In Saltash, in the park at the top of Fore Street, is a monument for William Penn Symons. Whenever I’m in the town I will make a point of stopping by, not because I have any special connection with him or invested involvement in his deeds, but rather out of interest in how he links Saltash to wider world events. Back in 2008 I wrote a short article for the local magazine Cramleigh, and as I have done with other articles in the past, I thought I would give it a home on the blog.
Overlooking the Fore Street of Saltash is the tall monument dedicated to a general who fought in what is year by year becoming a more and more obscure war. The conflict was the Boer War; the general Sir William Penn Symons.
The Boer War was an armed struggle between the British Empire and the Boer republics of South Africa. ‘It was’, states historian Christopher Lee, ‘one of those conflicts of which most have heard, yet can’t quite place in the historical calendar, and most certainly can’t remember why British troops were fighting in Africa’. Yet half a million British soldiers served during the war, with one in ten either being killed or wounded. Its outbreak was due to growing tensions between the two states that held rivalling interests in the South African region. The British wished to have tighter control of the area, whilst the Boers, whose ancestry is traced to the Netherlands, refused to bow to their demands. It ended in fighting breaking out in 1899.
Major General Penn Symons found himself appointed the commander of a force sent to Natal, an area which bordered the Boer forces on three sides. Before being posted there, Penn Symons had served in India – “the jewel in Britain’s crown”. He had a distinguished military career: born in Hatt, near Saltash in 1843, he joined the army in 1863 and steadily rose through rank in the following four decades (Lieutenant in 1866, Captain in 1878, Major in 1881 and Colonel in 1887).
The force at Natal, posted to the north at the mining town of Dundee, was on the frontline when war was declared by the Boer republics on 12 October 1899. The general British feeling was that the might of the empire would easily defeat the Boer “amateurs”. However, the Boers surprised all by advancing into Natal, with Dundee being invested with two armies of four thousand men a piece.
They arrived at the town on 19 October. Penn Symons’ force was there to meet them on the ground of Talana Hill. The enemy was driven back from the hill, but only at a cost of heavy casualties. One of them was Penn Symons himself who was mortally wounded whilst he urged his men to push forward against the enemy.
After battle the remaining force retreated under cover of night to return to the safety of the town of Ladysmith. The war would continue, even after the British had taken the major Boer towns in 1900, with a guerilla campaign being waged for a further two years. During this period a significant proportion of the public at home became disillusioned with the conflict and many similarities can be drawn with the recent troubles in Iraq.
Although Penn Symons was buried in South Africa, a monument was erected in the Victoria Gardens (which itself commemorates Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee of 1897). The tall pillar has viewed the activities of Fore Street from the twentieth century to the present day, and will long continue.