Four generations of an Australian family’s history is deeply interwoven with India, including a pivotal connection with the valiant last stand taken by 21 Sikh soldiers in 1897, famously known as the Battle of Saragarhi. Perth-based David Tomlinson is the great-great grandson of Major Charles Des Voeux, the second-in-command of the 36th Sikh regiment, which was involved in that battle. He recently discovered his family’s significant place in history, with an heirloom passed down the generations making a startling revelation about Major Des Voeux – how tuberculosis almost consumed him, years before the Battle of Saragarhi took place!
Born and brought up in Perth, David Tomlinson only recently became aware that his ancestors occupy a special place in history and that two generations of his family have borne witness to the legendary Battle of Saragarhi.
He contacted SBS Punjabi after reading their article published in March this year, saying, “My father is the great grandson of Major Des Voeux, who was actually at the Battle at the time.”
He described memorabilia and family heirlooms that have been passed down the generations, which provide a fresh perspective to this chapter in history.
Included in this, is a scrapbook which contains hand-written notes and news clippings collected by Major Des Voeux during his stay in Australia, and a priceless personal diary written by his daughter Alice.
“I knew of my ancestor Major Des Voeux when my Dad did a family tree a couple of years ago and I saw his name there,” Mr Tomlinson told SBS Punjabi.
The Major had gone on to become a Lieutenant General whilst serving the British army in India, and in 1911, he and his wife Eleanor received an invitation to attend the coronation of George V and Mary in England.
“Dad gave me the original invitation to the coronation, and a photo (of Charles Des Voeux) which I’ve had on my mantelpiece. But I wasn’t really aware of the connection to the Battle at the time.”
Mr Tomlinson has original photographs of not only Charles De Voeux, but those of his wife Eleanor, as well as their daughter Alice – who is his great grandmother.
Major Des Voeux was ‘sent to Australia to die’
“Alice was only six years old when the Battle of Saragarhi took place. Her entire life until then had been spent in India, because her parents moved there in 1891, the year she was born,” says Mr Tomlinson.
Alice Des Voeux’s diary records a child’s perspective of the battle and most astonishingly it reveals that her father had contracted tuberculosis while serving in India in the 1880's and was sent to “Australia to die.”
She writes, “My father, who was in India with his regiment, the then 36th Sikhs contracted tuberculosis, then an incurable disease, and was sent to Australia on a year’s sick, to die, as they thought. However, he became completely well, married and was seconded for another two years on becoming ADI to the Governor. My brother and I were born in Brisbane, and Teresa McGrath became our nurse, returning with us to India when my father went back to his regiment, then in the NW Frontier province.”
Mr Tomlinson reflects on how destiny came into play when Major Des Voeux first came to Australia.
“He was serving in the Indian army in India and contracted Tuberculosis, which at the time was a deadly disease. He was sent to Australia to recover but it seems they didn’t hold too much hope out for that.”
“And yes of course, he recovered and served as an Adjutant in the colonial forces for a number of years. He got married during this period to Eleanor, who was the daughter of the-then Police Commissioner of Queensland. They had two children before going to India in 1891.”
“He certainly had an affinity for India. He lived there earlier and travelled back with his family – obviously destiny had something quite big for him in store.”
Not only did the Major go on to be deeply involved in the Battle of Saragarhi and the Tirah campaign, earning the title ‘Gulistan Bahadur’, but he went on to become a Lieutenant General, leading the 36th Sikhs in other battles.
UK-based Capt. Jay Singh-Sohal is the leading expert on the Battle of Saragarhi, who has written and spoken about it extensively. He told SBS Punjabi "It was a common practice for British officers to be sent to Australia to recover from TB and other diseases that required heat for treatment. If you needed a long period, sometimes up to a year, of constant heat you'd be less likely to get that in Britain or indeed India, but more likely in some parts of Australia."
"So when Charles Des Voeux left India, where he was serving with the Bengal Staff Corps - it was to Queensland where he would find consistent warmth to aid his recovery, with temperatures in Brisbane across the year not usually lower than 20 degrees C. This was much better for him and it clearly helped clear his TB so that he could return to active duty to serve as a Deputy Assistant Adjutant General with the Queensland Defence Force," says Capt Singh-Sohal.
