Victoria Cross at Tirah

The Tirah Campaign took place in the North-West Frontier in India (now Pakistan), in 1897-1898 and was in response to the Pathan tribes rebellion. The Tirah Campaign was the largest operation to quell the rebellion with 35,000 troops. The 2nd Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters were selected to join the expeditionary force in mid-September.

It was on the 20th of October that the 2nd Battalion participated in storming the Dargai Heights as part of the Tirah Campaign. Lieutenant Henry Singleton Pennell was awarded a Victoria Cross for his gallantry displayed. This month, we look further into his service and the awarding of the Victoria Cross…

Lieutenant Henry Singleton Pennell

Lieutenant Henry Singleton Pennell was born on the 18th of June 1874 at Dawlish, Devon to Edwin and Henrietta Pennell. He was educated at Eastbourne College and RMA Sandhurst. He became 2nd Lieutenant to the Sherwood Foresters on the 21st of October 1893. Three years later, on the 18th of July 1896, Henry became a Lieutenant.

Tirah Camapign 1897-1898

When the 2nd Battalion were selected to join the Tirah expeditionary force, Henry, along with Second Lieutenant B G V Way, was away at Pachmarhi at the School of Musketry. They re-joined the battalion a few days later, at Pindi.

Upon arrival at the Dargai Heights, the battalion were stopped about 200 yards from the top, where they could hear but not see the fighting. It was not until after the Dorsets last reserve of ammunition was sent up, that the Battalion began to move forward. This was first with the ‘A’ and ‘C’ companies, and then ‘D’ company, followed by ‘B’ and ‘E’.

Henry was the subaltern to Captain Smith, who led ‘D’ Company. The regimental history (Captain A K Slessor, The 2nd Battalion Derbyshire Regiment in Tirah (London: Swan Snnenschein & Co., 1900)), describes their advance:

“Captain Smith…the first of ours to come up, forced his way through the mass, and followed by…Pennell, and three or four men of the company who managed to struggle through at short intervals, made a dash across the gap into the open under a murderous hail of bullets. Before he had gone more than a few yards he fell, shot through the head, and the men behind him were mown down… Pennell, not knowing his captain was dead, won a V.C. by making gallant efforts to carry him back under cover. He got him some way with difficulty, and seeing some men lying on the ground called to them to assist. No answer came at first, until a man of the Dorsets lifted his head and answered We’re all wounded, sir, except those that are dead.” Then seeing that it was hopeless, he placed poor Smith’s helmet over his face, the enemy’s bullets whizzing around him all the time, and made for the shelter of the gap again.” (p. 81).

The London Gazette later published Henry’s awarding of the Victoria Cross (on the 20th of May 1898): ‘This Officer during the attack on the Dargai Heights, on the 20th October 1897, when Capt. W.E.G. Smith, Derbyshire Regiment, was struck down, ran to his assistance and made two distinct attempts, under a perfect hail of bullets, to carry and drag him back to cover, and only desisted when he found that he was dead’.

Further service

Henry served with the West Yorkshire Regiment in the Second Boer War of 1899-1902. He became a Captain on the 20th of May 1900 and would later become Staff Captain of Headquarters at Administration Southern Command.

Sadly, Henry was killed in a toboggan accident in Switzerland on the 19th of January 1907. He is buried at Dawlish Parish Churchyard, Devon.

For his service, Henry was awarded the following medals: Victoria Cross; India Medal (1895-1902) with clasps Tirah and Punjab; and the Queens South Africa Medal with clasps Laing’s Nek, Transvaal, Relief of Ladysmith, Orange Free State and Tugela Heights.

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Captain A K Slessor, The 2nd Battalion Derbyshire Regiment in Tirah (London: Swan Snnenschein & Co., 1900).

Colonel H. C. Wylly, History of the 1st and 2nd Battalions The Sherwood Foresters Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment: Volume 2 (1929).

National Army Museum Website.

London Gazette.