|The Failures at Spion Kop
by Robert C. Daniels
In many ways the Battle of Spion Kop was typical of the many battles fought
between the British and the joint armies of the Boer Republics of the Transvaal
and the Orange Free State from 1899 to 1902 in what is known as the Boer War.
It was one of many battles of the war in which the British army, a highly
trained, disciplined, and professionally led army, lost to the untrained and
undisciplined Boer army, made up of Boers (the Afrikaans word for farmers) and
Burghers (storekeepers and town-dwellers), and led by, for the most part,
leaders who were unlearned and inexperienced in the techniques of modern day
The difference, however, is that unlike the other battles the British had lost
or were to lose in the war, the Battle of Spion Kop, fought on 23 and 24
January 1900, was in fact not a loss at all. Although unbeknownst by the
British at the time, they had actually won the battle. The Boers had already
left the hilltop, and many in their army were in the process of fleeing towards
the town of Ladysmith when it was discovered that the British had actually
'given up' the field and evacuated the battleground. Once this became known,
the Boers quickly re-established themselves on their lost battlefield.
The Battle of Spion Kop, like many battles throughout history, was a battle
that did not need to be fought at all—there were easier ways around the kop
(isolated hill)—but once it was fought and 'won' by the British, the path to
the besieged town of Ladysmith, the goal of the British expedition, was open.
As Deneys Reitz, the young son of the Transvaal State Secretary, wrote
concerning his commando's thoughts while standing at the bottom of Spion Kop in
the early morning hours after the fighting had ceased, "We fully believed that
the morning would see them [the British] screaming through the breaches to the
relief of Ladysmith, and the rolling up of all our Tugela [River] line."
Instead, the British left Spion Kop, collected themselves, and re-crossed the
Tugela River, leaving the hilltop forever and giving up this latest chance of
relieving Ladysmith. As author Byron Farwell states, "Spion Kop, which had
seemed so important on that hot January day, was abandoned almost as soon as
the fight for it ended, deserted by all except the vultures and the bodies of
those who had died to possess it." Why would the renowned British army, as
proud, strong, and seemingly invincible as they were against such a ragtag army
of farmers and shopkeepers, fight for and then abandon such a hard fought and
dearly paid for battleground?
Since 2 November 1899, when British Lieutenant-General Sir George White
conceded that his garrison occupying the Natal settlement of Ladysmith was
effectively hemmed in and surrounded, the British forces under General Sir
Redvers Buller had been pushing northwestwards towards its relief. Buller, as
Commander-in-Chief of British forces in South Africa, had already failed once
in his first attempt to cross the Tugela River on his march to relieve
Ladysmith at the Battle of Colenso, fought on 15 December 1899. This failure,
coupled with the failures of his subordinate Lieutenant-Generals Lord Paul
Methuen and Sir William Gatacre at the Battle of Magersfontein on 11 December
and the Battle of Stormberg on 10 December, respectively, resulted in Buller
being replaced as Commander-in-Chief by British Field-Marshal Lord Frederick
Sleigh Roberts and "relegated to the command in Natal" with orders to
"relieve White, extricate the garrison, and then abandon Ladysmith itself to
After four weeks of resting, regrouping his forces, and receiving
reinforcements, including Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Warren's 5th Division,
newly arrived from England, Buller was ready to try another attempt of fording
the Tugela River and moving towards Ladysmith. According to Ruari Chisholm in
his writings about the siege of Ladysmith:
The recuperative effect of four weeks' contemplation and preparation since the
traumatic experience at Colenso and the steady inflow of reinforcements had
emboldened Buller to think positively once more, and the scene was set for
another attempt to relieve Ladysmith. . . . [Buller] reverted to his original
idea of a flanking movement westwards to Potgieter's Drift. On 10th January
1900 [sic] he was ready to start.
Potgieter's Drift was sixteen miles west of Colenso, and therefore an even
farther distance from Ladysmith than Colenso was. However, Buller hoped to
make a left flanking move around the Boers using the Potgieter's route. In
addition, according to author Thomas Pakenham, once past the Tugela at the
Potgieter's and Trikhardt's Drifts—the later drift (river ford) being another 5
miles west of Potgieter's Drift—and "astride a single chain of jagged hills"
lay "twelve miles of grassy plain" vice "ten miles of tangled gorges that
separated the Tugela at Colenso from Ladysmith." Arthur Doyle, who wrote of
the war as it was occurring, corroborates this statement concerning the
topography of the Potgieter's Drift region when he states, "Once over the river
there is one formidable line of hills to cross, but if this were passed there
would be comparatively easy ground until the Ladysmith hills were reached."
