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The Battle of Spioenkop

The Battle of Spioenkop  was fought on the 23rd and 24th of January 1900 The Battle of Spioenkop was the scene of the most futile and certainly the bloodiest of the four battles fought to relieve the besieged town of Ladysmith from the surrounding Boer forces.

Having suffered the fiasco of the Battle of Colenso on the 15th of December 1899, where the British lost many men and 10 artillery pieces that were captured by the Boers in what was to become known in Britain as the Black Week, General Sir Redvers Buller's reputation was in tatters. Although remaining as commander in Natal, he was to be superceded as commander-in-chief by Field Marshall Lord Roberts who was to be accompanied by Lord Kitchener as his chief of staff.

Having been inactive for three weeks after Colenso, but now reinforced to a total strength of about 30,000 men by the arrival of Sir Charles Warren's 5th Division comprising the 10th and 11 Brigades, Buller decided to try to reach Ladysmith by way of Potgieter's Drift to the west. Leaving Barton's brigade facing Colenso, he set off on the 10th of January with Dundonald's Mounted Brigade, five infantry brigades, eight artillery batteries, ten naval guns and 650 transport wagons. From the heights above the north bank of the uThukela River the Boer forces watched the slow progress of the 27 kilometre-long column.

The alerted Boers prepared to oppose the British advance from Brakfontein Ridge. Buller planned to throw two- thirds of his force across the river, consisting of an attack on Brakfontein by Lyttelton with two brigades, two artillery batteries and the naval guns, with a separate flanking force under General Warren sent to turn the Boer's lightly- guarded western flank, consisting of General Clery's 2nd Division together with Woodgate's 11th Lancastrian Brigade, Dundonald’s force and eight artillery batteries. The planned operation would have greatly outnumbered the 7,000 Boer defenders, but would require speed of execution to be successful

What ensued was a litany of delays, lost opportunities and mistakes. Although he had misgivings about Warren's capabilities, Buller rather concentrated his attention on Lyttelton's energetic attack. Warren's attack was a day late in starting and painfully slow in execution. At the same time Dundonald – acting mainly on his own initiative – displayed great initiative and tactical expertise but was then recalled by Warren to guard his baggage wagons! Warren delegated an attack that he had planned against Tabanyama to the command of General Clery, who displayed a similar lack of tactical expertise or vigour. For two days Hart's Irishmen fought their way to the crest only to discover that it was not in fact the actual crest, and was overlooked by well dug-in Boers. Only on the left did Dundonald – again – show any dash in sending forward the South African Light Horse to seize the important Bastion Hill, but despite this position being able to subject the Boer trenches to crossfire, Clery cancelled the whole operation!

In the week since he had issued orders to General Warren, Buller had witnessed the ponderous and ineffective movements of his forces. He did not, however, at any point, attempt to take control of matters himself. In exasperation on the evening of the 22nd of January he told Warren either to withdraw completely, or to take Spioenkop, which dominated the Fairview Road which was to be the route of the planned advance to Ladysmith. From this point the thoughts of all commanders turned towards the seizing of this objective, 450 metres above the Tugela River. The problem was that there was no information available whatsoever regarding the peak, its layout or the Boer dispositions thereupon.

Warren gave command of the operation to Coke, with the actual assault to be commanded by Woodgate with the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers, six companies of the 2nd King's Own Royal Lancaster and two from the 1st South Lancashire, together with 200 dismounted men from Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry – a total of about 1,700 men.

At 11pm on the 23rd the ascent began in drizzle and mist, what appeared to be the crest being attained in thick mist at around 4am . A 275-metre long trench was dug in the stony soil, with a small rock parapet of boulders. At first light, however, it was seen that the trench was in fact situated on a small plateau, with the true summit some 50 to 140 metres away with dead ground in between. The British then proceeded to entrench on the crest. Little did they know that this was to be their 'death trap'. This position was clearly visible from alerted Boer riflemen who had taken on positions on 3 hills known as Aloe Knoll, Green Hill and Conical Hill, a Krupp field gun unit on Twin Peaks, a pom-pom unit on a ridge between Twin Peaks and Aloe Knoll and Boers who were advancing up the north-east slope of Spionkop. Artillery, consisting of four guns on Ntabamnyama and one at General Botha's HQ had also been positioned to fire directly on this position.

As the mist cleared away, the Boers fired heavily on the British exacting a heavy toll, which included the death of Major General Woodgate. These losses were compounded by the fact that a signaller with the name Louis Bothma, was able to use a heliograph to direct the fire of the Boer artillery.

The Lanchashire Fusiliers on the extreme right (North East) bore the brunt of the Boer 'fire' - particularly from Aloe Knoll and Twin Peaks. Many of these soldiers surrendered or were forced to retreat and as a result the Boers began to take control of the north western, northern and north-eastern crest line.

Thorneycroft, - managed to take control of the situation by shouting out to the Boers, 'I am the commandant here, take your men to Hell sir! There's no surrender.' These words together with reinforcements - the Imperial Light Infantry and Middlesex Regiments - inspired the British forces to retain their positions. The Middlesex Regiments were then ordered to fix bayonets and charge the Boers - this effort forced the Boers to retreat back beyond the crest.

Major General Lyttleton at Potgieters Drift had also ordered the Scottish Rifles and Bethune Mounted Infantry to climb the steep southern slope of Spionkop to render assistance. The Kings Royal Rifles were also despatched to seize Twin Peaks.

Just after five o'clock the King's Royal Rifles, supported by naval gun fire from Mount Alice, managed to gain possession of the Twin Peaks , forcing the Boers to remove their Krupp and pom-pom guns from the area. The British were now poised to drive the Boers off Aloe Knoll and from there they could have made the conditions for those holding the north-east line extremely difficult. However, at this crucial moment, Buller for some obscure reason, ordered the King's Royal Rifles to withdraw.

As dusk set in, Thornycraft was overcome by a feeling that he had been deserted by Buller and Warren. As he looked about him he saw a battlefield and trench littered with wounded, dying and dead men. They were all exhausted, thirsty and hungry. Even the Scottish Rifles, Imperial Light Infantry and Middlesex Regiment were badly in need of rest.

He thus, after conferring with other senior officers, decided to order a retreat at 20h00.

General Warren had himself spent most of the day displaying no sense of urgency, busying himself with minor administrative matters. Not until 8pm, when he received a gloomy report of circumstances on the hill, together with a graphic eyewitness report from Winston Churchill, did he stir himself. By this stage it was already too late as Thorneycroft, who had been in command of the situation on the summit all day, had announced that he was withdrawing his remaining men to avoid further slaughter. Informed of this at 2am Warren could still have rescued the situation by sending fresh troops to the summit, but neither he or Buller had the will to continue. The irony was that the Boers, who had also suffered substantial casualties throughout the day, had also withdrawn during the night, but upon discovering the British withdrawal the following morning they re-occupied the summit.

The dreadful day of bloodshed cost the British some 1,200 casualties, of whom over 300 were killed. In total Boer casualties amounted to some 300 men, 62 percent of whom were from the Carolina Commando.

Access to Spioenkop battlefield

The battle site is open daily. There is a self-guided trail amongst the trenches, graves and monuments.

The Spionkop Battle Site is found at the end of a clearly signposted short gravel road from the R616 to Bergville. The R616 is easily accessible from the N3 at the Bergville/ Ladysmith offramps.

It is important to note that Spionkop also offers a panoramic view of the entire Northern Drakensberg and Central Drakensberg. The views of this world heritage site at sunset from this site are 'breathtaking'.