Battle of Spionkop - Natal 1900
23 January 2018
Battle of Spioenkop.
Spioenkop was General Sir Redvers Buller’s third attempt to relieve Ladysmith. The siege of the town had begun on the 2nd November 1899 and his first attempt at Colenso on the 15th December 1899 was a disaster for the British. Buller therefore decided to try to roll up the Boer line along the upper Thukela (Tugela) River. By this stage, he had been reinforced by the arrival of the 5th Division commanded by Lt Gen Sir Charles Warren, who had secret orders to succeed Buller if Buller was killed in the Anglo-Boer War and this set the scene for bitter wrangling between the British generals.
Buller tasked Warren with breaking through the Boer positions along the iNthabamnyama range north-east of the present town of Bergville. The Acting Commandant General of the Boer forces, General Louis Botha had deployed his burghers in brilliantly positioned trenches along this feature and Warren’s troops fought a series of actions on the 20th and 21st January 1900 but it soon became clear that they were effectively preventing any further British advance. An impatient Buller rode up to remonstrate with Warren and both generals decided almost as a matter of fact that Spioenkop – a prominent hill overlooking the entire theatre of operations – should be taken.
The attack was scheduled for the 22nd January 1900 but postponed until the 23rd, leading to a blazing row taking place between Buller and Warren. Even Warren’s choice of commander to lead the assault (Maj Gen John Talbot Coke – who was recovering from a recently broken leg) was opposed by Buller and eventually Maj Gen Sir Edward Woodgate was given the task.
On the night of the 23rd January 1900, Woodgate assembled 1700 men and they commenced their ascent of The Kop from the vicinity of Three Tree Hill. No artillery was taken (even though a mountain battery was available at Frere), no order was given for the men to carry sandbags and the section of water carriers did not arrive.
Colonel Alec Thorneycroft led the force. He was the only officer who had undertaken a visual reconnaissance of the route.
At 04h00 on the 24th January 1900, the British reached the summit and surprised a party of Boers who were constructing a trench. They fled to spread the news of the British arrival to the Boers in their laagers below The Kop and many burghers began to flee. Meanwhile the British commenced entrenching but their trench was very badly sited in the centre instead of on the forward slope and this was only discovered when the mist lifted at 07h00. Furthermore, entrenching was made virtually impossible due to the rocky nature of the ground.
Botha managed to convince some Boers to stay and they climbed Spioenkop. Commandant Hendrik Prinsloo’s Carolina Commando took up a position below the dead ground within a stone’s throw of the Lancashire Fusiliers’ positions. As the mist lifted, they poured a devastatingly accurate rifle fire into the main trench, ably supported by accurate artillery fire directed by Commandant Prinsloo’s signaller, Louis Bothma – possibly the first example of effective indirect artillery fire.
Woodgate was mortally wounded at an early stage of the battle, resulting in a total confusion of succession in command until Thorneycroft discovered that he had been appointed.
Warren requested Gen Neville Lyttelton to provide reinforcements and the 3rd Kings Royal Rifles Corps was despatched to occupy the key to the position – the Twin Peaks, but Buller ordered them back, depriving the British of an opportunity to storm the rear of the Boer attack.
To make matters worse for the hapless British soldiers, the Royal Navy’s guns shelled them at several stages during the battle.
Despite the constant arrival of reinforcements, it became clear to Thorneycroft that he would be unable to hold out and after consulting with unit commanders, he decided to withdraw – unaware that the Boers had also begun to withdraw. By 02h00 on the 25th January 1900, both sides had left the Kop and by the evening of the 25th January, Buller had commenced a general retreat across the Tugela River.
The British casualties in the Battle of Spioenkop were approximately 1733 killed, wounded and missing – most of them blown to pieces by artillery fire (and in many cases by their own guns). Official Boer figures state that 58 were killed and 140 wounded.
With thanks to Ken Gillings for the script