31 January 2011

Three VCs from the New Zealand Wars

Lt Arthur Pickard's VC
The Victoria Cross, the British Empire and Commonwealth's most distinguished award for military valour and heroism, has been awarded over 1300 times since its inception in 1856.  New Zealanders, if they are aware of individual recipients, are probably most familiar with the doubly impressive award of the VC and bar, where the recipient earned not one but two VCs in the course of their gallantry.  This has been awarded only three times in history of the VC, and a New Zealander is one of the three.  The Cantabrian soldier Charles Upham (1908-94) won his first VC during the battle for Crete in May 1941, and his second in Egypt in July 1942 during the 1st Battle of El Alamein.  More recently, attention has been focused on SAS Corporal Bill Apiata, who was awarded the VC for his heroism rescuing a wounded colleague in Afghanistan in 2004.

But there have also been several VCs awarded for military heroism on New Zealand soil.  During the New Zealand Wars, which started as early as 1845 and reached their peak in the first half of the 1860s, the British Army was engaged in combat with Maori across the North Island, and found strong Maori resistance and huge logistical challenges of fighting in an inhospitable, inaccessible environment.  In this setting, key displays of gallantry led to the award of the VC in just about the farthest possible corner of the world.

On a recent visit to the Imperial War Museum in London I explored the top floor for the first time.  This is the home of the Lord Ashcroft Gallery, which is the world's largest collection of VCs.  The gallery, which opened in November 2010, holds 210 VC medals collected by Ashcroft and from the IWM's own collections; the next largest collections are the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, which holds 65, and the National Army Museum in Chelsea, which holds 33.  (Ashcroft, a major Tory donor and controversial tax exile, also has a New Zealand connection - he stepped in to offer a large reward for the return of VC stolen from the National Army Museum in Waiouru in 2007).

Among the multitude of mini-histories of the brave VC recipients I noted several from the New Zealand Wars.  The main quoted text for each is from the Ashcroft Gallery:

Lt Arthur Pickard VC (Royal Artillery, Rangiriri, 20 November 1863)

During an attack on a Maori fort at Rangiriri, Lieutenant Pickard went to help a surgeon tend a wounded soldier.  Later, other wounded men needed help, and no-one else would go.  Pickard repeatedly moved back and forwards under heavy fire, bringing them water.

Arthur Frederick Pickard (1841-80), who received his VC along with his colleague Assistant Surgeon William Temple, later achieved the rank of Colonel, and was awarded the Order of the Bath, the Order of St Stanislaus from Russia and the Austrian Order of Leopold.  Pickard's VC and other medals were owned by a Taranaki private museum exhibitor from 1985, and were sold at auction to Ashcroft's trust in Wellington in August 2002.  The original award ceremony was recorded in a brief mention in the Otago Daily Times of 19 November 1864, reporting a London dispatch dated 25 September.

Sir John McNeill

Lt Col John McNeill VC (107th Regiment, Ohaupo, 30 March 1864)

During the New Zealand Wars, Lieutenant Colonel McNeill was ambushed by 50 Maori.  The private soldier with him fell from his horse as they tried to escape.  McNeill caught the horse and returned to help the man re-mount.  Under fierce attack, they rode for their lives.  

John Carstairs McNeill (1831-1904) was later knighted and achieved the rank of Major General before becoming an equerry to Queen Victoria in his retirement years.  The Daily Southern Cross of 24 October 1864 records the gazetting of McNeill's VC award in London, noting that 'The Queen has been graciously pleased to signify her intention to confer the decoration of the Victoria Cross on the undermentioned officer, whose claim to the same has been submitted for Her Majesty's approval, for his valiant conduct in New Zealand, as recorded against his name'.
McNeill's war medals

Capt Frederick Smith VC (43rd Regiment, Tauranga, 21 June 1864)

At Tauranga, Captain Smith led an attack on a Maori position.  He was hit twice, but carried on, ignoring the bullets.  He was the first to jump down into the rifle pits, where he fought hand-to-hand with the Maoris.  His fierce fighting spurred his men on to victory.

Frederick Augustus Smith (1826-77), an Irishman who also served in the Army during the Crimean War, performed his act of heroism on the final day of the Tauranga Campaign, which sought to cut off aid to Kingite forces in the Waikato.  In the Battle of Ta Ranga, a British patrol discovered a force of about 500 Maori in the early stages of building a new pa.  After obtaining reinforcements, and seeking some meagre revenge after the humiliation of the Battle of Gate Pa on 29 April, the British rushed the incomplete Te Ranga pa and defeated the Maori defenders.  The British inflicted over 100 casualties in the action that earned Smith his VC.

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