I first heard about the Arracan Expedition while researching my last blog about the events at Rorke’s Drift.
I was reading about the events leading up to the battle, and discovered that a private of the 24th Regiment killed at Isandlwana had been awarded the Victoria Cross. It stated that Private William Griffiths had been awarded the Victoria Cross while serving with the 24th Regiment on the Arracan Expedition in the Andaman Islands 1867. Now, I read a lot about the British Empire and the various wars and battles of the time but I had never heard of the Accacan Expedition or the fact that five VCs had been awarded during the expedition. Intrigued, I set out to find more information about the event and try to discover how a Private of the 24th Regiment, who died on the dusty slopes of Isandlwana won his VC in the balmy Indian Ocean.
If you have ever had an image of a paradise island then the Andaman Islands would probably fit that picture. Scattered over 2,500 miles in the Bay of Bengal, 204 islands make up Andamans. Largely untouched by civilization, the natives live as hunter gatherers. Hunting from canoes with nets and four-pronged arrows the natives were noted for there hostility to outsiders. To be honest that hostility was created, not inherent. Arab Slavers, European Merchants and finally British administrators had all contributed to that hostility.
The Andaman Islands first came to the attention of the British in the early 18th Century. British sailors who became shipwrecked were at first treated with kindness but clashes soon occurred when the sailors accused the islanders of theft, a concept alien to the tribes who considered all property as communal. The British established a Penal colony in 1789 but tropical diseases killed most of the inmates and guards within months and it was soon abandoned as the cost in money and lives rocketed. After the collapse of the colony outsiders were no longer welcome and the more war-like Jarawas started killing shipwrecked mariners on sight. As usual with events like this, rumours of cannibalism started to circulate among the British community in India and Ceylon.
During the Indian Mutiny large numbers of shipwrecked soldiers and prisoners were killed and this pushed the British to establish another colony, which remained a death sentence to anyone posted there. This only changed once the swamps were reclaimed which created a healthier climate. This time the British armed the coastal Arioto tribe and used them to control the Jarawas. Given such firepower, the Ariotos proceeded to butcher every Jarawa they could find, further feeding their hated of the British.
In 1867, news came in to the British authorities that some of the crew of the ship Assam Valley had been captured by the Jarawas on Little Andaman Island. A detachment of 3 officers and 100 men of the 24th Regiment of Foot was dispatched from Rangoon on the steamship Arracan to find them.
On the 17th May 1867 the Arracan dropped anchor off Little Andaman. The ship was rife with rumours of murder and cannibalism. Two boats were launched, filled with men from the 24th under the command of Lieutenant Much. They were rowed ashore, one boat carrying 17 men struggling though the pounding surf to reach the beach. The men moved up the beach towards an outcrop of rock where the massacre was believed to have taken place. The other boat moved parallel with them to provide cover fire. As the men approached the outcrop they came under attack from natives firing bow and arrows at them. The men returned fire and kept up their advance with little difficulty. Once amongst the rocks they found a human skull, confirming their worst fears. Deciding to retreat to their boat they stumbled across a further four hastily buried bodies. With arrows falling all around them the men jumped back into their boat and attempted to get off the beach.
As they tried to battle through the raging surf wave after wave crashed into the boat, eventually a large wave smashed into the boat and capsized it. All 17 men were catapulted into the sea, their heavy uniforms and rifles threatening to drag them under, coughing and spluttering the men managed to drag themselves back onto the beach. They now came under renewed attack, arrows pinged of rocks and whistled past their heads as their attackers, embolden by the bedraggled appearance of the men came in closer to finish them off. They were driven away by the combined fire of the men on the beach and the boat but both groups were getting dangerously low on ammunition. It was now imperative to get the men off the beach before they Jarawa returned.
Further boats and rafts were launched from the Arracan in an attempt to rescue the men. In the raging seas, boats and rafts were swamped by large waves or capsized in the surf. One of the boats carried Canadian Medical Officer Campbell Mellis Douglas and four Privates, Private David Bell, from County Down, William Griffiths of County Rosscommon, Dubliner Thomas Murphy and finally James Cooper a stay-maker from Birmingham. Douglas was an accomplished rower and shortly before the expedition had competed in a regatta in Burma.
Launching into heavy seas, they were almost instantly swamped by a large wave. Managing to stay upright they noticed that some of the men had been swept from the raft. With no regard for his own safety, Douglas immediately dived into the raging sea and managed to grab hold of Lt Much, dragging him back to the raft. Much, was then thrown from the raft for a second time and was once again rescued by Douglas, Chief Officer Dunn was also plucked to safety by Douglas. Regaining the boat, Douglas and the four privates again attempted to get past the pounding surf and to reach the men on the beach. It was a huge achievement to reach the beach once but Douglas and his men manged twice, bring all 17 men of the dangerous beach.
With all the men accounted for and the fate of the shipwrecked mariners known, the expedition sailed for Rangoon. The story of the amazing rescue soon reached the ears of the commander-in-Chief in India, Sir William Mansfield. Even though hostile natives were in attendance at the beginning of the action they were not on the beach while Douglas and his men performed their heroics, the officers who had been rescued wanted the men awarded the highest honour. The Victoria Cross had only been created in 1856 and was awarded for the highest gallantry in the face of the enemy so the rescuers shouldn’t of been eligible for it. After pressure from Mansfield and others, Word came though in December 1867 that all 5 men had been awarded the Victoria Cross for Gallantry. The Citation read in part
‘It is stated that Dr Douglas accomplished these trips though the surf to the shore by no ordinary exertion. He stood in the bows of the boat, and worked her in a intrepid and seaman manner, cool to a degree, as if what he was doing then was an ordinary act of everyday life. The four privates acted in an equally cool and collected manner, rowing though the roughest surf when the slightest hesitation or want of pluck on the part of them would have attended with the gravest results. It is reported that seventeen officers and men were thus saved from what must otherwise have been a fearful risk, if not certain death.
It was to be the last occasion that a VC would be awarded for action while not under enemy fire.
Douglas enjoyed a long career in the army and reached the rank of Brigade Surgeon. He died in 1906 at his daughter’s home near Wells, Somerset.
Thomas Murphy emigrated to Philadelphia and died in 1900 aged sixty. James Cooper became a jeweller and died in Birmingham in 1882. David Bell left the army to work at Chatham Dockyards where he died in 1920.
William Griffiths was still a private in 1879 and in January of that year, stood on the dusty slopes of Iswanadana ready to face the hordes of Zulus who were over running his position. There he died with the rest of his battalion, fighting to the last and is buried in a mass grave not far from were he fell.