Colour Sergeant George Waller earned his VC in India, and then returned home to become instructor for the Cuckfield volunteer battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment. His army record is impressive and he was a highly professional soldier who lead by example. Today his grave can be found in the graveyard at the Holy Trinity Church, Hurstpierpoint and every year his grave is marked with a wreath on Remembrance Day.
George Waller (1827-1877) was born at West Horsley, Surrey, on 1 June 1827. He was enlisted in the army two months short of his 18th birthday with the 39th (Dorset) Regiment in 1843. He transferred the following year to the 60th Rifles and sailed for India in 1845. He took part in the Second Sikh War and fought at the battles of Mooltan and Gujarat and in the punitive expeditions on the North West Frontier in 1849-50 involving sporadic fighting against the Afghan tribes.
Charged and captured the guns
During the defence of the Delhi Ridge he was severely wounded in the thigh by a gunshot during the desperate fighting on the night of 19 June. Although he may not have fully recovered, he took part in an attack on 14 September where he would be rewarded for his valour by the British army's highest honour. His citation, published in The London Gazette dated 20 January 1860, reads:
‘For conspicuous bravery on 14th of September 1857, in charging and capturing the enemy’s guns near the Cabul Gate; and again, on 18th of September 1857, in the repulse of a sudden attack made by the enemy on a gun near the Chaudney Chouk. Elected by the Non-Commissioned Officers of the Regiment.’
There was much unrest in India at the time of George Waller's 14 year deployment. The East India Company was losing its grip on India with the local populations actively rebelling against their rule. The British army was sent to reinforce local control. But the Indian rebellion in 1857 finally would see the end of rule by the East India Company.
During his time in India, George was awarded the Punjab medal with two clasps and the Indian Mutiny medal with a clasp for the action at Delhi, which also earned him the Victoria Cross.
For a fuller account of this, at times, desperate action I recommend reading 'The Indian Army', by Christopher Wilkinson-Latham - you can read this online for free, see the link below.
Married in Calcutta
While life must have been hard in India, it wasn't without its compensations. He met widow Elizabeth Sutcliffe, née Stephenson, and they were married on 26 July 1859 in Calcutta. Elizabeth, who was from Halifax, and one year older than George, was the widow of Joseph Sutcliffe.
George Waller was 30 when he earned his medal, and at this time was a colour-sergeant in the 1st Battalion, 60th Rifles. After things had pacified, military presence was reduced and he returned to Britain to received his VC from the Queen at the Home Park at Windsor Castle on 9 November 1860, along with Stephen Garvin, William Sutton, John Divane and James Thompson during the birthday parade of the Prince of Wales.
The fact that he was awarded his VC by being elected by his fellow soldiers (NCO's) rather than the officers, says much about his bravery and the bond and respect of his men. In fact he is the only Sussex recipient of this medal to be so honoured and no such elections resulting in a medal have happened since 1918. George was later awarded a Long Service and Good Conduct Medal and was discharged from the Army on March 1865.
What was the Indian Mutiny?
There is still much debate about the Indian Mutiny, it is a very complex story with many facets to it, one account explains ‘the causes of the mutiny were far more varied and interconnected with one another in quite unforeseen and complicated manners’. The British authorities firmly regarded the event as a mutiny by large sections of the Bengal army. No doubt ‘woke followers’ will want to view it as an Imperialist incursion with brutal reprisals by the British.
During the attack on Delhi, for example, of 11,200 combatants on the British side no fewer than 7,900 had been Indian. The overall cost was high, the British lost at most about 11,000 men, three-quarters of them killed by disease from dysentery, cholera and heatstroke.
Discharge from the army
Waller was discharged from the Army on 7 March 1865, his army record tells us as much as we know about his appearance: 5ft 10in, fresh complexion, dark brown hair, and was described as 'labourer'. The latter no doubt referring to his occupation before he signed up.
He became a permanent staff instructor with the 13th Sussex Rifle Volunteers, which had been set up six years previously at the Drill Hall, Ockenden Lane, Cuckfield. He was no doubt a very welcome addition to the unit, and revered by his inexperienced recruits. He continued with this until his death, perhaps as long as 12 years. There were over 150 men - young who signed up. In 1908 ‘the Volunteers’ would become part of the Territorial Army.
