I was musing earlier this year about non-genetic disposition – in the case of some of my Protestant Irish ancestors, their tendency to be assassinated. It’s that old question of nature versus nurture: obviously assassination is not genetic, but the behaviour which leads to it may be inherited, just as a man may mistreat his wife because he learned that behaviour from his father. I find a more noble example of nurture, of imparted behaviour repeating itself across the generations, in my cousin G.G.M. Wheeler.
Major George Godfrey Massy Wheeler was the grandson of Major General Hugh Massy Wheeler of Cawnpore. Cawnpore became the rallying cry of British troops fighting back against the Indian Rebellion of 1857, after the town was the scene of a long siege and short but ruthless massacre. Hugh Wheeler was the officer commanding the town when Indian troops under his command rose up and besieged the British civilian and military population. Hugh was forced to accept an untrustworthy promise of safe passage as conditions worsened in the British garrison, and led the survivors of the siege to awaiting boats at the river’s edge, where they were treacherously slaughtered.
Major General Hugh Massy Wheeler of Cawnpore (1789-1857)
The major-general, his wife, a son and a daughter all died in the Cawnpore Massacre, along with another cousin of mine, Captain Robert Urquhart Jenkins, and 890 others of the 900 British in the town. Whatever you think of British imperialism, Wheeler conducted himself with noble dignity in an unwinnable situation. His actions became a by-word for bravery among the ranks of the Indian Army, in which in time both his son General George Wheeler and his grandson George Godfrey Massy Wheeler served.
In April 1917 G.G.M. Wheeler found himself part of a British force of 7000 encamped at Shaiba, southwest of Basra in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). War had broken out in the region largely to protect the interests of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, and now the Allies (represented principally by elements of the Indian Army) were ranged against the regular and irregular forces of the Ottoman Empire.
Major George Godfrey Massy Wheeler of Shaiba (1873-1915)
On 12th April 18,000 Ottoman troops attacked the British camp. They were repulsed, and in a heroic counter-attack Wheeler led out the cavalry in an attempt to capture an enemy flag. As he withdrew, the entrenched Ottoman forces emerged and pursued his men across open ground, where British artillery were able to inflict heavy losses.
The following day, unfortunately, his confidence having been boosted by the previous evening’s success, he tried the same manoeuvre in a different part of the battlefield. Fired up, he rode off towards the enemy’s standards, but soon outstripped his men. Too far ahead of them to call on their support when he got into trouble, he was killed; and without his leadership, the attack failed.
An Indian cavalryman of the 7th Hariana Lancers, the troops commanded by Major G.G.M. Wheeler
Elsewhere, the Arab irregulars who made up the vast majority of the Ottoman force were scattered by British counter-offensives. The remaining Ottoman troops regrouped in a strong defensive position overnight and by 4pm on the 14th April British soldiers were running out of water and bullets with little to show for their efforts. It was a surprising bayonet charge by the Dorsetshire Regiment which turned the tables, restoring British energy and confidence for one last assault on the Ottoman positions.
Perhaps their do-or-die spirit was inspired by Wheeler's earlier actions. The Ottoman troops crumbled and fled the battlefield in what proved to be a turning point in the Mesopotamian campaign – it gave Britain the initiative once more and discouraged Arab alliance with the Ottoman Empire. Wheeler was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, the highest British award for military gallantry, for his deeds and example. His grandfather (who died before the introduction of the VC) would have been proud.
Having set out to tell the simple tale of a grandson like his grandfather, I promptly found that G.G.M. Wheeler is not the only Wheeler recipient of the Victoria Cross. Maj George Campbell Wheeler (1880-1938), also serving in the Indian Army, won one in 1917 for another action in Mesopotamia. I cannot so far uncover their relationship, but there must be one. Perhaps they were siblings, and perhaps G.C. Wheeler learned HIS bravery from the example of his older brother G.G.M. Wheeler.