The miniature group to QM and Hon Captain S Downing, Devonshire Regiment
Picture courtesy of Spink
IGS 1854 (1) Burma 1889-92;
ISG 1895 (2) Punjab Frontier 1897-98, Tirah 1897-98;
QSA (3) Elandslaagte, Defence of Ladysmith, Belfast;
1914 Star with clasp;
British War and Victory Medals, with MID
Army LS&GC EdVII
His full-size awards sold in these rooms in November 2017, Lot 693. At that time, the miniature awards - the ribands being frayed and all but disintegrated - were re-mounted on their original wearing pin.
MC London Gazette 1 January 1918.
DCM London Gazette 27 September 1901.
Sidney Downing was born in 1870, the son of R. W. Downing, formerly schoolmaster, Royal Marines, and enlisted in the Devonshire Regiment in 1889. Embarked for India, he quickly saw active service in Burma in 1891 (Medal & clasp), and on the North-West Frontier with the Tirah Field Force (Medal & 2 clasps).
The Charge of the 1st Devons at Wagon Hill
It was, however, for his gallant service in the Boer War that he won his D.C.M. That distinction likely stemmed from his part in the famous bayonet charge of the 1st Devons at Wagon Hill during the defence of Ladysmith:
'January 6th was to become a famous day in the Battalion's history. On that day the Boers launched a determined attack on the two tactical vantage points at Caesar's Camp and Wagon Hill, a flat-topped hill running east and west on the south side of the township.
The Boers had crept up at first light, reaching the edge of the crest. Heavy fighting ensued with losses on both sides. At 4 p.m. Lieutenant-Colonel Park, commanding the 1st Devons, received orders to take his three remaining companies to the assistance of Colonel Ian Hamilton who was struggling to hold his position on Wagon Hill. The Devons were on the move within 10 minutes and reached Wagon Hill in a thunder storm at around 5 p.m. Here they learnt that around 50 Boers were holding a small ridge about 100 yards directly in front of the British line. They were expert shots and were forcing Hamilton's men to remain under cover. Hamilton and Park agreed that the only way to dislodge them was by bayonet. "Can you do it?" Hamilton reputedly asked Park. "We will try" was the reply. The men of the 1st Battalion fixed their bayonets and charged, cheering and shouting. Drummer Bouldon wrote:
" … with dear old Captain Lafone leading on in front we charged up over the hill and the Boers were only 15 yards away from us and I sounded the charge with another drummer and then we joined the charge, I was nearly mad, in fact all of us was."
The terrain was flat grassland with no cover. The Boers fired again and again, many Devons were hit but they were not deterred. When they reached within 15 yards of the Boers, the Boers turned and ran. However the battle was not over as the Battalion was exposed to cross fire on both sides. Colonel Lafone said he wished someone would tell the Imperial Light Horse, holding a ridge behind the Devons, to fire at the Boers on their left front. Lieutenant Masterson heard him and without further ado ran back across the open ground, dodging a hail of bullets, to pass the message on to the Imperial Light Horse. He was hit 10 times, with some bullets going through both legs, but delivered the message before collapsing. His gallantry earned him the Victoria Cross. Colour-Sergeant Palmer was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for the same battle although he claimed to be only doing his "simple duty".
By 5.40 p.m. the battle was still under way. Colonel Lafone was dead, "he got a bullet right through his brains" (Boulden) along with fellow officers Walker and Field. 52 other ranks were killed or wounded. Lafone's death affected the Battalion greatly. Park wrote:
"I cannot at all get over Lafone's death. He was a bright, clever, witty fellow, the most popular man possible with everyone. A success bought for the price of his life is a very dearly bought one for us."
Despite this and despite the torrential rain and hail the Devons hung on. Finally, when darkness fell, the Boers retreated. The Devons were victorious. When they returned to Ladysmith, Boulden reported that "all the civilians came out and meet us and gave us a nice hot cup of tea and patted us on the back and said my dear, brave men." A telegram came from General Buller reading "Congratulations to your whole force on your brilliant defence, especially to the Devon Regiment"; another from Queen Victoria said, "Greatly admire conduct of Devonshire Regiment."
The website of the The Keep Military Museum (Devons & Dorsets), refers.
In addition to his award of the D.C.M., Downing was mentioned in despatches by Lord Roberts (London Gazette 10 September 1901, refers).
The Great War
Downing became a Warrant Officer in 1911 and was serving as Regimental Sergeant-Major at the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914. Quickly embarked for France, he served with distinction in the 1st Battalion, and was present at the battles of La Bassee (1914), 'Hill 60', Ypres (1915-17), St. Julien, the Somme (1916 and 1918), Morval, Arras (1917-18), Vimy (1917), Passchendaele, Lys, Selle and the Sambre. He also served on the Italian front.
The only respite he had from this protracted period of active service was in 1915, when he wounded near Hill 60 at Ypres by the detonation of an enemy mine, 'but this only kept him from duty under two months.' He was awarded a well-merited M.C. and thrice mentioned in despatches (London Gazettes 30 November 1915, 19 April 1917 and 16 March 1919, refer).
Downing died in April 1925, aged 55, whilst serving as a Captain at Aldershot. A local newspaper obituary - original cutting included - states:
'Through the death of Captain S. Downing, MC, DCM, the Devonshire Regiment has lost the last serving member who survived the historic battle of Wagon Hill … The deceased officer did splendid service in the way he always looked after the Battalion's needs both in war and peace. He was always cheerful, always trying to do something for someone, always thinking of the Devons and duty. He gained eleven medals in the Eleventh Regiment of Foot, which he served so well for no less than 36 years.'