Fermanagh Winners of the Victoria Cross – Michael Slevin.

Fermanagh Winners of the Victoria Cross – Michael Slevin.

 To date 1,357 Victoria Crosses have been awarded. The award was born in the carnage of the Crimean War, even though hostilities had ceased a good twelve months before the first award was made. The Crimean Campaign was the first war to be covered by regular correspondents, especially by reporters as observant and critical as the Irishman, William Howard Russell of The Times. Under his scrutiny the errors of officers, their prejudices and rigid attitudes, did not go unnoticed. He reported the disgraceful shortages of proper clothing and equipment, the ravages of cholera and typhoid fever, which caused the deaths of 20,000 men against the 3,400 killed in battle during the war. He also reported for the first time the courage and endurance of the ordinary British soldier. When the infantry stormed the heights above the Alma River, when the 93rd formed the ‘thin red line’ at Balaklava, when the Heavy Brigade charged the Russian cavalry and the Light Brigade the Russian guns, Russell watched and reported what he saw to the British public. The British public were given a close hard look at the incompetence of their military leaders.

At the time, the most esteemed award for military prowess in the British Army was the Order of the Bath, but the Bath was awarded only to senior officers. Junior officers and even NCOs might win promotion in the field – or ‘brevet rank’, as this kind of promotion was called. It was also possible to win distinction by being mentioned in the general’s dispatches, but at the outset of the war most of these honours were given to staff officers immediately under the general’s eye and very rarely to the officers actually engaged in front-line action. The common soldier might expect a campaign medal, but this would be issued to every man who took part in the war, whether he had fought bravely or not.

In response to this situation the Distinguished Conduct Medal was instituted for NCOs and privates in 1854. This medal carried a pension and was highly valued but there was a growing awareness of the need for a decoration which would be open to all, regardless of rank and which would more fairly reflect the individual gallantry of men in the front line. A sense of fair play and a genuine admiration for gallant behaviour played a part in the decision to institute a new award, but there may also have been an element of cynicism. Medals are a potent incentive to courage in battle, and they are also cheap.

The French, British allies in the Crimea, already had the Legion d’Honneur (first instituted by Napoleon in 1803) and the Medaille Militaire. The Russians and the Austrians also had awards for gallantry regardless of rank, and so belatedly the British followed their example. In December 1854 an ex-naval officer turned Liberal MP, Captain Thomas Scobell, put a motion before the House of Commons that an ‘Order of Merit’ should be awarded to ‘persons serving in the army or navy for distinguished and prominent personal gallantry…. and to which every grade and individual from the highest to the lowest…. may be admissible’.

The same idea had also occurred to the Secretary of State for War, the Duke of Newcastle. In January 1855 he wrote to Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s husband), reminding him of an earlier conversation. The Duke suggested ‘a new decoration open to all ranks’. ‘It does not seem to me right of politic,’ he wrote, ‘that such deeds of heroism as the war has produced should go unrewarded by any distinctive mark of honour because they are done by privates or officers below the rank of major…. The value attached by soldiers to a little bit of ribbon is such as to render any danger insignificant and any privation light if it can be attained.’ On 29 January the Duke followed up his letter by announcing the new award in a speech in the House of Lords. At about the same time an official memorandum on the subject was circulated within the War Office setting out the details of a cross to be awarded for ‘a signal act of valour in the presence of the enemy’.

The Duke of Newcastle lost his job within a few days of this speech but interest had been aroused. Lord Panmure, the new Secretary of State for War, corresponded with Prince Albert on the subject and the Queen herself was actively involved in the proposals. In a letter to Panmure, Albert made pencil alterations to the draft warrant, which arose from his discussions with the Queen. It had already been decided that the award should carry her name, but the Civil Service’s proposal was the long-winded: ‘the Military Order of Victoria’, Albert put his pencil through this and suggested ‘the Victoria Cross’.

Throughout the document, wherever the word ‘Order’ with its overtones of aristocratic fraternity occurred, Albert applied his pencil. ‘Treat it as a cross granted for distinguished service,’ he noted, ‘which will make it simple and intelligible.’ She also made a significant alteration to the motto, striking out ‘for the brave’ and substituting ‘for valour’, in case anyone should come to the conclusion that the only brave men in a battle were those who won the cross.

From the beginning, however, it had been decided that the new decoration would be made of base metal and the first proof which the Queen received was not at all to her taste. Someone had the thought that it would be fitting to take the bronze for the new medals from Russian guns captured in the Crimea. Accordingly, an engineer went off to Woolwich Barracks, where two 18-pounders were placed at his disposal. Despite the fact that these guns were clearly of antique design and inscribed with very un-Russian characters, nobody pointed out until many years had passed that the ‘VC guns’ were in fact Chinese, not Russian, and may or may not have been anywhere near the Crimea.