Hurstpierpoint pub landlord
The 1871 census for Hurstpierpoint, in April 1871, shows the family living at 1 Townfield Cottages in Pitt Lane. Later that year George took over the tenancy of The Royal Oak (initially called 'Royall Oake') beer house - no longer existing - from the previous landlord James King.
This was in the High Street a few hundred yards away from his home where, no doubt, customers learned of far off lands - and fearsome encounters and perhaps encouraged to sign up for the Volunteers. As a tough army veteran and former colour-sergeant - he would have had little difficulty maintaining order in his establishment.
George died at home* at The Royal Oak on 10 January 1877 from a severe internal condition with Elizabeth at his side. He was just 49. He had sufficient effects that probate was necessary. It showed effects of less than £100 which equates to £6,260 today. He may not have been well off, but he hadn’t been poor either. He was able to live on an army pension, had an income from his business and, most probably, had some form of modest retainer as instructor in Cuckfield.
The Royal Oak premises was until recently occupied by the Heath Veterinary Clinic, not far from and west of Holy Trinity church at 9 High Street.
This local hero was highly regarded in the Hurst’ parish, as was born out by the number of people who attended his funeral, and his lengthy newspaper obituary.
His grave [D-48] is in the graveyard of Holy Trinity Churchyard, Hurstpierpoint. For 137 years tis was not marked by a stone, not that this was not unusual for the period. A new headstone was erected in December 2014, the full story is below, and every year a wreath is placed there on Remembrance Day.
George's Victoria Cross is displayed at the Royal Green Jackets (Rifles) Museum, Winchester, England. Sadly, unlike most VCs, there is no photograph of George in existence. Unless you happen to have one - if so please let us know!
*Note: Some reports show that George died in Cuckfield at the Workhouse. But his death certificate confirms that his death was on 10 January 1977 at the Royal Oak, Hurstpierpoint. The cause of death is given as Hematemesis. This may have been ulcer-related, or could this have been triggered as a result of complications from his thigh war wound 20 years earlier? Expert medical input would be appreciated!
The story of George Waller's headstone
In April 2014 The Sun joined up with the Victoria Cross Trust to run an 'Honour Our VC Heroes campaign' to identify and mark the graves of all VC recipients. This followed a feature highlighting graves of 209 Victoria Cross holders from the First World War facing ruin and neglect.
It was during the course of research and planning for a West Sussex VC 'ride out' that the Sussex Royal British Legion (Motorcycle) Riders Branch 3542 learned that a Victoria Cross recipient was lying in an unmarked grave in the Hurstpierpoint churchyard.
Martin Johnson, the Sussex representative of the RBLR, contacted Hurstpierpoint archivist, Ian Nelson, who was able to pinpoint the exact burial plot [D-48] of Waller.
A money-raising initiative began and generously the local undertaker and a local businessman agreed to foot the bill for the stone.
The inscription reads 'Colour Sergeant George Waller 1827 - 1877. 60th King’s Royal Rifle Corps Awarded Victoria Cross for gallantry during the recapture of Delhi 14 & 18 September 1857'. It is headed with a Rifle Brigade badge.
A small ceremony took place on 13 December 2014, to unveil the new headstone in the presence of a representative from the King's Royal Rifle Corps and members of the local community.
The Victoria Crosses that Saved an Empire: The Story of the VCs of the Indian Mutiny
by Brian Best, Frontline Books Mar 2016. Also at Google Books https://tinyurl.com/y5e759qq
George Waller VC Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Waller
The headstone story: www.victoriacross.org.uk/bbwalleg.htm
'Heros forgotten' - the Sun's campaign: www.thesun.co.uk/archives/news/758744/vc-heroes-forgotten
The obituary of Ian Nelson (1924-2020), Hurstpierpoint historian, in Hurst Life.
Take a guided tour with the late Ian Nelson around Hurstpierpoint on YouTube.
Ensign (later Captain) Alfred Spencer Heathcote VC was one of the seven VC’s awarded to the 60th Rifles on the same day. The picture from the regimental archive of The Royal Green Jackets (Rifles) Museum has been colourised.
Rifleman 1858 The Dover Historian
Drawing of action at Delhi Ridge from 'The Indian Mutiny', by Christopher Wilkinson-Latham and GA Embleton, Men at Arms Series 1977. The Delhi Ridge exciting action - and more - can be read in full - click on link.
Contributed by Malcolm Davison.