Therefore, according to Doyle, it was Buller's "apparent plan . . . to seize
this [Potgieter's Drift], together with the ferry which runs at this point, and
so to throw himself upon the left flank of the Colenso Boers." Pakenham
elaborates on Buller's plan when he states that Buller also
decided to send to Trikhardts roughly two-thirds of his army. The job of this
independent force was to form the second bridgehead there, and then break
through the chain of hills three miles to the north, just to the west of Spion
Kop. The moment they were on the plain, threatening to outflank Potgieters—that
would be the moment for he himself [i.e., Buller] to attack Potgieters with the
remainder of the army. Once both forces were across the hills, they could join
hands again, and march together across the plain to Ladysmith.
Buller's plan can be argued to have been a sound military plan, if carried out
What was needed for the success of the plan, more than anything else, was fast
movement by the British to seize both of the drifts and as many hills on either
side of the Tugela River near the drifts as possible before the Boers, by now
famous for their entrenching, could put up strong defensive positions. However,
quickness was not Warren's fortitude. As author Eversley Belfield puts it:
A most methodical man whose motto might have been 'hurry slowly', Warren had
very definite theories on warfare. One of these was to defer any fighting until
every item of stores had been assembled nearby. He also intended that, before
his unblooded troops started their real offensive, they should undertake a kind
of three days' dress rehearsal to become acquainted with their adversaries.
Doyle, however, defends Warren's slowness in stating:
an army of 20,000 men cannot be conveyed over a river twenty miles from any
base without elaborate preparations being made to feed them. The roads were in
such a state that the wagons could hardly move, heavy rain had just fallen, and
every stream was swollen into a river; bullocks might strain, and traction
engines pant, and horses die, but by no human means could the stores be kept up
if the advance guard were to go at their own pace.
Regardless of the reasons, the needed fast movement by Warren's troops did not
happen. Although starting out from the towns of Chieveley and Frere south of
Colenso on 10 January, the "ponderous British build-up" was not ready at the
Potgieter's Drift region until 16 January.
This did not stop Colonel Lord Dundonald and his mounted infantry, who,
although nominally under Warren's command, had received orders separately from
Buller to move rapidly around the Boer western flank. On 12 January
Dundonald rapidly seized the heights on Spearman's hill south of Potgieter's
Drift on the Tugela River, which included Mount Alice where Buller was to plant
his headquarters. The next day he seized the ferry at the drift itself.
Dundonald then road to and took Trikhardt's Drift, while Major-General Neville
Lyttelton's Brigade crossed the Tugela at Potgieter's Drift and began a
diversionary assault against the Boers.
On 17 January Warren had finally advanced his forces across Trikhardt's Drift.
As Doyle writes, this last movement, carried out rapidly by Major-Generals
Fitzroy Hart's, J. Talbot Coke's, and H. J. T. Hildyard's Brigades from
Potgieter's Drift on the night of 16 January, including fording the river by an
erected pontoon bridge, was "admirably planned and excellently carried out,
certainly the most strategic movement, if there could be said to have been any
strategic movement upon the British side, in the campaign up to that date."
However, now that Warren had gotten his forces across the Tugela and ready to
move, he again decided to wait. But Dundonald, again, was unable to just stand
On 18 January, while Warren was marching his troops and securing stores in the
shadows of Tabanyama Hill, Dundonald road his mounted infantry towards the
Boer's western flank in the direction of Acton Homes where he was able to
ambush a Boer patrol and set up a "commanding position on a track running
towards Ladysmith. His plea for guns and reinforcements to exploit his success
were [sic] ignored. Instead, on 19 January, Warren recalled Dundonald." Not
only did Warren not send reinforcements to Dundonald, instead recalling him,
Warren also rebuked Dundonald, stating, "Our objective is not Ladysmith, . . .
our objective is to affect a junction with General Sir Redvers Buller's force
and then await orders from him."
Although, as we have already seen, this had been Buller's plan—to join forces
with Warren after Warren's and Buller's troops fought their way through the
hills—Warren's negligence in aggressively acting against the Boers on these two
days most probably resulted in the British giving up a great opportunity to
turn the Boer right flank with little battle or loss of life. As Doyle states:
An immediate advance might have secured the position at once, but, for some
reason which is inexplicable, an aimless march to the left was followed by a
retirement to the original position of Warren's division, and so two invaluable
days were wasted. We have the positive assurance of Commandant Edwards, who was
Chief of Staff to [Boer] General [Louis] Botha, that a vigorous turning
movement upon the left would at this time have completely outflanked the Boer
position and opened the way to Ladysmith.
As Pakenham contends, Warren's task of turning the Boer's flank was
not impossible, as Buller believed (and most historians have agreed), provided
always that Warren attacked the enemy's line with speed and decisiveness. But
it was precisely in these qualities that Warren now seemed to Buller—and seems
to us in retrospect—most dismally lacking.
