Bravery and blunder on the Kop

Today it is moody, brutal, atmospheric with death too sudden for spirits to rest, the memorials witness to a slaughter on the heights more than a hundred years ago.

The battle of Spioenkop on 24-25 January, 1900, perhaps more than any other, expresses the bravery and the futility of the war that raged between the Boer commandos defending their homeland and the soldiers of Queen Victoria. It can be reliably argued that in a welter of blunders on the British side that Spioenkop takes first prize in the many battles of the Anglo-Boer War.

It was one of several actions fought on the way to relieve Ladysmith. In the scramble for heights that would pave the way for the British forces under General Sir Redvers Buller to lift the siege that had bottled up 12,000 soldiers and civilians in thwn some 20 miles away Spion Kop was considered one of the keys. In fact it became a “living nightmare.”

The problem for the British was that it was pitted against General Louis Botha, perhaps the Boers’ greatest military strategist, and a host of marksmen who had made guerrilla warfare a professional way of life. The British had suffered three major defeats – at Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso – in what became known as “Black Week” less than a month before and were anxious to retrieve their reputation.

Obsessed by the idea that no move could be made without his huge wagon trains, Buller literally telegraphed his intentions to Botha and the Boer chief could redeploy his commandos in good time to meet any British threat. Spioenkop was the highest and most dominant hill in the Boer defence line but British reconnaissance was very limited and they failed to make use of their balloons which would have given them a complete picture of the terrain.

So it was on a dark and drizzly night that a force of 1700 men, mainly from Lancashire regiments, climbed the 1500ft hill under the direct command of General Woodgate with orders to surprise the Boers, drive them off and entrench themselves on the mountain.

The password was Waterloo. The first clash came with a challenge of “Wie’s daar” from one of th~ Vryheid burghers on picket duty. His fellow commandos opened fire but their Mauser bullets flew over the heads of the British who had flung themselves to the ground and in the time they took to reload the British soldiers charged, killing one Boer, the first blood in the conflict.

With the Boers fleeing down the slopes to raise the alarm among their encampments on the plains below, the British believed they had captured the summit and orders were given to fortify the hill with a trench and breastworks 400 metres in length. However, the area was shrouded in a thick mist and when it lifted the British began to realise that they were in a death trap that was soon to cost the life of their commander and many of his troops.

For the alert and decisive Botha had immediately begun to make plans to drive off the British. The Boers had seven guns at their disposal, strategically placed on neighbouring hills from which fire could be directed on the British positions. Orders were given for groups of 50 burghers to occupy Green Hill, Conical Hill and Aloe Knoll, all within the range of Spioenkop, and for 400 others to climb the northeast slopes of the mountain itself and attack the British on the summit.

These 400 would be supported by rifle fire from the surrounding hills and shell fire from the seven guns that included Pom Poms. The mist had done its cruel work well for the Boers, rallied by Comrade Hendrik Prinsloo of the Carolina Commando with the words: “Burghers, we are going to confront the enemy and will not all return. Do your duty and have faith in the Lord.”

In the desperate fight that ensued General Woodgate suffered a mortal head wound and British casualties began to mount rapidly, the shallow trenches that the soldiers had dug now becoming their graves.

Historian Gilbert Tortage wrote in an emotive descripton of the battle of Spioenkop: “Rifle and shellfire raked almost the entire summit, killing and mutilating scores of soldiers. Adding to their misery was the lack of food and water. The hot summer sun beat down mercilessly and the incessant crash of shells bursting at the rate of seven per minute was interspersed with the groans of the wounded and dying.”

Rayne Kruger in his superb narrative of the action, Goodbye Dolly Gray, wrote: “The sun blazed down on a scene of fantastic carnage the main trench was choked with dead and wounded.

Many of the survivors were utterly demoralised and cowered down, not daring to raise their heads, while others crawled about in groups through the choking fumes and dust, hopelessly trying to find shelter on the slopes behind the trench as shell fire incessan tly raked them.

“To agony and terror was added the craving of thirst. No water had reached the firing line and men cried and screamed for it.”

The British hero of Spioenkop was Lieutenant-Colonel Thorneycroft – promoted to command in the field. He had encouraged his soldiers with miraculous disdain for all the murderous fire around him and when someone raised a white flag and Boers emerged to take prisoners he shouted at them: “I’m the commandant here, take your men to Hell, sir! There’s no surrender. “

But the exposed position was untenable – it as said that a biscuit could have been tossed by the Boers into the British redoubts and as darkness fell Thorneycroft ordered the retreat off the mountain, leaving behind their dead and seriously wounded. The Boers, too, decided that they had had enough and fled to their laagers below, only to be sent back up again by General Botha, incensed at their defeatist action. Upon their return they found only a shell-shattered wilderness and a cemetery.

The holocaust of Spioenkop – which gave its name to the Liverpool football ground, the Kop – was the result of many blunders, the principal being lack of communication and the failure to observe that the summit which the British claimed could be enfiladed by Boer guns sited on other hills.

The young war correspondent, Winston Churchill, soon to become famous through the armoured train incident and his subsequent escape from a Pretoria jail, played a personal part in the action at Spion Kop. Shocked by the failure of communication – there was no telegraph system and the heliograph had broken down – he twice surmounted the slopes to convey messages between the commanders.

In the smoke-filled lull after the battle a chivalrous ceasefire was agreed and the British began the grisly work of burying their dead where they had fallen, sometimes three deep, while the Boers carried their deceased comrades down the mountain in blankets. Seventy of the British were found with bullets in the right side of the head, a tragic tribute to the sniping accuracy of the Boers in the early part of the battle.

A month later British soldiers succeeded in the relief of Ladysmith – leaving behind an innocent-looking hill, once a sentinel peak for the Voortrekkers heading into Natal and now crisscrossed with memorials to those who died a long way from home.

December 2006
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