Frederick Whirlpool VC
Pen & Sword, 2019
Reviewed by Neil Smith
Frederick Whirlpool welcomed his obscurity in late 19th Century Australia, indeed he worked at it and even assumed a false name to guarantee his anonymity. His success might have been assured except for two things; he won Australia’s first Victoria Cross, and long after his death he found a determined and diligent biographer in former detective Alan Leek. The result is a fascinating account of a man who when called upon stood his ground in the most courageous way possible but probably saw too much in war to cope.
Leek begins his narrative with the lonely death of Humphrey James who became Frederick Whirlpool, a name recognized the world over for an act of courage beyond the abilities of most men. Yet, spurning the celebrity that often comes with heroism, James died a recluse seemingly assured that he was going to hell for his misdeeds. Born and raised in Ireland, James yearned to see the world and enlisted in the East India Company’s ranks as a twenty-three years old private, renamed Frederick Whirlpool, in 1854, though why he changed his name is a mystery. He arrived in India in March 1855 and settled into the life of a soldier of the 3rd Bombay European Regiment, albeit an educated one with prospects. But history had other plans for Whirlpool in the form of the Indian Mutiny that broke out in May 1857.
The pent-up resentments unleashed by the Mutiny resulted in a level of violence that shocked Victorian Britain and created an equally ferocious and horrific backlash. Leek describes this background succinctly as a plausible explanation for Whirlpool’s conviction over his own damnation because the private observed and took part in those horrors. He earned his Victoria Cross at the storming of Jhansi and in the desperate fighting to break into the fort at Lohari in May 1858. In the latter action, Whirlpool held off a concerted attack in the confined space of the gatehouse, receiving sword 17 wounds in the process! Suffering from his physical wounds and what we now call PTSD, Whirlpool retired to Australia where his life slowly crumbled, including a spell in jail, until he died a desperately sad recluse in 1899.
Leek’s sympathetic biography of Frederick Whirlpool is a well-written and engaging narrative. This is not your standard happy-ending tale of heroism and gallantry, but a sobering and nuanced study of how moments of immense courage can lead to a lifetime of pain and sadness rather than riches and glory. For our purposes, Leek describes in some detail the fighting during the often overlooked Indian Mutiny that deserves more attention when considering actions to replicate on the table-top. To that end, Frederick Whirlpool VC acts as a useful gateway book for further reading into the history of a fascinating but brutal conflict.