Pakenham furthers this thought in writing:
Hence it was true that, as Buller believed, if Warren had carried out the plan
to strike hard and swiftly, he might have cut his way through Tabanyama
(Rangeworthy Hills) on 17 January. As it was, Botha and his staff had worn
themselves out in repeated manoeuvring [sic]; galloping backwards and forwards
to plug gaps in the line, dragging heavy guns onto hilltops and down again,
exhorting the men, telegraphing to Pretoria, and again exhorting the men.
Instead, the Boers were given precious time to bring up much needed
reinforcements from around Ladysmith and dig in, and they were well prepared in
their trenches on Tabanyama Hill for Warren's "dress-rehearsal style of attacks
on 20 and 21 January."
Going against Buller's plan to outflank the Boers, Warren's dress-rehearsal
attacks were focused against the Tabanyama Ridge. As Chisholm states, "Only
Dundonald achieved undisputed possession of his target, the summit of Bastion
Hill." Pakenham, however, is somewhat more generous with his assessment of
Warren's assault on Tabanyama when he states, "The attack was successful, as
far as it went. The eight infantry battalions—Hildyard's 'English' brigade (the
2nd) and Hart's Irish Brigade (the 5th)—forced their way on to the southern
crest line of the western plateau." However, as Pakenham continues, "after
the 20th, Warren's advance petered out. He [Warren] said he needed heavier
artillery than his thirty-six field-guns."
By this time Buller had had enough of Warren's slowness; however, not enough to
actually relieve him. Upon visiting Warren's HQ at Three Tree Hill on 22
January and after a heated encounter, Buller presented Warren with an ultimatum
to "either attack on the western flank or retire across the Tugela." "'I
told him,' wrote Buller afterwards, 'that unless he could attack, he must
withdraw.'" Buller's initial advice to Warren "was to swing round to the
left of Spion Kop, and try to break through the Rangeworthy [Tabanyama] Hills.
At which Warren explained that, despite his howitzers, he could still not
establish an artillery position and so make progress on this western side."
It was then, "as an afterthought, Buller suggested he [Warren] should take
Spion Kop, the highest point in the region, towering over Warren's eastern
flank" According to Belfield, "Equally casually, Warren agreed to take this
Farwell contends that even though Buller gave his approval for Warren to
assault Spion Kop, Buller "still felt that an attack on the Boer right was
better, and he sent Warren a letter in which he outlined a promising plan for
such an operation. It was not an order, not a plan Warren was directed to
follow, merely a suggestion. Warren ignored it." Farwell also contends that
Buller's behavior was becoming increasingly vacillatory. The Times History
summed it up: "He was determined not to let Warren work out his own plan in his
own way; he could not bring himself to insist that Warren carry out the plan he
[Buller] himself was convinced was the right one; he would not take over the
Therefore, even though Buller was not 'keen' on the idea of attacking Spion
Kop, he stood by "acting as a kind of umpire" and allowed his subordinate,
Warren, to do so.
But why assault Spion Kop? As Farwell states:
No one had any clear conception of the reasons for attacking Spion Kop. Buller,
when asked by a staff officer what the force on Spion Kop was to do after it
had secured the summit, thought about this for a few moments and then said, "It
has got to stay there."
Pakenham, however, somewhat defends Warren's attack on Spion Kop when he
writes, "Warren's plan to try to crack the nut at the hardest point was perhaps
perverse, but not stupid. Spion Kop was so precipitous that it was the last
place the Boers would expect the British to attack." A war correspondent
it was clear that we could get no further with the frontal attack. Sir Charles
Warren had all the time had Spion Kop in his eye, as likely to be useful. If we
could get on to the southern crest of it we could probably push on to the
northern end, and once there we could open a flanking fire on the Boer lines
which ran east and west. Spion Kop, properly used, was the key of the position,
and the key that would open the door to Ladysmith.
Pakenham furthers that "If it could be seized, if it could be held, if heavy
guns could be installed—all three very big 'ifs'—it would send the Boers
scurrying back to the plain." This would prove to be a statement that
nearly came true; a statement that should have come true but for errors and
blunders of none other than Warren himself. Buller also, however, would bear
some of the blame, if for no other reasons than, as the expedition's senior
commander, for not relieving Warren prior to the assault on Spion Kop, and for
both suggesting and then allowing Warren to even attempt to take the hill.
Spion Kop, Dutch for 'Look-out Hill,' received its name from the Boer
voortrekkers (pioneers) who first gazed from this hill in 1835 "down upon the
promised land of Natal." As Pakenham describes it, "at 1,470 feet above the
river, its summit crowns the ridge, and its sheer, south-facing slopes are
scarred with rocks and rock falls." It was over these rocks and rock falls
that Warren's men would have to climb to assault the summit.
From his vantage point below Spion Kop, neither Warren nor any of his officers
were able to make out the topography of the hill's summit; nor its neighboring
hills. One of the first blunders to be made during this battle was Warren's
neglect in ordering up his observation balloon to reconnoiter the terrain on
top of the hill. Without proper maps and without the use of the balloon,
the actual configuration of the hill was unknown to Warren or his officers, a
matter that would prove to be tragic for those assaulting it.
