September 2018 - Sir William Penn Symons

Our latest addition to the archive ( covers the diary experiences of William Penn Symons during the 'Chin-Lushai' Expedition of 1889-90. Penn Symons, a Cornishman by birth, forged a highly successful military career, being a Major-General by the time of his death. Seeing his first combat experience in South Africa during the Xhosa and Zulu Wars, Penn Symons quickly rose through the ranks, seeing further service in India and Burma. At the time of writing this diary, Penn Symons was commanding an expedition to pacify the rebellious Chin and Lushai tribes in British-occupied Burma, a continuation of Burmese resistance that was lingering since the end of the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1887. This diary is an interesting insight into an obscure and little-known punitive expedition. Much of Penn Symons duties involved negotiating with various tribes to secure submission and surrendering of captives/hostages as surety. At various times in his diary, Penn Symons conveys his frustration with the lack of progress, noting at one point: 'had wire from General Gordon to say that he is pleased with our work; blowed if I am half satisfied.' British subjugation of the Chin peoples was eventually attained in 1896, 5 years after Penn Symons' departure.
Shortly after leaving Burma, Penn Symons became the commander of the 2nd Battalion of the then recently-formed South Wales Borderers. Returning to South Africa to see action during the Second Boer War, he was fatally wounded by a Boer bullet while commanding his forces at the Battle of Talana Hill in 1899. Winston Churchill paid tribute to him in the Morning Post:

''So Sir Penn Symons is killed! Well, no-one would have laid down his life more gladly in such a cause. Twenty years ago the merest chance saved him from the massacre at Isandhlwana, and Death promoted him in an afternoon from subaltern to senior captain. Thenceforward his rise was rapid...I used often to meet him. Everyone talked of Symons, of his energy, of his jokes, of his enthusiasm...It was Symons who had built a racecourse on the stony plain; who had organised the Jumrood Spring Meeting; who won the principal event himself, to the delight of the private soldiers, with whom he was intensely popular; who, moreover, was to be first and foremost if the war with the tribes broke out again; and who was entrusted with much of the negotiations with their Jirgas [Pashtun leaders]...May the State in her necessities find others like him!'