Boards of adjudication were set up by the Admiralty and the army, but they took a long time making up their minds who was to receive the new award. Some commanding officers seized upon the opportunity to bring distinction to their regiments by putting dozens of names forward to the selection boards. Others ignored the whole thing. So while the 77th Regiment put forward no fewer than thirty-eight candidates, six regiments offered none at all. Lord Panmure declared that awards should be limited to the present hostilities, the Crimean Campaign. A rather parsimonious pension of £10 a year to each recipient was finally agreed upon, and the slow process of adjudication ground on for a full twelve months.

The Queen made it plain to Lord Panmure that she herself wished to bestow her new award on as many of the recipients as possible. The 26 June 1857 was chosen by the Queen as a suitable day, and that a grand parade should be laid on in Hyde Park and that she would ‘herself’ attend on horseback. Preparations for the great day were made in something of a hurry. The final list of recipients was not published in the London Gazette until 22 June, and Hancock’s had to work around the clock to engrave the names of the recipients on the Crosses. Those destined to receive the award had somehow to be found and rushed up to London, together with detachments of the units in which they had served. Queen Victoria caused some consternation by electing to stay on horseback throughout the ceremony of awarding the sixty-two recipients with the Cross. There is a  legend that the Queen, leaning forward from the saddle, stabbed one of the heroes, Commander Raby, through the chest. The commander, true to the spirit in which he had won the Cross, stood unflinching while his sovereign fastened the pin through his flesh. The other sixty-one seem to have come through the occasion uninjured. The Queen managed to pin on the whole batch in just ten minutes, which does not suggest lengthy conversation, but the whole parade went off extremely well to the rapturous applause of the public.

Prince Albert’s influence was clearly expressed in the terms of the Royal Warrant for the Cross which has survived, with some alterations, to the present day. It was a medal awarded ‘to those officers or men who have served Us in the presence of the Enemy and shall then have performed some signal act of valour or devotion to their country’.

  All of Fermanagh’s winners of the Victoria Cross were awarded them in the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

Corporal Michael Sleavin, Kesh, County Fermanagh.

Corporal Michael Sleavin, a holder of the Victoria Cross and survivor of the Indian Mutiny is buried in Bannagh Catholic Graveyard. He served in the Royal Engineers. He died on the 15th of August 1902. The following is the account of his funeral, which was printed in the Fermanagh Times on August 28th 1902.

The funeral of Michael Slevin V. C. whose death at the age of 76 occurred on the previous Wednesday at his residence, Dromard, near Kesh took place on Saturday 16th and was attended by several of the local gentry and a large portion of the respectable inhabitants of Kesh and the surrounding neighbourhood who, by their presence, testified their respect and esteem for the deserved hero.

Sleavin, though one of the bravest soldiers the British Army has produced for a century, was a man of the most unassuming character, never parading his deeds of fame in India or elsewhere, living very quietly on a farm on the Archdall property and whenever alluding to the heroic part he took in the taking of Jhansi, for which he received the Victoria Cross, always ended by saying, “that in doing a soldier’s part he only did his duty to his Sovereign and Country.”

Sleavin was enlisted for the Royal Artillery in Lowtherstown (Irvinestown) so far back as 1847. Being a mason by trade (it is said of him that at the age of 20 he had already built several houses in Kesh for the late Mr William Archdale) he was soon transferred to the Royal Engineers. He served in that Corps in Bermuda, Mauritius and in India; his entire service in the British Army extending to a period of more than 24 years.

He retired from the services in 1871 with not only a high personal character but, in possession of the India Mutiny Medal with clasp and wearing the highest distinction his Sovereign could confer on him – “For conspicuous valour in the presence of the enemy” namely the Victoria Cross. The history of his behaviour in the presence of the enemy as given by his commanding officer, for which he won the Victoria Cross is here worthy of record.

No 109 of 1858. From Captain John Ballis, Executive Engineer, Jhansi.

TO Lieutenant J.B. Edwards, R.E. Commanding 21st Co Royal Engineers, Gwalior.

Dated Jhansi, 26th October 1858.

Sir,

I reply to your semi-official letter of the 4th inst requesting me to state the circumstances of an act of gallantry performed by Corporal Sleavin 21st Company Royal Engineers, at the capture of Jhansi, I have the honour to forward the following detailed statement for your information

On the failure of the attempt to escelade on the left attack to which I was attached as an assistant field engineer. I proceeded round to the breach and joined the column of the night attack under Brigadier Stewart, which had forced its way to within a short distance of the Palace. In reaching this position the column suffered very severely from the flank fire of the Fort at a point where it had to cross a small open space at the junction of several streets, upon which the enemy’s matchlock men concentrated their fire.

