The Sherwood Foresters ( The Derbyshire Regiment )
Dargai Heights, North West Frontier, India - 20 October 1897

The following is an extract from a letter received from the Tirah Field Force, written by Captain Shaw, of the Derbyshire Regiment, on the storming of the heights of Dargai, and the involvement of Captain Henry Pennell

In September 1897 the 2nd Battalion prepared for active service on the North West Frontier, India, in response to incursions by frontier tribesmen into British territory. The Expedtionary Force assembled to conduct operations against the rebels, the Tirah Field Force comprised in part 2nd Bn The Derbyshire Regiment, 1st Bn The Dorsetshire Regiment, 30th Punjab Regiment and 2nd / 1st Gurkha Rifles.

On 20 October the advance into Tirah commenced. The actual road up and over the Kotal was a fairly easy one, but is commanded by the heights of Dargai, 2,000 feet above it. The ground was of the roughest, cut up by enormous mullahs with steep sides, and the last bit up to the crest was an almost perpendicular cliff with only one narrow path, 100 yards of which within 300 yards of the enemy's main position, was absolutely swept by the tribesmen's rifle fire.

It was impossible to advance except in single file, so that the battalion was spread over a good half-mile. The 2nd Gurkhas were first ordered up supported by the Dorsets as second line, and the Derbys as third line. A few of the Gurkhas, with their Colonel (Travers) managed to rush across the fire-swept 100 yard gap and establish themselves under cover behind a small knoll. They lost heavily in getting there, losing sixty-seven men in ten minutes. The Dorsets meanwhile established themselves on the near side of the fire-swept zone and kept a heavy fire on the enemy's position. They, however, made several attempts to cross the zone and each time their losses were very heavy and not many reached the haven of safety. Three companies of the Derbys closed in support of the Dorsets and both regiments were much mixed up, several ranks deep, crowded behind the only ridge which gave cover and from the top of which the foremost men of the Dorsets and Derbys were firing at the enemy.

After about two hours the Colonel of the Derbys said "that if the Dorsets would make room, he would charge across with his regiment". Owing to the crowd of over four hundred men in the only negotiable pathway, it was impossible for the Derbys to get through. Nevertheless, Captain Clifton-Smith, who commanded 'D' Company of the Derbys, forced his way through the mass and followed by his subaltern Lieutenant Pennell and some other men, made a dash across the 100 yard gap into the open under a continuous hail of bullets. Before he had gone more than a few yards, Captain Smith fell, shot through the head, and the men immediately behind him were also mown down. In this situation Lieutenant Pennell won the Victoria Cross. Pennell immediately ran to Smith and made two distinct attempts, under a perfect hail of bullets cutting up the ground all around him, to carry and drag him back to cover and only desisted when he found that he was dead. Placing Smith's helmet over his head Pennell himself then ran to safety.

When the Derbys, Dorsets and Gurkhas had been under fire for four hours, the General Officer Commanding ordered the artillery guns to open a sustained and heavy fire on the enemy's position and that the Gordon Highlanders and 3rd Sikhs, who had been held in reserve, were to go up, push through the other troops and assault the position. It appeared the General chose just the right moment to launch an attack as the enemy's fire was kept under by the heavy artillery fire combined with a torrent of 'independent' rifle fire from the Dorsets, Derbys and Gurkhas. The Gordons, their advance properly covered by the artillery fire, successfully charged across the gap followed by the other regiments and later that day the heights were eventually taken, two companies of the Derbys and two of the Gordons reaching the top first.

During the bitter fighting on the Dargai Heights on 20 October 1897, no fewer than four Victoria Crosses were awarded:

  • Private Edward Lawson - Gordon Highlanders
  • Lieutenant Henry Pennell - Derbyshire Regiment
  • Corporal Samuel Vickery - Dorset Regiment
  • Piper George Findlater - Gordon Highlanders

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Iain Stewart, 1 November 2001