought in 1897 in the mountains of the North-Western Frontier Province.

Etched in military history as one of the five greatest battles ever fought, it is taught in schools of France and figures as one of the eight collective stories on bravery published by UNESCO. Troops of 36th Battalion of the Sikh Regiment (now 4 Sikh), had died defending their post to the last man against an estimated 7,000 tribesmen. All 21 troopers killed were awarded the IOM. Except for a brief mention in history schoolbooks prescribed in Punjab, nowhere does this battle feature in the academic curriculum at the school and college levels.

Indian VCs have been in the public eye in the recent past, after there were reports of them being auctioned off, generally to anonymous buyers. "There are several websites on the Internet where details about auctions are available," Bajwa says. In fact, the Directorate of Sainik Welfare, Punjab, recently cautioned ex-servicemen against buyers and agents posing as representatives of the Army and seeking their medals on the pretext that their regiments wanted these for ceremonial purposes. There have been cases where unsuspecting ex-servicemen have been duped of their hard-earned campaign medals.

The most notable of these auctions was the auction of the VC awarded to Capt Ishar Singh, the first Sikh soldier to win a Victoria Cross. The Cross was reportedly auctioned to an unknown buyer in London in 1998 for £55,000 pounds. This was the third time this VC was auctioned.

Capt Ishar won the VC for extraordinary deeds of valour during a three-hour battle on the North-Western Frontier Province in 1921. Though he was wounded, he captured a Lewis machine gun and shielded the medical officer with his body while the doctor attended to the wounded. Then a sepoy with the 28th Battalion of the Punjab Regiment, he was commended by King George V, who wrote that the "award was well and gallantly won.’’ During his military career, Ishar Singh had won several other decorations. He died in 1963.

He was a resident of Nainwan village in Hoshiarpur. His family members were deeply upset over the VC being "lost" and had made efforts at that time to pool in resources to get the decoration back. While the Sainik Rest House at Hoshiarpur has been named after Ishar Singh, the family has built a small memorial to keep the war hero’s
memory alive.

Earlier this year, there were reports of another Indian Victoria Cross, along with a group of 12 other medals won by Subedar Major Agansing Rai of the 5th Gurkha Rifles, being auctioned for an astounding £115,000. He had won the Victoria Cross during the Battle of Imphal in June 1944. He was decorated for magnificent display of initiative, outstanding bravery and gallant leadership, which so inspired his company that in spite of heavy casualties and a superior enemy force, two important positions were wrestled back from the enemy. The group included the 1939-45 Star and post-Independence medals like the United Nations Medal for Congo.


Last of the ‘Victorians’
Lt-Gen Baljit Singh (retd)

A file photo of Hony Capt Umrao Singh in front of his house in Palara village nearJind in Haryana
A file photo of Hony Capt Umrao Singh in front of his house in Palara village near Jind in Haryana

The 50th anniversary of the end of World War II was one among the several mega-celebrations organised in the UK during the fading years of the last century. The recurrent theme of almost all ceremonies was the hope that the carnage of the battlefield must not be allowed to inflict humanity in the new millennium.

It was appropriate that the Indian contingent to the celebrations would include soldiers decorated with the Victoria Cross, the foremost award for gallantry on the battlefield. Of the 32 Indian awardees of the VC during World War II, only 11 were alive at that time. Four could not take the journey to UK due to old age and illness. That left seven and they were glad to participate.

Despite multiple infirmities through battle injuries and years of frugal rural living, their looks belied the fact that they had entered their seventies. All had the immaculate carriage of proud soldiers even though the six Gorkha war veterans had various grades of flab around their midriffs. The seventh was Subedar and Hony Capt Umrao Singh. Over six-feet tall, of ram-rod stance, flat-bellied and broad chested, he was somehow the cynosure of all eyes. The way he walked up to Queen Elizabeth at the Buckingham Palace, any drill sergeant-major of the Coldstream Guards would be envious of his calibrated and firm strides. Breaking all precedence of the ceremonial ettiquette, the gathering burst into spontaneous applause!

On another occasion when the VC Indians, alighting at the car-park, walked past the formidable bear-skin helmeted guardsmen to enter the Buckingham Palace fore-court, John Major, the Prime Minister happened to drive past them. When from the corner of his eye he caught the sun glint on their VC medals, the Prime Minister had his Bentley halt. He walked up and saluted them all and greeted each with a firm hand shake.

Victoria Cross and other medals awarded to Sub-Maj Aagan Singh Rai, which were auctioned in London recently for £115,000
Victoria Cross and other medals awarded to Sub-Maj Aagan Singh Rai, which were auctioned in London recently for £115,000

Dismissing his car, John Major escorted them to the venue of the function. Striking conversation through his aide*, he enquired if the war veterans had any hardships which needed attention. Umrao Singh was prompt to state that when he first drew his VC allowance in 1946, the currency exchange rate was Rs 2 to £1. Now 50 years later, the allowance handed out to him was at the same old exchange rate. Is not that unjust, he enquired? John Major was visibly upset at this revelation and in all seriousness said that this must be the gravest of all bureaucratic lapses for which Her Majesty’s Government holds itself fully accountable.

A week later, when Umrao and his VC companion alighted the air-liner at New Delhi, they were received by an officer from the British High Commission with the news that with immediate effect their VC allowance will be admitted to them at the prevailing currency exchange rate or the next higher rate but never lower than that day’s.

But how and why did we in India allow this injustice to pass for full 50 years? In UK if a man (nationality notwithstanding) with a VC or MC pinned on chest were to walk out, chances are that five out of 10 passers-by would halt in mid-stride, smile and nod in salutation. In India even though righteous wars and warriors have been glorified by the gods through the epic Mahabharata, yet not one in 1,000 will know what a PVC, MVC or VrC look like, leave alone greet its wearer.

Six months later in March 1996 Christopher Thomas, the South Asia correspondent of The Times (London) drove to Umrao Singh’s home at Village Palra (Jhajjar district, Haryana) with the news that Her Majesty’s Government had enhanced the VC annual allowance from £100.00 to £1300.00. Obviously, Umrao Singh was astounded with the prospects of this windfall. Recovering his composure, he rushed to his wife Vimla who was frying paranthas on a wood-fire and said: "Now we can live in style."

Inviting Christopher Thomas to sit down on his charpoy, Umrao Singh brought out a bottle of Old Monk rum. Cracking the seal open, he filled two large steel tumblers almost to the brim,. Handing one to Christopher and holding his own in the left hand, Umrao came to attention and giving a smart salute said: "This is for John Major, the Prime Minister of Britain ! He has made me happy and proud." There was a glow on Umrao Singh’s face in the thought that he would now pass his allotted days with the dignity due to a VC soldier.

Well, Umrao Singh the last of the VC veterans of the Indian Army passed away on November 21 2005, on his 86th birthday. He was cremated with full military and state honours. Moments before the pyre was lit, the Army Chief fully bemedalled, saluted his mortal remains.

And that brought to my mind the concluding words from General Douglas Mac Arthur’s speech to a joint session of the US Congress:

"Old soldiers never die; they simply fade away."