The Battle of Spionkop

The terrible extent of the British casualties at the Battle of Spionkop. “The acre of massacre”.
The terrible extent of the British casualties at the Battle of Spionkop. “The acre of massacre”.

The Second Anglo Boer War was fought between the British Empire and two Boer states, the South African Republic (Transvaal Republic) and the Orange Free State, over the Empire’s influence in South Africa and greed to acquire the rich gold field of these two states. This war is also referred to as the South African War.

At the outbreak of this war, the Boer commanders made a decision to besiege, certain key towns in the Cape Colony and Natal, in an effort to prevent a British invasion of their homelands.

General Sir Redvers Buller, was put in command, at the outset of the Natal component of the British war effort. He had urgently mounted a campaign to relieve the siege of Ladysmith and had suffered a humiliating defeat, at the Battle of Colenso. This battle took place on the 15th of December 1899.

The Battle of Spionkop, which was fought over the period of the 23rd and 24th of January 1900, represented the second of his four attempts to relieve Ladysmith. The Battle of Spioenkop was the scene of the most futile and certainly the bloodiest of the four battles.

The British believed that by traversing the hill of Spionkop they would be able to overcome the mighty barrier of the Thukela (thunder in Zulu) River, which General Louis Botha, was using as his defensive line. However,  a contingent made up of 1,700 men, from 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 failed on two occasions, in the early hours of the morning of the 24th of January to entrench properly. Their second attempt, at the crest of Spionkop, resulted in trenches which ran parallel, to the Boers Krupp and pom-pom guns on Aloe Knoll, Green Hill and Twin Peaks. What ensued was an absolute slaughter.

Lieutenant Colonel 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 ( a practice they were not used to) – this effort forced the Boers to retreat back beyond the crest. The Kings Royal Rifles, under the command, of Major General Lytellton, were also dispatched to seize Twin Peaks. Just after five o’clock the King’s Royal Rifles, supported by naval gunfire from Mount Alice, managed to gain possession of the Twin Peaks, forcing the Boers 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 a withdrawal of the Kings Royal Rifles.

As dusk set in, Thornycraft was overcome by a feeling that he had been deserted by General Buller and Warren. As he looked around 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. The Boer forces were similarly despondent and also withdrew from the battlefield. The dreadful day of bloodshed cost the British some 1,200 casualties, of whom approximately 300 were killed. In total Boer, casualties amounted to some 300 men of which 68 died.

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. There are a number of specialist Battlefield Tour Guides, that can provide a very enlightening overview of this battle site. It is important to note that Spionkop also offers a panoramic view of the entire Northern and Central Drakensberg. The views of this world heritage site at sunset from this site are ‘breathtaking’.

DID YOU KNOW?

  • An important memorial or stadium, which commemorates the Battle of Spionkop is located at the famous Liverpool Football Stadium, Anfield. It is known as the “Kop” and pays tribute to the many soldiers from Liverpool and specifically the 1st South Lancashire Regiment, who held their position and died in the famous battle of Spionkop.
  • Three of the most important personalities of the 20th century, namely Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, and General Louis Botha were involved in the Battle of Spionkop.
  • A monument has finally been placed on Spionkop to commemorate the incredible sacrifice that the Indian community made to support the British war effort in the Anglo-Boer War.

 

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