William George Cubbitt (1835 – 1903)
What is a good soldier? When some desk-bound warrior appears on television to eulogise some poor sap who has got in the way of an insurgent’s bullet or stepped on a mine, they without fail trot out the old trope that they were a good soldier. Military engagements, it seems to me, are settled by superiority of weaponry, numbers and tactics so the logical conclusion is that someone who survives and is proficient in the use of their weapons and tactically aware is a good or at least proficient soldier.
However you define a good soldier (although those of a pacifist nature will deny the concept) the latest resident of St Peter’s cemetery in Frimley to come under our spotlight, William Cubbitt, would pass muster. Not only did he come out of a scrape alive but he preserved the lives of three of his comrades, a feat of derring-do for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross.
Cubbitt, born in Calcutta in West Bengal, was serving in the 13th Native Bengal Infantry as a lieutenant and on 30th June 1857 was involved in the Battle of Chinhat or Chinhut in what we call the Indian Mutiny, although I’m sure our Indian friends would call it a war of independence. The British force numbering some 600 men and led by Sir Henry Lawrence, were suddenly fired upon by insurgents, who outnumbered them by 10 to 1, as they were making their way to Ismaelganj. Some of the native troops on Lawrence’s side deserted and the only option was to beat a retreat, tactical of course.
During the pandemonium of the retreat, a number of feats of daring and courage were performed to allow some of the wounded to make good their escape. Cubbit, in particular, played a notable part, rescuing three members of the 32nd Foot for which he was recommended and received the highest award for valour, the Victoria Cross. The remnants of the British force made it to Lucknow which was then put under siege until November 1857.
Cubbitt was a modest man and was universally well-liked, the archetypal good egg. According to contemporary reports he was particularly noted for his gallantry and generosity and “even if that act of gallantry had not been performed, he richly deserved his reward for all the acts of self-denial in every way. In the time when rations were short he would surreptitiously make over his share to someone whom he thought required it more”.
True to character, he did not press his own claims for recognition but the testimony of two of the men he rescued, Kirby and Deolin – the third is thought to have perished in the siege – helped make his case. The award was announced in the London Gazette on 21st June 1859 and Cubbitt received his honour from Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle on 4th January 1860. As was the custom at the time, a rather romanticised version of his feat was painted by Louis William Desanges, one of a series of 55 paintings he was commissioned to paint of VC winners and which were displayed at the Crystal Palace in the 1860s and 1870s.
After a distinguished military career – he was wounded in the Siege of Lucknow in September 1857, served in the Afghan War (1878 – 1880) where he was seriously ill with blood poisoning and nearly died and in the Burma War (1886) where he received the Distinguished Service Order – he retired to Camberley where he died on 25th January 1903, aged 67. His wife, herself a daughter of a VC, died in 1916 and is buried with him in a grave marked by a simple stone cross.