At 8:30 p.m. on the evening of 23 January 1900, Warren's assault troops began
their movement from Three Tree Hill to the southern base of Spion Kop, six
miles away. It was to be a dawn assault. After Buller pointed out that
Major-General Coke, nearly lame from a recently broken leg, "was not the best
choice as a commander for so energetic an enterprise," Warren replaced him as
the expedition's commander with Major-General E. R. P. Woodgate, who was not in
much better health. Included in Woodgate's force of 1,700 were
the Lancashire Fusiliers, six companies of the Royal Lancasters, and two
companies of the South Lancashires. In addition to these regulars, 200 troopers
from Lieutenant Colonel A. W. Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry (composed mostly
of Johannesburg uitlanders) and a half company of Royal Engineers were
It was Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Thorneycroft who was assigned to lead the
initial assault with his 180 Uitlanders (non-Boer Europeans living in the Boer
states, especially, in this case, British subjects) and Natal refugees.
Ironically, as the troops marched towards Spion Kop, they passed a pile of
sandbags which an "intelligent officer had supplied with the intention that
each man should carry one with him for use on the summit. However, as no one
remembered to give the order to pick them up, they were left behind." These
sandbags would have very possibly saved the lives of many of these men who were
soon to perish on top of Spion Kop.
Other than not knowing the layout of the summit or the not taking along of the
sandbags, the first phase of the attack went well. During the daylight hours,
Thorneycroft had memorized the face of Spion Kop that he and his troops would
have to scale, and his memory served him well as he guided the British force in
the dark from one landmark to the next. Starting out from the foot of Spion Kop
at around 11:00 p.m., "it took four hours to reach the last of Thorneycroft's
landmarks." A few minutes later, after quietly creeping along a much less
steep incline towards the summit with guns unloaded and bayonets fixed, "'Wer
da? ' ('Who goes there?' in German)" was heard from a Boer sentry.
What happened next is well described by Pakenham:
Suddenly out of the mist the challenge. 'Waterloo,' shouted one of the
officers. Then everyone flung themselves flat. A zig-zag line of rifles'
flashes. Thorneycroft waited till the rattle of bolts showed that the Mauser
magazines were empty, then gave the order: fix bayonets and charge. With a
hoarse yell of 'Majuba!', Thorneycroft's men charged into the mist and
vanished. When the staff officers came up, they found the remains of the small
Boer picket: one man, some said an African, bayoneted by an officer of the
Fusiliers, and the boots of the Boers and German volunteers who had fled. At a
cost of ten men wounded, the hill was theirs.
Farwell corroborates this when he states that "One burgher was killed: he died
on a bayonet wielded by Lieutenant Vere Awdry, an athletic young man who swung
him into the air like a bale of hay. The rest of them fled, some in their
stocking feet." Farwell also states that there were "about seventy men of
the Vryheid Commando and some German volunteers" who made up the Boer
When Woodgate arrived at the summit, he sent Lieutenant-Colonel Charles à
Court, who was a member of Buller's staff but temporarily assigned to Warren,
back down the hill to brief Warren on the victory. Woodgate then made a
grievous mistake. He did not send out officers or men to reconnoiter the rest
of the hilltop. Instead, he had the engineers begin digging a line of trenches
where the Boer picket line had stood. The ground the engineers began digging
with their few shovels and pickaxes was hard and rocky. Therefore, the sappers
were able to only dig little more than furrows that would prove to be of little
protection. In addition, they were, unbeknownst to Woodgate and his force,
being dug on a false crest. In the dark and mist that covered the summit,
Woodgate and his officers could not see that more than 100 yards lay between
them and the true crest line. He was also "ignorant of the existence of Aloe
Knoll, the dominant height on the summit."
As Deneys Reitz relates, the first short battle on top of Spion Kop was heard
by those below the northern side of the hill.
It rained at intervals during the night, and towards three in the morning we
were waked by an angry sputter of rifle-fire coming from Spion Kop. We sat up
listening, but as there was nothing we could do in the rain and darkness, and
as after a while the firing died down, we fell asleep again.
Botha was also awakened by the sounds of the rifle shots and, upon learning
that Spion Kop had been overrun, sent riders to the different laagers (Boer
encampments) with calls for volunteers saying, "Spion Kop must be taken this
day." He knew that with Spion Kop in the hands of the British, the Boer
line would fail. As Reitz states concerning his own reaction upon hearing the
news, "This was most serious, for if the hill went the entire Tugela line would
go with it, and we could hardly bring ourselves to believe the news."
