The First of Many - John Tytler VC

One of the most significant donations the Gurkha Museum received in 2021 was a number of papers relating to the military service of the first man to receive a Victoria Cross for service with a Gurkha unit, John Tytler.

During the later stages of the event known as the Indian Mutiny in 1857 and 1858 John Tytler was one of many British officers instrumental in putting down remaining pockets of rebellion. In 1858 Tytler displayed the dash and bravery which would earn him the Victoria Cross, charging ahead of his men and engaging in fierce hand-to-hand combat against a much larger enemy force. However there is much more to his story than his historic VC. He would serve long afterwards as a decorated officer and commander in further conflicts throughout his time in the Indian Army and become a legendary figure in the early history of several Gurkha regiments.

This exhibition aims to celebrate the extraordinary man and collate all we know about his life from 150 years ago whilst looking at the legacy that he leaves behind him.

In the above photo Tytler can be seen seated 2nd from the right.

The History Behind the Hero

Early Life and Military Career

John Adam Tytler was born at Monghyr, Bengal, on 29th October 1825, the third son of Dr John Tytler, a surgeon in the service of the East India Company. In 1837, his father died and he and his mother went to live in Edinburgh, where John attended College. He was also related to the famous Sir Alexander ‘Bukhara’ Burnes, the British political agent who had played a role in the first British Invasion of Afghanistan and who had been killed in Kabul in 1841.

On the recommendation of his father’s old friend. General Sir Jeremiah Bryant, a Director of the East India Company, Tytler was granted a cadetship in the Bengal Infantry on 27th November 1844. The following month he was posted to the 66th Native Infantry and first saw active service on the Peshawar Frontier in 1851 under Sir Colin Campbell. On 27th February 1850, his Regiment became the 66th or Goorkha Regiment of Native Infantry – later to become the 1st King George V’s Own Gurkha Rifles (The Malaun Regiment).Tytler was appointed Adjutant in October 1853.

The photo above shows 4GR Officers circa. 1872 with Tytler sat down third from the left.

The Victoria Cross

During and immediately after the event often referred to as the Indian Mutiny of 1857 Tytler saw service in the hills round Naini Tal. On 17th September 1857, with seventy men of the 66th, he played a major part in the defeat of some one thousand rebel soldiers attacking Haldwani. In early February 1858, the 66th were again deployed at Haldwani against two large rebel forces. On 9th February 1858 Lieutenant Tytler was with five hundred men of the 66th. His force, along with two hundred and ten other infantry, two hundred cavalry, and two six-pounder guns, surprised a rebel force many times larger at Charpura. The next day, two companies of the 66th, under the command of Captain Ross, advanced steadily against the rebel right flank in the face of heavy fire from the enemy guns and it was in this attack that Lieutenant Tytler distinguished himself. The citation in the London Gazette of 24th August 1858 read:

“On the attacking parties approaching the enemy’s position under a heavy fire of round shot, grape, and musketry, on the occasion of the Action at Choorpoorah, on the 10th February last, Lieutenant Tytler dashed on horseback ahead of all, and alone, up to the enemy’s guns, where he remained engaged hand to hand, until they were carried by us; and where he was shot through the left arm, had a spear wound in his chest, and a ball through the right sleeve of his coat. [Letter from Captain C. C.G. Ross, Commanding 66th (Goorkha) Regiment, to Captain Brownlow, Major of Brigade, Kemaon Field Force].”

For this act of valour, Lieutenant Tytler was awarded the Victoria Cross. This VC was the first to be won by an officer of a Goorkha Regiment.

Post Victoria Cross Career

In 1863, Tytler was given command of the 4th Goorkha Regiment, which had been raised in 1857 from a draft of officers and men from the 1st Goorkha Regiment. He remained in command of it for seventeen years and under him the Regiment earned a reputation for being one of the smartest and most accurate regiments in the Indian Army. Ever a soldier, he was twice Mentioned in Despatches, and for services in the Looshai campaign, was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath in 1872.

During the 2nd Anglo-Afghan War he commanded a Brigade on the North West Frontier with the rank of Brigadier General. He was tasked with ensuring the communications to the British forces under General Sir Samuel Browne, regularly leading raids into the local areas to prevent attacks by local Afridi tribal groups. Over the course of the war his health declined, due to years of campaigning and injury, but still placed himself at the disposal of the Viceroy for further service and was placed in charge of a successful expedition against the Zaimusht tribal group. The manouveres of this expedition involved what Tytler would later describe as ‘[moving up] the most difficult [defile] I have ever traversed’, in order to dislodge enemy fighters from their positions. For this expedition he was personally thanked by the Viceroy, (in a telegram sent only two months before Tytlers death).

Despite his military successes Tytler’s health continued to decline and he died from pneumonia whilst on campaign on 14th February 1880 aged 54. Brigadier-General John Tytler thus became the second Gurkha regiment V.C. recipient to die, following the 4th recipient, Captain John Cook, who was killed on operations in Afghanistan in December 1879, barely two months earlier.

(Left) Telegram from the Viceroy of India congratulating Tytler, on Christmas Day several months before Tytler’s death. (Right) The Service Record List of Tytler’s Medals, including his VC.

Legacy

Adam Edwards

Descendant of John Tytler, Adam Edwards only recently found out about his lineage when he was clearing through his parents’ attic. After his very kind donation of many of Tytler’s service papers, we invited him to the Museum to talk about his ancestor and view the medal set that he was awarded.

Poem from the boys of 4th Goorkhas College

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