Cornwall’s Boer War General

The Boer War was only nine days old when the first battle occurred at Talana Hill, near the Natal town of Dundee. It was October 1899 and the British troops deployed from Ladysmith to meet the Boer invasion from the north were under command of a Cornishman, Major-General Sir William Penn Symons of Hatt, near Saltash. For him the coming fight was to be the end of 36 years service in the army, for queen and country. The Symons family of Hatt are descendants of a Richard Fitzsimons who settled at Marazion in the 13th century. 300 years later, with the “Fitz” dropped from the name, one of his descendants settled in Hatt and married a Margaret Bond, of St. Stephens-by-Saltash. Several centuries later, on July the 17th. 1843, William Penn Symons was born at Hatt House. He inherited his middle name from his grandmother, Agnes Penn, who was related to William, the famous Quaker. In his youth he learned to shoot and ride in the countryside by the Tamar and, after a private education, he was gazetted into the 24th Regiment of Foot (the 2nd Royal Warwickshires) as a ensign. At the age of 20 he was soon on board a steamer bound for Mauritius to join the 2nd battalion, part of the garrison there. At that time he was described as “of medium height, well knit but spare of flesh, with a determined jaw, broad forehead, brown eyes and, of course, the obligatory moustache”. From Mauritius he soon moved on to India, where he quickly made a name for himself as a fine sportsman. Despite losing the sight of his right eye in a pole accident, he overcame the handicap teaching himself to shoot left handed. Officers in the sub continent were allowed spells of long leave in England and when at home in Hatt, Penn Symons was most at home in his garden, where apparently his greatest delights were “eating Cornish pasties and scatting wood”. In 1877 he married Caroline Hawkin, of Chad House, Edgbaston, before sailing to active service in South Africa. Later that year came his baptism of fire in operations against the Galeka and Gaika tribes in Cape Colony. Soon after this came promotion to captain. In January 1879 British forces under Lord Chelmsford invaded Zululand. Before the month was out the 24th was to experience disaster and triumph within a few days. Firstly a force of 1500 men, consisting mainly of 6 companies of the regiment, was annihilated by an impi of 20,000 Zulus at Isandhlwana. Penn Symons escaped almost certain death as a member of a detachment that left the camp early that morning to aid a scouting party in trouble. Mercifully, when they returned to the battlefield it was dark, so the men were spared the horrifying sight of the mutilated dead. Just when Lord Chelmsford thought that the situation could not get any worse, flames and heavy firing were reported from the direction of Rorkes Drift. The mission station there, with its tiny garrison, was obviously under attack. The column moved off wearily to attempt a relief, fearing the worst. Reaching the beleaguered post the following morning they were overjoyed that the 100 or so men, mostly of the 24th’s “B” Company, had repulsed 4000 Zulus in an epic defence. Penn Symons was one of the first horsemen to ride into the stockade and helped the commander, Lt. John Chard, R.E., to write his report of the action. Surrounded by devastation, they may have talked of home, as Chard was a Plymothian, born just across the Tamar from Hatt. After the heavy losses sustained by his regiment Penn Symons was now near the top of the seniority list and he was promoted to major in 1881. In the same year the Cardwell Army Reform took effect, with the 24th changing its name to the South Wales Borderers. It had been increasingly associated with Wales since 1873, when its depot was established at Brecon. Back in India the Cornishman came to the notice of Lord Roberts, who shared his interest in mounted infantry. In 1885 King Thibaw of Burma invited the French to take over his country and oust the British. Penn Symons, now a colonel, was with the punitive expedition of 9000 troops that sailed up the Irawaddy in steamers. The Road to Mandalay, immortalised by Kipling, was open. Penn Symons stayed on until 1889, rounding up stubborn bandits in the Burmese hills. Returning to the North West Frontier, campaigns in Waziristan and Tirah were to be his last in India. By October 1899 he was at Dundee, preparing to meet a Boer force under Piet Joubert. The British troops numbered about 4000, comprising an infantry brigade plus a cavalry regiment and several artillery batteries. For some reason Penn Symons neglected to occupy the commanding heights of Talana Hill, 2 miles north east of the town. The Boers did and began shelling the British camp at 5.30am. on October the 20th, when its commander was enjoying a cigarette in his tent. The infantry attack to take the hill was held up by withering fire from the Boers and Penn Symons rode up with his ADC to encourage his men. He became an immediate target for the Boers’ mauser rifles and was soon hit in the stomach. He managed to remount and ride away to avoid alarming his men. In the Dundee military hospital his condition was found to be serious. The enemy was eventually cleared from Talana Hill but there was bad news from the cavalry. Half of the 18th Hussars had been surrounded by the retreating Boers and forced to surrender. Although the enemy had been repulsed, a force led by General Kock had already outflanked the British to the west. Brigadier Yule, now in command, made the difficult decision to fall back on Ladysmith, 40 miles to the south. Although criticised for abandoning Dundee and the wounded, he got 4000 troops away safely. It is doubtful if Ladysmith could have survived the subsequent siege without them. Within hours of the Boers occupying Dundee, Major General Sir William Penn Symons had died of his wounds. Piet Joubert immediately telegraphed a message of sympathy to Lady Caroline Symons in London. The news of his death stunned the nation. One newspaper reported that “when his death was announced in the House Of Commons, a low moan rose from the crowded benches, heads were uncovered and silence reigned in the Chamber, save for the tones of Big Ben striking four”. Winston Churchill, who was already in South Africa as a war correspondent, wrote – “so Penn Symons is dead. No one could have laid down his life more gladly in such a cause. 20 years ago the merest chance saved him from the massacre at Isandhlwana and Death promoted him in an afternoon to senior Captain.” He went on to praise the Cornishman’s energy, humour and professional enthusiasm. In the early days of the 20th century an impressive memorial was erected in Victoria Gardens, Saltash, by his countrymen at home and abroad to the hero of Talana Hill. The column, which is surmounted by a crown, still stands at the top of Fore Street to remind us of his eventful life and achievements.

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