However, many of the Boers had panicked and quickly packed their wagons and
saddlebags and began heading towards Ladysmith. Upon seeing this, according to
performed a massive feat of leadership in the small hours of the morning,
rallying and re-forming the dispersing Boer commandos. Haranguing and, in some
cases, physically striking, would-be deserters, he sent Commandant [Henrik]
Prinsloo, perhaps his most resolute subordinate, to take Aloe Knoll.
At 7:00 a.m. that morning, Prinsloo began leading eighty-eight men of his
Carolina Commando up the mist covered northern slope of Spion Kop. By 8:30
a.m., Botha had managed to send others. Reitz states that when he rode up
to the bottom of the hill and tied his pony next to the many other ponies
already there, "Eight or nine hundred [Boer] riflemen were climbing up the
steep side of the hill in face of a close-range fire from the English
troops." Pakenham relates the number as "Three or four hundred—mainly from
the Carolina and Pretoria Commandos." By this time, however, Prinsloo's
commando had already occupied Aloe Knoll and began enfilading the British
trench line from the British right. As Farwell puts it, "Many [British]
soldiers never knew where the fire was coming from. Some 70 of the dead were
found to have been shot through the right side of the head." Prinsloo also
began sending coordinates to the Boer artillerymen using his heliograph, who
were soon sending shell after shell into the unprotected British.
Meanwhile, as Reitz recalled watching the Boers mount the north-side of Spion
Kop while he stood next to his pony:
Many of our men dropped, but already the foremost were within a few yards of
the rocky edge which marked the crest, and soldiers were rising from behind
their cover to meet the final rush. For a moment or two there was confused
hand-to-hand fighting, then the combatants surged over the rim on to the
plateau beyond, where we could no longer see them.
At about 8:45 a.m., Major-General Woodgate was hit in the head by a Boer bullet
and fell to the ground mortally wounded; shortly before he had been unaware of
his dangerous predicament. It was not until the mist began to lift around 8:00
a.m. that Woodgate and his troops realized their mistake in placing their much
too shallow trench on the south summit of the hill. By then it was too late.
With Woodgate out of action, command went to the next senior officer on Spion
Kop, Lieutenant-Colonel Malby Crofton of the Royal Lancasters.
Although the Boer artillery had good fields of fire onto the summit, just the
opposite was true for the British. The British gunners could not see the Boer
guns, so they could not silence them. When British naval officers (throughout
the war the British used large naval guns in addition to their army's field
guns) spotted Boers shooting at the British from Aloe Knoll, the naval officers
opened fire on the knoll with their 4.7-inch naval guns. Warren, unable to make
out the Boers on Aloe Knoll from his vantage point at Three Tree Hill, sent the
British gunners an "urgent message: 'We occupy the whole summit and I fear you
are shelling us seriously. Cannot you turn your guns on the enemy's guns?'"
This action effectively deprived the British on Spion Kop the help of friendly
As Reitz had stated, the British had indeed taken a toll on the Boers who were
trying to gain the summit. During his own climb up he found the dead or dying
bodies of many of his friends, tent-mates, and "corporalship" strewn along the
slope. When he reached the summit, he saw that the Boers had not made it
much "farther than the fringe of loose rocks that runs like a girdle around the
upper tableland [ridge]" with the British laying in "a shallow trench behind a
long low wall of stone about twenty yards away. From here came a vicious
rifle-fire that made further progress impossible." At about 9:00 a.m.,
however, as Reitz states, "the situation eased, for the Transvaal artillerists
got their guns into action on a commanding spur a mile away, and they began to
fire over our heads into the [British] troops . . . the English fire slackened,
and from then onward our losses were less."
The Boers had lost heavily during these first minutes of the battle—so had the
British. The difference, though, is that with the British position so openly
vulnerable, they were to continue to lose men at an alarming rate for the rest
of the day. Soon after Woodgate was hit a message was sent to Warren from the
hilltop stating, "Reinforce at once for all is lost. General is dead." To
Warren's credit, he took this message seriously replying, "I am sending two
battalions and the Imperial Light Infantry are on their way up. You must hold
on to the last. No surrender." Unfortunately, with little shelter for the
British on the summit, sending more troops only added to the carnage. As Doyle
states, "Three thousand more rifles could do nothing to check the fire of the
invisible cannon, and it was this which was the main source of the losses,
while on the other hand the plateau had become so cumbered with troops that a
shell could hardly fail to do damage."
In addition to the artillery fire, the British were receiving enfilading rifle
fire from Conical Hill, Green Hill, and Aloe Hill; basically from three sides
at once. To the British the condition on the summit was a hell on earth. As
Pakenham quotes an eyewitness as saying:
'We had no guns, and the enemy's Long Toms swept the Hill. Shells
rained in among us. The most hideous sights were exhibited. Men blown to atoms,
joints torn asunder. Headless bodies, trunks of bodies. Awful. Awful. You dared
not lift your head above the Rock or you were shot dead at once. Everything was
confusion, officers were killed or mixed up in other regiments, the men had no
one to rally them and became demoralized. . . .' 
