For his actions on the 30th of April, 1865, Lieutenant James Dundas was awarded the Victoria Cross.
Lieutenant James Dundas from Edinburgh was decorated with the award of the Victoria Cross for gallant conduct in the attack on the blockhouse at Dewan-Giri, in Assam Province, Bhootan. In a “blood and glory” action under “a broiling sun” on the 30th of April, 1865, he and Lieutenant William Trevor simultaneously won the highest British military accolade for conspicuous gallantry. Dundas and Trevor were serving in India during the Bhutan War.
In 1864, a civil war broke out in the Bhutan, located just east of Nepal and the British, wishing to protect their interests, sent a peace mission to restore order. The British mission’s attempts to broker a peace were rejected and, as a consequence, in November, 1864, Britain declared war on Bhutan. The Bhutan tribesmen, armed with matchlocks, bows and arrows, swords, knives and catapults, were no match for the well equipped Anglo-Indian force and were defeated in the space of five months. By the end of April, 1865, it was all over.
In the fighting at Dewan-Giri on the 30th of April, 1865, the main position of the Bhutan strength had been carried in a concerted attack by a force under the command of Major General Tombs, VC, CB. Subsequently, remnants of the enemy party, numbering between one hundred and eighty and two hundred tribesmen, barricaded themselves in the blockhouse. The main body of the Bhutan was in retreat, however, the blockhouse continued to be resolutely defended. The Bhutan men inside the blockhouse knew they were effectively surrounded, cornered and cut off from their comrades, which made their position desperate and led to them fighting all the more stoutly.
The blockhouse had a number of strategically located loopholes, giving plenty of cover and a means of firing upon the British and Sikh soldiers who would have to, of necessity, expose themselves to enemy fire in order to approach the position. Taking the blockhouse was vital to wrapping up the remaining enemy strength and successfully concluding the action. Any delay in doing so might have led to the Bhooteas rallying and returning in an attempt to relieve their comrades. Tombs was not in the mood for any protracted resistance from the Bhutan rebels, because his men had been fighting under a broiling sun, on a very steep and difficult ground, for the best part of three hours. A quick end to the engagement was in order and the anxious Tombs was used to giving orders.
Major General Tombs first spoke to the Sikh soldiers around him, speaking in Hindoostani, and ordered them to swarm up the blockhouse wall. None of these men moved an inch and it was like a scene from ‘Carry on up the Khyber’, with each one looking around as if to say, “Who? Me?” Seeing neither an officer of the storming party near him nor anyone else with appropriate experience, Tombs promptly ordered the two Royal Engineers, Lieutenants Dundas and Trevor, to lead the assault on the blockhouse.
Without more ado, the two men ran forward, pistols at the ready, and climbed the blockhouse wall, which was all of fourteen feet high. This they were able to do, because the only means of firing upon them was through the loopholes in the wall, which meant the inhabitants had only a limited field of fire. So this aspect of the attack wasn’t as dangerous as it might appear, once they got to within a decent distance of the walls.
From the example of Dundas and Trevor, the Sikhs were encouraged to follow, which they did then, with the greatest alacrity. The two Engineers entered the blockhouse head first, through an opening not more than two feet wide, between the top of the wall and the roof. The Sikhs poured through behind them and fighting ensued at close quarters. Notwithstanding the two hundred or so Bhooteas were desperate men, they were no match for the determined assault and the superior weaponry of the Anglo-Indian stormtroopers. Both Dundas and Trevor were wounded and, but for Dundas, Trevor would have lost his life. Just as a Bhutan tribesman was intent on finishing off Trevor, Dundas put a bullet through him and that was the end of that particular Bhutan.
The Victoria Cross was presented to Lieutenant James Dundas, by Major General Fordyce, commanding the Presidency Division, at The Maidan, Calcutta, on the 23rd of March, 1868. The details of Dundas’ and Trevor’s VC citation appeared in the London Gazette of the 31st of December, 1867
James Dundas was born in Edinburgh, on the 10th of September, 1842. He was the son of George Dundas, Lord Manour, and Elizabeth MacKenzie, and lived at Ochtertyre, in Perthshire. Dundas was commissioned into the Bengal Engineers in 1860, and transferred to the Royal Engineer Corps in 1862, when the Bengal Engineers were absolved into the Corps after the re-organisation of the East India Company Army. This amalgamation was carried out in the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny, which took pace in 1857. Dundas was later promoted to Captain in the service of the Royal Engineers. Captain James Dundas was killed in action on the 23rd of December, in 1879. He was killed by a mine, whilst trying to blow up an enemy fort at Sherpur Cantonment, near Kabul, during the Second Afghan War, and he was buried in Seah Sang, Afghanistan.
The Victoria Cross was founded by Royal Warrant on the 29th of January, 1856, and was originally intended to be awarded to members of the Royal Navy and British Army who, serving in the presence of the enemy, should have performed some signal act of valour or devotion to their country. Since its inception, there have been 1,356 VCs awarded to 1,353 individuals. A total of 152 VCs have been awarded to Scots born recipients (or 159 if you count those of direct Scottish descent).