As a young man, my Great-grandfather, George Coombs was a soldier in the 1st Batallion of the Dorsetshire Regiment and served during the Tyrah Campaign. This brief account of that action is taken from, Our Soldiers, Gallant Deeds of the British Army during Victoria’s Reign by W.H.G. Kingston.
In 1897 a general rising of the tribes took place along the north-west frontier, which, in addition to minor expeditions, was the cause of the despatch of an expedition through the Terah country, under Sir William Lockhart. It is impossible here to detail the innumerable acts of gallantry called forth by almost daily skirmishes with fierce and numerous bands of hardy mountaineers, but we must content ourselves with referring only to the most stirring incidents of the campaign.
The first Action of Dargai.
It had become necessary to clear the enemy out of the commanding position at Dargai, from which a harassing fire had been kept up upon our men, and on 18th October this was achieved. The village lies on the north of a small plateau, which ends in a steep cliff approached by a sloping ridge; this ridge is well within range of the cliff, but by keeping on the south side troops can approach under cover; but connecting the ridge with the cliff is a narrow neck 100 yards long by 30 broad, completely open to fire from the cliffs, which must be crossed in order to get to the path up to the heights. The enemy were in force on the top of the cliff, under cover of rocks and boulders. On this occasion the attack was made by the 3rd Ghurkhas and the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, and the Northampton Regiment in reserve. Every point from which rifle or artillery fire could be brought to bear on the enemy was occupied, and at noon a rush of Ghurkhas and Borderers was made across the ridge. A tremendous fire burst out from the heights, but so sudden was the rush that only twenty-two men were hit, of whom only three were killed. The enemy did not stay long when once the ridge was crossed and the heights were occupied. It was not, however, thought advisable to retain the position, and satisfied with having cleared the enemy out, Sir William Lockhart recalled the troops. As they retired the rearmost regiments were pressed by the tribesmen, who in consequence lost heavily; but several men of the Gordon Highlanders were wounded, and Major Jennings Bromley killed, in the fighting that ensued.
Second Action of Dargai.
On 20th October the enemy were again in force on the heights, and in much greater numbers, and a second attack became necessary. The troops upon whom this duty fell were the 2nd Ghurkhas, the 1st Dorset and the Derbyshire, with the Gordon Highlanders in reserve. The first to cross were the gallant Ghurkhas, led by Colonel Travers, Captains McIntyre, Bower, and Norie, and Lieutenant Tillard; these succeeded in crossing unhurt, but with the loss of 30 men, and Major Judge and Captain Robinson. The bullets now swept the ridge, and in attempting to follow many a brave Dorset and Derby was killed, officers and men, and but few reached the Ghurkhas. To quote from the despatch of Sir William Lockhart—
“By 11:30 the force was in formation under cover in readiness to capture the heights, but when the 2nd Ghurkas, accompanied by the Ghurka scouts of the first battalion 3rd Ghurkas, made their first rush across the open, they were met by such a hot and well-aimed fire that all they could do was to hold on to the position they had reached without being able to advance farther. At 2 p.m. the Dorsetshire Regiment was ordered to storm the enemy’s intrenchments, but though a few men were able to get across the fire-swept zone, an advance beyond the line held by the 2nd Ghurkas was reported by the commanding officer to be impracticable owing to the large number of tribesmen lining the edge of the Dargai plateau, and the steepness of the slope leading up to it. The General officer commanding the second division accordingly ordered Brigadier-General Kempster to move up the Gordon Highlanders and the 3rd Sikhs, the former regiment being replaced on the lower spur which it had hitherto occupied by the Jhind Imperial Service Infantry.
“The Gordon Highlanders went straight up the hill without check or hesitation. Headed by their pipers, and led by Lieutenant-Colonel Mathias, C.B., with Major Macbean on his right and Lieutenant A.F. Gordon on his left, this splendid battalion marched across the open. It dashed through a murderous fire, and in forty minutes had won the heights, leaving 3 officers and 30 men killed or wounded on its way. The first rush of the Gordon Highlanders was deserving of the highest praise, for they had just undergone a very severe climb and had reached a point beyond which other troops had been unable to advance for over three hours.
“The first rush was followed at short intervals by a second and a third, each led by officers, and as the leading companies went up the path for the final assault the remainder of the troops, among whom the 3rd Sikhs were conspicuous, streamed on in support. But few of the enemy waited for the bayonet, many of them being shot down as they fled in confusion. The position was won at 3:15.”
Amongst the losses of this day were—
Dorsetshire.—Nine men killed; Captain Arnold, Lieutenant Hewitt, and thirty-nine men wounded.
Gordon Highlanders.—Lieutenant Lamont and two men killed; Colonel Mathias, Major Macbean, Captain Uniacke, Lieutenants Dingwall, Meiklejohn, Craufurd, and thirty-five men wounded.
Derbyshire.—Captain Smith and three men killed, eight wounded.
The Victoria Cross was awarded to Lieutenant Pennell, who endeavoured under fire to bring in Captain Smith; to Piper Findlater, who though wounded in both legs still continued to blow his pipes; to Private Lawson for carrying Lieutenant Dingwall out of fire and returning to bring in another, being himself twice wounded; to Private Vickery and Colonel Mathias.