Writing about what he saw from his vantage point across the plain on Mount
Alice, John Atkins, a Manchester Guardian correspondent, stated:
I saw three shells strike a certain trench within a minute; each struck it full
in the face, and the brown dust rose and drifted away with the white smoke. The
trench was toothed into a rampart. Another shell struck it, and
then—heavens!—the trench rose up and moved forward. The trench was men; the
teeth against the sky were men. They ran forward bending their bodies into a
curve—they looked like a cornfield with a heavy wind sweeping over it from
Although Lieutenant-Colonel Crofton was in charge of the British on the summit,
it was Lieutenant-Colonel Thorneycroft who was proving himself the better
leader. Buller, watching the battle unfold from his headquarters on Mount
Alice, realized this and signaled Warren: "Now Woodgate is dead I think you
must put a strong commander on top; I recommend you put Thorneycroft in
command." Warren took Buller's advice. However, he failed to tell Major-General
Coke, who Warren had sent to the summit with the reinforcements and who was
still en route to the top, that Thorneycroft was now a general and in charge of
the British forces on the summit. The result was confusion by those on the
summit about who was in charge on the battlefield. Although this confusion
reigned from time to time, Thorneycroft continued to prove his worth, at one
time even, in pain from twisting his ankle, hopping up and limping out towards
some Boers who were in the process of taking prisoners of some of the Fusiliers
who had had enough of the conditions and the fighting on the hilltop and
decided to surrender. Once there, Thorneycroft shouted, "I'm in command here!
Take your men back to hell, sir! I allow no surrender!" Although some 167
of the men had already been led away as prisoners, Thorneycroft was able to
keep the rest from surrendering.
By this time the few heliograph mirrors brought up to the summit had been
smashed by shell fire, and the only way to signal to Warren was through
messengers. At 3:30 p.m., Thorneycroft, literally the first time since
dawn, had a respite from the fighting long enough to sit down and write a note
to Warren. The note read:
Hung on till last extremity with old force. Some of the Middlesex here now, and
I hear Dorsets coming up, but force really inadequate to hold such a large
perimeter. . . . What reinforcements can you send to hold the hill tonight? We
are badly in need of water. There are many killed and wounded.
[PS] If you wish to make a certainty of hill for night, you must send more
Infantry and attack enemy's guns.
It was this later—attacking and silencing the enemy's guns—that was most
desperately needed, and what both Warren and Buller failed to do. An assault
along the Tabanyama Ridge by Warren's 10,000 remaining troops could have
greatly relieved the pressure from that being savagely applied to the top of
Spion Kop by the Boer gunners. Botha had already sapped the strength from
those defending Tabanyama Ridge and sent them to Spion Kop. Other Boers had
already left the battlefield for Ladysmith. Any attack by Warren on
Tabanyama would most probably have forced Botha to redirect much of his
artillery fire from Spion Kop to defend Tabanyama, which would have given
Thorneycroft and his troops at least some respite, maybe enough to dig better
and deeper trenches. But for unexplained reasons, neither Warren nor Buller
ever gave the order for this attack.
Warren did, however, send a message to Lyttelton asking for help to relieve the
pressure from Thorneycroft. To this, Lyttelton responded by making a
"demonstration early in the morning, but Buller had ordered it stopped."
Later, however, Lyttelton launched another assault, this time against Twin
Peaks. According to Farwell, Lyttelton "did not consult Buller, who he knew
would disapprove" of the assault. This assault, although with heavy British
casualties, gained the summit of Twin Peaks. "Botha was alarmed, as well he
might be, for if the British gained these heights and held them they could make
Spion Kop untenable for his burghers." Although Buller, angry at seeing the
assault against Twin Peaks begin without his permission, sent orders for its
cease, the Twin Peaks were nonetheless taken. The British commander of the
assault turned a "Nelson eye" to the repeated messages. With these peaks in
British control, the Boers on Aloe Knoll, between the peaks and Thorneycroft's
men, could be enfiladed by British fire from behind and would be forced to give
up their position. This was the turning point needed in the battle. But as
Farwell aptly states, "Botha's greatest support came not from his burghers but
from Buller, who, when he saw the attack developing, sent a furious message to
Lyttelton demanding that he recall his men." Major Robert Calverley
Arlington Bewicke-Copley, the surviving senior British officer on Twin Peaks,
would reluctantly withdraw his troops from the summits soon after dusk.
