‘My family’s deep connections with Sikhs, Battle of Saragarhi and India‘

Born and brought up in Perth, David Tomlinson only recently became aware that his ancestors occupy a special place in hi...

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.” 

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...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.”...

...“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...

...“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. 

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“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.” 

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‘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.”...

...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."

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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.

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