Cornet William George Hawtrey Bankes (7th Queen’s Own Hussars) Date of Act of Bravery, 19 March 1858.

Awarded for conspicuous gallantry, in thrice charging a body of infuriated fanatics, who had rushed on the guns employed in shelling a small mud fort in the vicinity of Moosa-Bagh, Lucknow.

In the course of these charges, the young officer was almost cut to pieces. He died of his wounds 18 days later. Cornet William Bankes is the only person who received a VC posthumously in the 19th century.

In early 1858 the 7th (The Queen’s Own) Regiment of (Light) Dragoons was involved in relieving Lucknow, which had been under siege by rebel forces, and by mid-March, the Kaiserbagh Palace and the Residency were recaptured from the rebels. 

Cornet Bankes led a charge against rebel forces during the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58
Cornet Bankes led a charge against rebel forces during the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58

Most of the city was now in British hands and a large number of rebel soldiers retreated to Musa Bagh, an extensive palace complex to the northwest of the city.  

A three-pronged attack was launched to oust the rebels from the palace and the 7th Hussars, including Bankes, immediately became involved in heavy fighting. 

Bankes personally led three charges, killing three of the enemy but in bitter hand-to-hand combat after his final charge, he was unseated from his horse and brutally set upon by rebels wielding tulwars (curved swords), who hacked him to pieces. 

He received 11 separate wounds, many of them truly terrible, and was treated by the surgeon-general himself at the insistence of the commanding general Sir Colin Campbell. 

A report drawn up at the hospital stated that “one leg is lopped off above the knee; the other is nearly severed; one arm is cleft to the bone; the other has gone entirely; and about the body are many slashes”. 

The award appears to have been made largely thanks to the personal intervention of Queen Victoria

As Bankes lay desperately wounded in hospital Queen Victoria heard of his courage and was so deeply moved by his plight that in a letter to The Princess Royal she wrote: “There is a poor young man, of the name Bankes, who has been cut almost to pieces, he fell and was surrounded by a set of fanatics who cut at him, his thigh was nearly severed from his body and so was his arm!”

“Besides six other desperate wounds!”

“He has had his right leg and his right arm amputated and yet they hope he will live”. 

“This is, they say, the pattern of patience and fortitude.” 

Despite all the efforts to save him Bankes died in hospital in Lucknow on April 6, 1858, after contracting blood poisoning. 

Here is an ambrotype of Cornet Bankes VC taken after his mortal wounding with a period obituary attached. He was horribly wounded with both an arm and a leg being amputated. Note the blanket covering his wounds and the pained expression. He is apparently heavily opiated or has, indeed, already passed away.

He was aged just 21 and single.

Related topics

  1. A short history of The 7th Hussars
  2. The Indian Mutiny 1857-59
  3. Object: The Victoria Cross- Cornet WGH Bankes