Major Des Voeux’s scrapbook and Alice’s diary
David Tomlinson has the original scrapbook which contains notes hand-written by Major Des Voeux, as well as newspaper clippings from the time he stayed in Australia.
He seems to have begun this scrapbook on 18 July 1884, when he was still a Captain.
“It’s interesting to see his hand writing, and odd newspaper clippings that he collected. He kept adding to it throughout his time in Australia, and he finalised it in 1891. The last thing in the scrapbook is the menu of last meal he shared in Australia with his brother officers, before he left for India,” says Mr Tomlinson.
He is also the current custodian of Alice Des Voeux’s diary, which was obviously written when she was much older. It is a memoir of the time she spent in India as well as at Fort Gulistan, during the Battle of Saragarhi.
Mr Tomlinson says, “It’s wonderful to see her reminiscing about how the officers and men fought”.
Alice’s diary records how the family travelled to the fort, which soon became the theatre of a bloody battle.
She writes, “When I was nearly 7.....in 1897, there were ominous rumours of troubles on the border with the Pathans, a tribe of Afghanistan. However all seemed quiet. We were sent up with a part of the regiment to a fort in the Samana mountains between A (Afghanistan) and Pakistan from Kohat, where we were stationed.”
“We did the long trek up, the soldiers marching, my brother and I on a ponie, and my mother expecting a baby in ‘dandies’ carried on the shoulders of 4 coolies.”
Alice mentions stopping at “the headquarters, known as Fort Lockhart”, before reaching the final destination Fort Cavagnari.
She describes the glorious views as, “The scenery of the mountain ranges was magnificent and the wildflowers beautiful. The place was known as Gulistan, ‘place of flowers’. At first, all was quiet and life very peaceful. My brother and I had great friends among the soldiers and thoroughly enjoyed life.”
References to Battle of Saragarhi in Alice’s diary
Alice Des Voeux, only a child at the time, has described her memories of the events of 1897 rather vividly.
“Our only way of communication with Fort Lockhart was by ‘heliograph’ to a small post about 5 miles away with about 60 of our men, who then helio’d the message on.”
“For a time, life was wonderful. Then as summer wore on, there were rumours of trouble in the frontier. There were Pathan villages near, so far friendly – but in August, the blow struck.”
“I shall never forget the terrible noise, yelling and the cries of the wounded. My brother had to be restrained to the ramparts to watch his favourite orderly firing.”
Alice writes about “hand to hand fighting with rifles, swords and daggers”, and how “a guard at the gate in some extraordinary way ran into the pitched battle” to give “the Sahib his topi” (which she describes as a cork helmet), “without getting touched in some miraculous way and re-entered the fort”.
“This went on for a few days, while messages were helio’d to Fort Lockhart for help,” Alice says in her diary.
“The small intermediate post Saragurri*, was manned by only 65* men of the regiment and no English officer. They fought bravely till the last man. This Sikh, realising that the enemy would get in and take the ammunition, blew up the post and himself as the only alternative.They had fought most bravely – there is a memorial to their memory in Peshawar.”
Alice pays tribute to the bravery of the Sikh soldiers defending the siege at Fort Gulistan. She writes, “We were very short of water as our supply came from a spring nearby. Volunteers used to go out when possible, at night to get it. If caught, they were shot and their bodies burnt, but death in battle is considered an honour to a Sikh.”
Birth of the Des Voeux baby in the middle of the fierce battle
Reflecting on the events away from the battlefield, David Tomlinson says “My great-great grandmother was heavily pregnant at the time with my great grand mother’s then to become baby sister, Violet Samana, who is born on the day of the battle. I would say, that would’ve been quite a stressful day, having upto 10,000 people attacking the fort and being in labour.”
However, Alice’s diary says there was “no panic” when the baby was delivered.
She writes, “Teasie (Teresa McGrath, the nurse) was helping to nurse the wounded, look after us, my mother and prepare for the coming of the baby. It was said she never rested or slept.”
