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The Indian Mutiny of 1857 – also called Sepoy Mutiny, the Indian Rebellion, or the First War of Indian Independence – began as a mutiny of sepoys (Indian soldiers in the service of a European power) of British East India Company's army on 10 May 1857, in the town of Meerut. Major hostilities followed throughout the northern Indian Gangetic Plain and central India until the fall of Gwalior on 20 June 1858. This outcome of this rebellion had substantive impact as it led to the dissolution of the East India Company in June 1858 and compelled the British to reorganize the army, the financial system, and the administration in India. With the institution and creation of the Victoria Cross on 29 January 1856 by Queen Victoria to "only be awarded to those officers or men who have served Us in the presence of the enemy, and shall have then performed some signal act of valour, or devotion to their country", it did not take long for acts of valour to be recognized during the Indian Rebellion.
It was only on the second day of the Mutiny, 11 May 1857, that George Forrest from the Bengal Veterans Establishment and John Buckley from the Commissariat Department in Delhi, India, proved themselves worthy of a Victoria Cross. In all, there were 182 recipients who received this pre-eminent distinction, including two that are buried in Canada. The first is Able Seaman William Hall who was conferred a Victoria Cross with a "blue riband for the Navy" and is buried in Hantsport, Nova Scotia (see posting No.5 dated 27 August) and the other is Private Denis Dempsey (c. 1826 – 9 January 1886) who received his with a "red riband for the Army" and is buried in Toronto, Ontario. Private Denis Dempsey was born in Rathmichael, Bray, Country Wicklow, a suburb in the south-east of Dublin, Ireland and at about 31 years of age, he joined as a private in the 1st Battalion of the 10th Regiment of Foot (later The Lincolnshire Regiment), British Army, during the Indian Rebellion. As recorded in The London Gazette of 17 February 1860, Private Denis Dempsey, No. 2134, was cited for performing acts of bravery on both 12 August 1857 and 14 March 1858: "For having, at Lucknow, on the 14th March, 1858, carried a Powder Bag through a burning village, with great coolness and gallantry, for the purpose of mining a passage in rear of the enemy's position. This he did, exposed to a very heavy fire from the enemy behind loopholed walls, and to an almost still greater danger from the sparks which flew in every direction from the blazing houses. Also, for having been the first man who entered the village of Jugdispore on the 12 August, 1857, under a most galling fire. Private Dempsey was likewise one of those who helped to carry Ensign Erskine, of the 10th Regiment, in the retreat from Arrah, in July, 1857."
The 10th Regiment of Foot including Private Dempsey returned to England in 1859 and during the following year, Queen Victoria presented Victoria Crosses to several individuals, including Private Dempsey, on 9 November 1860, the day her son, Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) turned nineteen. Dempsey continued his military service with the 10th Regiment as they were posted overseas for a period of 15 years, including Ireland (1862), the Cape Colony in South Africa (1864), Japan (1868 – 1871), Hong Kong (1871) and Singapore from 1872 until the battalion finally arrived in England in April 1877. After leaving the British Army, he immigrated to Canada and settled in Toronto where he died on 9 January 1886 at the age of 61. According to his death certificate, his profession was labourer and the cause of death was congestive pneumonia due to exposure. He is buried at Saint Michael's Cemetery, Toronto's oldest visible Catholic Cemetery and the resting place of many of Toronto's first Irish immigrants.
On this day, 9 January 2022, we commemorate the 136th anniversary of the death of Private Denis Dempsey, V.C. and also mark the more than 161 years since he was presented his Victoria Cross for his acts of valour in the presence of an enemy during the Indian Rebellion of 1857.
André M. Levesque