Henry William Pitcher

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VictoriaCross.jpg
A young Henry Pitcher

Henry William Pitcher 1840-1875 Victoria Cross holder

At the age of 22, Lieutenant William Pitcher, who was educated at Victoria College, was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery in action on the border of India and Afghanistan.

Family

He was born at Kamptee in India, the second son of Vincent Pitcher, an officer serving in the 6th Madras Light Cavalry, who died young, and Emelie Le Geyt, daughter of Vice-Admiral George Le Geyt. His elder brother Colonel Duncan George Pitcher also served in India. After her husband's death, Mrs Pitcher settled in Jersey and subsequently married the Rev Thomas Le Neveu of St Martin. There is a large memorial window, dedicated to Henry, in St Martin's Parish Church.

Her sister, Marguerite, was the sister-in-law of Victoria College’s first headmaster, Dr W G Henderson, and the two Pitchers joined the school in 1856, four years after it opened.

Duncan Pitcher also joined the Indian Army and retired as a colonel in 1896. He returned to live in Jersey, where his mother died in 1901, and where he died in 1924.

The Victoria Cross and campaign medals won by Henry Pitcher

Army

After leaving Victoria College, Henry Pitcher was commissioned Ensign, and set sail for India, arriving in December, at the height of the Indian Mutiny. He was promoted Lieutenant in May 1858, and joined Coke’s Rifles, one of eight regiments which, together with the Guides’ Infantry and Cavalry, were to become known as the Punjab Frontier Force, the famous ‘Piffers’ – supreme exponents of mountain warfare. The regiment’s uniform was not khaki, which was then being introduced for such warfare, but black, which made the men stand out sharply against the mountains of the frontier.

He was attached to the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, under the command of Sir Colin Campbell, and served with the 79th Highlanders for the remainder of the Mutiny, seeing action through the campaign of 1858–1859. He was present at the siege and capture of Lucknow, as well as at many other actions which restored peace and order to India’s plains.

He was appointed Adjutant of the 4th Punjab Infantry and in 1863, a force, including his regiment, was formed to stop raids by former mutineers and fanatical Muslim tribesmen from the hills of North-West India – the present border area of Afghanistan and Pakistan. It advanced through the Umbeyla Pass, but after three days the troops halted, penned in on low ground, with surrounding hills occupied by tribesmen.

A map of the British position in the Umbeyla Pass

Crag Piquet

The key to the British defensive position on the right was a high rock hill commanding all the lower defences. The ascent to this was ‘most precipitous, the path leading to its top narrow and difficult, and where the summit is reached there is but little level ground to stand upon.’

On the morning of 30 October 1863 an attack was made by the Bunerwals on the advance piquets of the Right Defence, which was held by the 1st Punjab Infantry and a Company of the Guide Corps under the command of Major C P Keyes. Major Keyes placed a party of 12 men, as many as it could hold, on the crag.

About half an hour before daylight heavy firing commenced on the Crag, and Keyes and Lieutenant Pitcher advanced with about 20 men to their assistance, but they were overpowered and driven off the top of the hill. Keyes ordered his men to take cover under over-hanging rocks, about 20 paces from the top, and as dawn broke, he directed his men to fix bayonets and charge.

The attack had to be made in almost single file and Keyes climbed one path, with Lieutenant G V Fosbury and Lieutenant Pitcher advancing up others. Fosbury led his men ‘with the greatest coolness and intrepidity, and was the first man to gain the top of the Crag on his side of the attack’.

Meanwhile Pitcher, ‘equally cool and daring’, led his men almost to the summit, until, in the moment of victory, he was wounded by a boulder hurled by the enemy from the top. After ‘a most exciting and hand-to-hand fight’, the Crag Piquet was recovered, with the enemy driven out at the point of the bayonet, and three standards captured. With the Crag Piquet taken, the remainder of the enemy quickly disappeared down the mountain, leaving behind 54 killed and 7 wounded. In his report of the action, Major Keyes wrote: ‘If the Victoria Cross be the award for coolness and daring courage in the presence of great danger, these two officers (Lieutenants Fosbury and Pitcher) have well earned that distinction. This is the second time within the last few days that it has been my duty to report upon the high soldier-like qualities possessed by Lieutenant H W Pitcher, Adjutant 1st Punjab Infantry.’ Fosbury and Pitcher both received the Victoria Cross, the only two given for the Umbeyla Campaign.

The Umbeyla Pass

Second Assault

Following the action Crag Piquet was enlarged and strengthened, with a garrison of 160 men. On the morning of 13 November the crag was again taken by tribesmen and Lieutenant Pitcher and Lieutenant H R Young commanded the troops sent to retake it once again. In spite of the ‘great coolness and daring’ with which they attempted the assault, they were too weak to regain the crag and fell back on the rocks below it. Lieutenant Pitcher was severely wounded in the charge, and it was not until the 101st Fusiliers were brought up into the attack that the Crag Piquet was retaken, and the enemy driven back over the hills.

In his report of the action, Major Keyes wrote: ‘I beg to bring to the special notice of the Brigadier-General Commanding the admirable manner in which he Lieutenant Pitcher performed this important duty; he was by many yards the foremost of his party, and the gallant bearing of this excellent young officer was the admiration of all spectators. It is impossible to say too much or to over-rate his services on this occasion. Lieutenant Pitcher was severely wounded, and was obliged to be carried back.’

Lieutenant Pitcher recovered from his injuries, and was awarded his VC the following year. He was promoted to captain, but at the age of 34, in 1875, he died of heatstroke and was buried at the Garrison Church at Kohat in the North-West Frontier.

Henry Pitcher as a captain

London Gazette

London Gazette, 16 July 1864 , Umbeyla, North West India, 30 October 1863, Lieutenant Henry William Pitcher, 4th Punjab Native Infantry.

For the daring and gallant manner in which, in the course of the recent operations against the Frontier Tribes, on the 30th October 1863, he led a party of his Regiment to re-capture the Crag Picket, after its garrison had been driven in by the enemy; on which occasion sixty of them were killed in desperate hand to hand fighting.
From the nature of the approach to the top of the Crag amongst the large rocks, one or two men only could advance at a time; "and when I ascended one path" relates Major Keyes, commanding the 1st Punjab Infantry. "I directed Lieutenant Fosbery, of the late 4th European Regiment, to push up another, at the head of a few men. He led this party with the greatest coolness and intrepidity, and was the first man to gain the top of the Crag, on his side of the attack. Lieutenant Pitcher, equally cool and daring, led a party of men up to the last rock, until he was knocked down and stunned by a large stone thrown from above, within a few yards of him".
Lieutenant Pitcher also displayed great gallantry in leading on a party of his Regiment to endeavour to recover the Crag Picket, when it again fell into the enemy’s hands, on the 13th of November, as related in the following extract from Major Keyes’ report of the 16th of that month "The duty of leading the first charge devolved upon Lieutenant Pitcher, and I beg to bring to the special notice of the Brigadier-General Commanding, the admirable manner in which he performed this important duty. He was by many yards the foremost of his party, and the gallant bearing of this excellent young Officer was the admiration of all spectators.
It is impossible to say too much, or to overrate his services on this occasion. Lieutenant Pitcher was severely wounded, and was obliged to be carried back".
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