Alice says when labour began, “my mother was perfectly calm and all went well.”
“The new baby, was called Violet Samana (after the place she was born in). After a year we all went home to England – our father recommended our nurse for a decoration and she was given the Royal Red Cross, the only children’s nurse I believe ever to be given it. She was sent to Windsor Castle to be given it by Queen Victoria.”
Teresa McGrath’s ‘healing touch’
David Tomlinson is amazed by the details recorded by his great grandmother Alice Des Voeux. “What I found particularly interesting are her anecdotes about her nurse Teresa McGrath, who was in the fort at the time. She called her Teasie and she was clearly her favourite person in the world.”
Alice recounts how the local Pathans thought Teresa McGrath “had a healing touch”.
In an anecdote she describes a tense situation when there was firing close by and the orderly moved her brother and her to a safe room in the fort. The nurse, Teresa McGrath was unaware of this and mistakenly thought the children were lost.
She went, “in a panic to the nearest village to find us,” writes Alice.
‘By the time the firing had started but undeterred she faced the villagers, and in her poor Hindustani demanded our return. They understood and pointed to the fort to make her realise we were safe. She was untouched and allowed to search their huts. She returned to find us safe in the fort. Why was she not taken hostage? Much later we heard that before the trouble started, she helped to look after sick Pathan children and they considered she had the healing touch.”
Historian Capt Jay Singh-Sohal also emphasises the role played by this Australian nurse, who was actually an orphan from Brisbane, who had accompanied the Des Voeux family to India.
"The role of the children's nurse Teresa McGrath must not be overlooked, she not only looked after the children but helped deliver a baby AND saw to the wounded Sikhs at Gulistan. She was presented the Royal Red Cross medal at Windsor Castle in May 1899, by Queen Victoria who wrote in her diary that she "behaved most heroically," he says.
Generations of this Australian family has deep connections with India, Sikhs and Saragarhi
After Eleanor Des Voeux left Brisbane in 1891, the family didn’t have any connection with Australia for a few generations.
David Tomlinson’s father Robin was born in India, going to England soon after for his early education.
“My grandfather (father’s father ) lived in India during WWII. He was an officer in the Gurkha regiment who fought in the Japanese or eastern theatres during the second World War.”
“My father was born during the War in pre-partition India, in what is now Pakistan. He grew up there and has fond memories of living in India. He was sent off to boarding school in England at an early age”, says Mr Tomlinson.
“Charles Des Voeux had died in 1911 and my great-great grandmother was widowed relatively young. Dad was sent to live with his grandmother Alice and great grandmother Lady Eleanor when he was 5-6 years old. They effectively raised him until he was old enough to go to boarding school.”
“Dad speaks very fondly of them and looked up to them as role models.”
Alice Des Voeux went on to marry Robert Stuart Proudlock in India, who later became the acting CEO of Indian Railways at the time of India’s partition in 1947. Their daughter Shiela was born in India, educated in England and married in India to Lt Colonel Basil Tomlinson (David’s grandfather and Robin's father).
Recently, Robin Tomlinson wrote a small booklet ‘The one hundred year journey”, which tells the tale of “six generations of a family that started in Australia, left for England, India and Africa, and came back to Australia 100 years ago."
Says David, “It wasn’t until my Dad a wrote a book on four generations of our family when I saw the anecdote about Saragarhi. Funnily enough, I was aware of the Major and the Battle, but hadn’t connected the two until the last couple of months.”
“I feel very proud that my family had a role in a battle which is of such significant interest to the Sikh community.”
He says, it has spurred him on to know more.
“I’m very very excited to realise that my ancestors were involved in such an important chapter of history.”
“I love history and I’d be quite keen to do as much research as possible and contact people in the Sikh community and maybe overseas, to see what information they may have.”
* NOTE: This seems to be a factual error in what Alice Des Voeux (who was not even seven years old then), was told about the number of Sikh soldiers at Saragarhi post at the time it was attacked, and the spelling of Saragarhi is phonetic, rather than how it is commonly written.