Friday, 26 July 2013

The Case of the Empty Sleeve, Major Colvile of the 43rd Regiment

Major Colvile, 43rd Regiment, c.1865 (1)

Unlike the military names Cameron, Greer, Grey, Hamilton, Harington, Durham, Monmouth which have been memorialized in Tauranga's streets, that of Major Fiennes Middleton Colvile of the 43rd Imperial Regiment will be less familiar to most local residents.  Colvile arrived with the Tauranga Expedition in early 1864 from India, and was sent with a detachment of troops to Maketu, where he set up camp in and fortified the old, abandoned Pukemaire Pa (which still carries the alternative name of Fort Colvile).   Consequently he was not present for the "Gate Pah affair," but returned to take an active role in the storming of the rifle pits at Te Ranga on 21 June. (2)

Colonel Colvile, 43rd Regiment, c.1872 (3)
The 43rd was then posted to Taranaki as part of Cameron's plan to reopen the coastal route.  In October 1865 Colvile, by then a Colonel, was wounded during an attack near Warea, receiving a "gun-shot wound in the thigh, with bone fracture."  The nature of his injuries meant that he saw no further active service in New Zealand, returning to England with the regiment in March the following year.  Colvile subsequently commanded the 43rd regiment until 1875, the 53rd Brigade Depot until 1881, when he "retired" with the rank of Major-General, the Welsh Border infantry Volunteer Brigade between 1889 and 1892, and finally the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry from 1913.  General Sir Fiennes M. Colvile, K.C.B., died in 1917, aged 84.

There are at least five known surviving carte de visite and cabinet card portraits of Colvile taken between c.1865 and 1906.  All five, including the earliest, ostensibly taken by George Hoby of New Plymouth prior to his being severely wounded in the leg at Warea, show him with an empty right sleeve, suggesting the prior loss of his arm at or just below the elbow.  If this interpretation of the portraits is correct, the injury to his arm must have happened prior to his arrival in New Zealand, possibly in India.  However, it seems bizarre and improbable that an officer with only one arm would continue to serve on active duty, let alone participate in the charge of the rifle pits at Te Ranga.  The question of where he did, in fact, lose his arm is a matter for further research.

1. Carte de visite of Major F.M. Colville, 43rd Regiment by George Hoby of New Plymouth, Undated but probably c.1865, Collection of Te Puke Ariki

2. Payne, Brett (2011) Fiennes Middleton Colville and the 43rd Regiment in New Zealand (Parts 1-5), on Photo-Sleuth, 11-13 March to 2011.

3. Carte de visite of Colonel F.M. Colvile, C.B., 43rd Regiment, by Elliott & Fry of 55 Baker St., London W., Undated but probably c.1872, Collection of Michael Hargreave Mawson 


  1. Who said a British officer of that day needed an arm? Commissions were purchased rather than gained by ability until 1871. So long as he could wave his sword with one hand he would be able to command his men. The second to last Prince George of Cambridge was Commander in Chief of the British Army and he believed that social standing was more important for officers than ability.

    1. Difficult enough to ride a horse with one arm. Can you imagine taking part in a cavalry charge with only one arm? I can't.

  2. Lord Raglan was a young Aide de Camp of the Duke of Wellington when he lost his arm during the battle of Waterloo in 1815. He went on to be the Field Marshall commanding the British forces in the Crimea war 1854 until his death there.
    What I find amazing about Colvile was that I can find no reference anywhere about when/how he lost his arm. Hart's army list notes the leg wound in1865.
    Another funny thing - when he and another officer were ambushed on 21 April at Maketu, he was out duck-shooting.

    1. Thanks for this perspective Bruce. I also find it pretty improbable that he would be out duck shooting with only one arm.