Ladies at the battle of Maharajpore on elephant-back.
Take a moment to picture a scene; Christmas Day, 1843, in Maharajpore, India. The Mahratta State of Gwalior had become unsettled since the death of the Rajah and nominal rule had passed to the Rani and her adopted son, who was still a child. To settle the unrest, Lord Ellenborough the Governor General has ordered his newly appointed Commander-in-Chief Sir Hugh Gough to lead “a military promenade” to the area. It would appear that Lord Ellenborough was so certain of that this action would suppress the unrest that on Christmas day he invited the Commander-in-Chief’s wife and daughter, with 2 other ladies, to join the officers at or just behind the line for Christmas lunch. However, the Mahratta army seemed to take an entirely different view of events and attacked the column. The Battle of Maharajpore was, according to record, short lived but hard fought. The native forces are believed to have lost between 3,000 and 4,000 men and British loses consisted of 797 men killed, wounded or missing.
Reports of the events surrounding the ladies differ somewhat, but all accounts agree that the ladies were present with the army at the time the attack began. Some reports hold that the Lady Gough, her daughter (the Honourable Frances Maria Gough), Lady Smith (wife of Sir Harry and the namesake of the town of Lady Smith), and Mrs Curtis had gone out on elephant back to watch the battle. However, Frances Gough’s grandson’s account states that the Ladies were ordered onto their elephants away from fighting and beyond range of fire. One report states that the ladies were hidden behind a group of buildings, but due to the height of the elephants and the speed of the battle they became targets and the elephants stampeded. Frances’ grandson’s account doesn’t mention this but does say that the elephants were spooked when an enemy weapons dump exploded. All accounts agree that Major Grant – who later married Frances Gough – went after the ladies.
However here things differ again!
One account holds that the ladies were sent back to camp which itself came under attack and that the ladies rallied the remaining troops and led them to beat back the enemy! Much as the idea of 4 ladies in crinolines and carrying parasols leading a group of British Red Coats makes an exciting story it seems more likely that Frances’ grandson’s account is accurate. In his notes on his grandmother he states that when Major Grant caught up with the ladies he was able to assure them that the battle was over and returned with them to a new camp which had been taken from the opposing forces, where they were given a tent in which to take tea and recover from events. However, their excitements weren’t over. According to her grandson’s account, Frances, her mother and the 2 other ladies were carried out of the tent just as tea was about to be served by a group of soldiers immediately before the mine beneath it exploded! The Honourable Frances Maria Gough and Major Grant married the following year; the idea that these experiences were the route of their affections is lovely but their Grandson’s accounts states that they were already engaged to be married at the time of these events.
Lord Ellenborough awarded the ladies a jewelled version of the Gwalior Star (see images below), known as the Lady’s Star for Maharajpoor. Until the First Gulf War (and with the exclusion of special operations during WW2) these ladies were the only women to receive a medal for military engagement. The medal received by the Honourable Frances Maria Gough now resides in the care of the Highlanders Museum.