However, according to Pakenham,
the fact that they had withdrawn from the Twin Peaks made little difference to
events. The thought of them being there was enough to send [Boer Commandant]
Schalk Burger scurrying back across the plain to Ladysmith, leaving that second
great breach in the Boers' line wide open for Buller and Lyttelton to exploit
Meanwhile, the battle for Spion Kop had raged on all day with Thorneycroft and
others leading fruitless advances to chase off the Boers; the British dead
literally piled up. Although additional British soldiers had arrived on the
hilltop, they only added to those already in the overcrowded shallow ditch and
proved to be more fodder for the Boer rifles and artillery fire.
It was not, however, only the British and Boer soldiers that perished on that
hill. As E. S. Reddy states concerning Indian stretcher-bearers,
I saw the Indian mule-train moved [sic] up the slopes of the Kop carrying water
to the distressed soldiers who had lain powerless on the plateau. The mules
carried the water in immense bags, one on each side, led by Indians at their
leads. The galling rifle-fire, which heralded their arrival on the top, did not
deter the strangely-looking cavalcade which moved slowly forward, and as an
Indian fell, another quietly stepped forward to fill the vacant place.
Although Twin Peaks had been taken, Thorneycroft, in his isolated position,
could not see it, nor was he aware that it had been taken by the British.
Coke, however, who had finally hobbled his way to the top of Spion Kop,
according to Farwell, "saw that Twin Peaks had been captured, but it never
occurred to him that he should now make a determined effort to clear the Boers
from Aloe Knoll and link up with the [Kings Royal] Rifles" on Twin Peaks.
Instead, at 6:00 p.m., both Coke and Thorneycroft, about ten minutes apart and
both with the impression that they were in charge of the troops on the summit
of Spion Kop, sent messages to Warren stating that it was nearly impossible to
hold the hill past the night unless the Boer artillery was silenced, regardless
of the amount of reinforcements that may arrive.
It wasn't until around 8:00 p.m. that these messages reached Warren, and then
not until after young Winston Churchill, a war correspondent and acting 2nd
lieutenant, gave Warren a "vivid word picture of the demoralized troops, the
casualties, and the ineffectiveness of Coke," that Warren finally became
alarmed. As Farwell states concerning Warren's actions during the day,
he [Warren], was serenely unworried. All day he busied himself with minor
details, which he handled splendidly; Warren liked to gnaw on small bones. It
was not until late in the afternoon that he thought of the balloon and sent for
it; although it was too late in the day to use it, it would be useful tomorrow,
he thought. Not until even later did it occur to him that sandbags and
entrenching tools ought to be sent up to Spion Kop. The signalling [sic]
arrangements were deplorable, but he made no effort to better them; neither did
he worry about pushing guns up onto the hill.
It was not until after the two messages sent from Coke and Thorneycroft reached
him and Churchill's vivid word picture description of the conditions of the top
of Spion Kop that Warren, "Finally alarmed, . . . began thinking of useful
things to do: he ordered the naval guns sent up, he sent off 200 men of the
Somerset Light Infantry with entrenching tools and sandbags, and he sent
Churchill back with a message to Thorneycroft."
By the time Churchill had climbed back up to the top of Spion Kop it was well
after dark, and by the time he found Thorneycroft, he, Thorneycroft had already
made the decision to abandon the hill. Churchill found him sitting on the
ground surrounded by what was left of his regiment "which had 'fought for him
like lions and followed him like dogs.'" Warren's promised reinforcements,
gunners, and sappers were to have no impact on the dispirited Thorneycroft. He
was completely worn out and demoralized, and was convinced that the battle was
lost. "'The retirement is in progress,' he told Churchill. 'Better six good
battalions safely off the hill tonight than a bloody mop-up in the
morning.'" With that statement, he ordered a withdrawal from the summit and
led his troops down. Even passing the reinforcements and sappers coming up the
hill as Thorneycroft made his way down, did not persuade him to turn back.
Unbeknownst to the British, however, the Boers were also leaving the hill,
thinking they too had lost the fight. As Reitz tells us:
We were hungry, thirsty and tired; around us were the dead men covered with
swarms of flies attracted by the smell of blood. We did not know the cruel
losses that the English were suffering, and we believed that they were easily
holding their own, so discouragement spread as the shadows lengthened.
As Reitz continues, "Batches of men left the line, openly defying [Commandant]
Red Daniel [Opperman], who was impotent in the face of this wholesale
defection, and when at last the sun set I do not think there were sixty men
left on the ledge." At about 10:00 p.m., Opperman decided to retreat. As
Reitz states, "We descended the hill by the way which he [Opperman] had climbed
up nearly sixteen hours before, our feet striking sickeningly at times against
the dead bodies in our path."