Dr Stack H.M. 86th Regiment was killed there as I reached it, and several other officers and a number of the men had been wounded. It occurred to me that by running a rough parapet across the opening, a direct communications with breach and a safe removal of the wounded would be secured and the line of buildings thus connected would form an advanced parallel of great importance in the event of the enemy (as was to be expected) holding out at the front.

I pointed this out to Capt Coley the Brigade Major and he requested me to put the plan into execution immediately. I directed Corporal Sleavin, 21st Company Royal Engineers who with one or two others of the company was present with the column to commence the construction of the parapet by piling up doors and bedsteads, boxes and such other materials as were obtainable from the surrounding houses so as to afford the required cover.

He commenced at once and the enemy perceiving our intention opened a severe musketry fire upon the spot. Scarce a plank was laid without being struck and frequently perforated by bullets and from the great command the enemy had over us at less than 200 yards distance it was almost impossible to raise the parapet sufficiently to avoid exposure. A Sepoy of the 25th Bombay Native Infantry was shot through the head close to me while pushing forward materials for the sap and several others wounded and I was compelled to substitute continuous rope to carry forward a constant supply of materials to the sap.

Corp Sleavin however who was at the head of the sap and consequently much exposed, maintained his position under this heavy fire with a cool and steady determination worthy of the highest praise and he continued his work until the capture of the Palace had placed the greatest part of the town in our possession and open up a safe line of communication with the camp by the Poncha and other gateways. As there was no longer any necessity for exposing the men at the sap I directed Corporal Sleavin to withdraw and suspend the completion of the work till nightfall.

Capt Coley, Major of Brigade, 1st brigade C.I.F.F and Lieut Gossett C.E. who personally assisted in the construction of the parapet will, I have no doubt, add their testimony in support of this statement and I shall be most gratified with their aid. It may be the means for obtaining for this brave man the due recognition and reward for an act of gallantry unsurpassed, if not unequalled throughout this campaign – I have the honour to be sir,

Your most obedient servant (signed)

John Baillie (Captain) Executive Engineer and Sub Assistant Engineer, Central India Field Force.

It is only right and proper to note that Dr. Stack of the 86th Regiment referred to above as having been killed, was the brother of the present day Bishop of Clogher. He was the surgeon of the Regiment, a man of great height, powerful physique and a brave soldier.

When Sir Hugh Ross (afterwards Lord Strathairn) commanded the column, which took Jhansi the 86th Royal Irish County Down’s formed part of his force. Jhansi was defended by 20,000 rebels under the command of the famous Tantia Topee. The rebel chief advanced with his men with a view to raise the siege while Sir Hugh who was investing the place slipped a way (leaving only a few men behind) quietly on the rebels track and coming up with them close to a river dealt them such a blow as utterly annihilated them leaving most of them dead on the river bank.

In connection with the great victory a recently published history states, “Central India, when much trouble had arisen from the brave and able Ranee or Prince of Jhansi and the very skilful General Tantia Topee, was conquered in a most brilliant campaign conducted in 1858 by Sir Hugh Ross, afterwards Lord Strathairn.”

It was on Sir Hugh’s return to storm the town and citadel that Dr. Stack lost his life. Several of the British troops having been wounded and trying without cover of any kind exposed to the sun and the bullets of the enemy, he set up a medical appliance behind a wall only some 4 feet high and proceeded to deal with the wounded and the other side as well as he could. His C.O. (Stuart) ordered him to retire, but Surgeon Stack refused, saying he would not leave while a single wounded man was unattended. He had got nearly through his work binding up the wounded and making the poor fellows as comfortable as he could under a heavy fire. He had dressed almost the last man and put a knapsack under his head had gone back to his supplies and handed a draught to one of his attendants to give him.

The attendant crept to the gap in the wall, came back and said, Doctor I can’t do it.” Dr. Stack took the cup from the attendant went over to the wall to the wounded man and was in the act of pressing the cup to the lips of the wounded man when he was shot through the heart by a piece of telegraph wire – and so ended the life of a noble soldier, a kind and skilful physician, while another Fermanagh person in the person of Mick Sleavin leads a party of brave fellows who in the face of death rescue Dr. Stack’s body from mutilation by the enemy.

Had Dr. Stacks lived he, no doubt, would have been awarded the Victoria Cross. But his friends have the consolation in the thought that he died doing his duty to his fellow man, while his epitaph is indelibly written on his country’s mind. Dr Stack’s remains lie in Jhansi beneath a beautiful slab of white marble taken from the Ranee’s Palace. Corporal Michael Sleavin was buried in Bannagh Roman Catholic Graveyard in the Civil Parish of Drumkeeran (Tubrid). In recent times a memorial stone was erected over Michael Sleavin in Bannagh Graveyard.

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