William Neilson Hall: Victoria Cross Recipient | The Canadian Encyclopedia


William Neilson Hall: Victoria Cross Recipient

The following article is an editorial written by The Canadian Encyclopedia staff. Editorials are not usually updated.

"For most conspicuous bravery or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy." Such dry words to describe the courage and daring ascribed to the Victoria Cross (VC), the Commonwealth's highest decoration for bravery.

William Neilson Hall
Born in Horton Bluff, NS, Hall was the first black, the first Nova Scotian, and the first Canadian naval recipient of the Victoria Cross (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-18743).

William Neilson Hall, the son of former slaves, received the VC for his actions on behalf of the Crown during the Indian Mutiny. He was the first Canadian naval recipient, the first black and the first Nova Scotian to win the prestigious medal.

Hall was serving in the Far East aboard the HMS Shannon in June 1857 when the Sepoys of the Indian Army of the East India Company mutinied. The insurrection spread rapidly, fuelled by resentment against the colonizing British and sparked into flame by the rumour that the Sepoys' Enfield rifle cartridges were greased with the fat of pigs and cows. Contact with them would destroy the Mohammedan's purity and the Hindu caste.

Nearby British warships were dispatched to Indian ports, the Shannon to Calcutta, where the captain received orders to send men overland to Cawnpore and Lucknow.

Cawnpore, an important military post on the Ganges River, was guarded lightly by the British, its commander, Sir Hugh Wheeler, having faith in the loyalty of his Sepoy troops. The Cawnpore 2nd Cavalry mutinied on June 5. The Sepoys outnumbered the British and quickly gained the advantage. They killed every white person, believing that if all the whites were dead, the British would not retake the city. Help arrived too late.

The Lucknow garrison, under Sir Henry Lawrence, was surrounded by rebels. The British force there was prepared for battle and put up a good fight waiting for reinforcement. Relief columns fighting their way to the garrisons were badgered by Sepoy rebels. The "Shannon Brigade" made its way up the Ganges to Allahabad. They began the arduous overland journey on 2 September, dragging eight ship's guns to take back the garrisons, and suffered many losses. The guns proved useful for fighting their way forward. Each required six men to operate it; each man was numbered, beginning with the officer in charge. If that officer were killed or wounded, number two man would move up into his position, and so on. The system avoided confusion and kept the gun firing.

As the Shannon group advanced toward Cawnpore, the Sepoys' attacks intensified. The naval force was joined in Cawnpore by Sir Colin Campbell and his Highlanders. They began the treacherous 72-km trek to Lucknow, where the British soldiers, women and children had retreated to the Residency and were held down by the Sepoys. Escape was impossible with the narrows streets under rebel control.

They reached Lucknow in November. Campbell needed to take the outer walls and fight his way through the streets to reach the Residency. He launched the main attack from the southeast, where the mutineers' line was disrupted by the jungle. On the west of Lucknow stood a huge mosque, the Shah Najaf, from which issued a deadly hail of musket balls and grenades. The British had to take the mosque, but without scaling ladders and with a 6-metre wall to surmount, they had to breech the walls. They dragged the guns to within 350 metres of the wall, banging shell after shell at it, making little impact. The guns had to move closer.

The sailors dragged the guns up, sustaining heavy casualties in the process. The mosque walls were loopholed in such a way that the naval gunners were safe from fire at a certain point. But every shot from the big guns caused them to recoil back into the fire zone. Soon only Hall and one officer, Lt Thomas Young, who was wounded, were still standing to man their gun. Hall, now Number One on the gun, kept loading and firing, dragging it back after every recoil, over and over. Finally the wall was breached sufficiently to allow a number of Highlanders to scramble through and open the gate to admit the rest of the force. For his heroic actions that November 16, 1857, Hall was awarded the Victoria Cross. He served in the Royal Navy until 1876, then retired in Horton Bluff, NS, where he lived until his death.

In February 2010 Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp honouring Hall's VC.

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