Later that night and early the next morning, Opperman's commando, thinking the
British were on top of the hill in force, discussed their next move. Reitz
and the remainder of Opperman's commando then went back to their laager. Once
there they saw that Prinsloo's Carolina Commando, although having fought
bravely during the day, had lost hope and were in the process of hurriedly
packing their wagons and beginning to ride out towards Ladysmith. At that
moment, however, the sound of galloping hoofs was heard and a man rode into
their midst. As Reitz writes:
I could not see his face in the dark, but word went round that it was Louis
Botha, the new Commandant-General, appointed in place of Piet Joubert who was
seriously ill. He addressed the men from the saddle, telling them of the shame
that would be theirs if they deserted their posts in this hour of danger; and
so eloquent was his appeal that in a few minutes the men were filing off into
the dark to reoccupy their positions on either side of the Spion Kop gap. I
believe that he spent the rest of the night riding from commando to commando
exhorting and threatening, until he persuaded the men to return to the line,
thus averting a great disaster.
Unfortunately for the British, Warren was no Botha; neither was Buller. As
The time had now arrived for Sir Charles Warren to display what, if anything,
lay behind his monocle; what, if anything he possessed of military ability,
moral courage, and resolution; and what, if anything, supported the jaunty
self-confidence he had always displayed. There were still some 1,600 troops . .
. on the slopes below the summit; the mountain battery and the naval guns were
at the foot of Spion Kop, ready and willing to climb and fight; he had machine
guns, supplies, and a dozen fresh battalions in hand. . . . He had only to act
with energy and resolution, to throw his men and guns back onto that hilltop,
to rally his officers and men and infuse in them a sense of urgency, and the
hill would have been his.
However, as Farwell continues concerning Warren's reaction after looking into
the despondent faces of Coke and Thorneycroft who had reached Warren's
headquarters at Three Tree Hill, Warren "resigned himself to defeat. He sent a
pleading message to Buller: 'Can you come at once and decide what to do?'"
That morning, Buller finally took over from Warren and ordered a complete
withdrawal of his troops back across the Tugela River. Not only was Spion Kop
abandoned, but so too were Twin Peaks and the positions taken on Tabanyama
Ridge, all taken at a cost of over 350 British killed and over 900 wounded.
That same morning the Boers discovered to their surprise that the British had
abandoned the hill. As Reitz writes:
Gradually the dawn came and still there was no movement. Then to our utter
surprise we saw two men on the top [of Spion Kop] triumphantly waving their
hats and holding their rifles aloft. They were Boers, and their presence there
was proof that, almost unbelievably, defeat had turned to victory—the English
were gone and the hill was still ours.
Reitz and others scrambled back to the top of Spion Kop where they were "able
to grasp the full significance of our unexpected success. . . . everywhere the
British were in full retreat from the positions which they had captured on this
side of the stream [the Tugela River].
For the next few hours Reitz and his fellow Boers assisted the British medical
personnel attend to the wounded from both sides left on the summit. The
trough that had been dug much too shallow for a proper defensive trench was
then deepened to make a suitable grave for those British soldiers who had died
in and around it.
In the end, the British had not lost the Battle of Spion Kop, they gave it
away. Nearly every serious student of military history can attest that most
battles are not won by just proper planning and forethought, or even superior
might. Most battles are won by leaders who either make the least amount of
mistakes or have the insight, fortitude, and courage to capitalize on their
opponent's mistakes and weaknesses. The Battle of Spion Kop was no exception.
The battle was riddled with mistakes from the beginning. Most of the mistakes
were made on the part of the British who were superior in numbers of soldiers,
war supplies, and equipment to that of the ragtag Boer army they were fighting.
One of the biggest mistakes was to even fight the battle at all.
Buller had made it clear that Warren was to conduct a flanking movement around
the side of the Boers, way to the west of Spion Kop. Had Warren hustled his
troops before the Boers could consolidate and construct their trenches on the
Tabanyama Ridge, had Warren reinforced Dundonald when Dundonald had taken the
position west of the Boers, had Buller relieved Warren when Warren refused to
do these things, Spion Kop would not have been fought or needed to be fought.
Once, however, it was determined to assault Spion Kop, again Warren failed. He
failed to reconnoiter his objective using the observation balloon at his
disposal before the battle began. He also failed to use the observation balloon
once the battle began. He failed to maintain adequate communication with his
senior officers who were on top of Spion Kop battling for their lives. He also
failed to use his 10,000 remaining troops, who were standing idly by during the
time of the battle, to attack the Tabanyama Ridge, which would have, at the
very least, helped draw off some of the artillery fire from Spion Kop. And in
the end, Warren failed to "act with energy and resolution, to throw his men and
guns back onto that hilltop, to rally his officers and men and infuse in them a
sense of urgency" when the exhausted and demoralized Thorneycroft could do no
Buller also failed. He should have relieved Warren days before Spion Kop was
fought. As Pakenham states, "Buller also blamed himself" in not doing so.
Buller "should have obeyed his instincts and superseded Warren six days
earlier." In addition, once the battle did begin, Buller should not have
called off Lyttelton's men from Twin Peaks. Instead of failing to urge his
far-sighted subordinate general on, Buller should have ordered the assault
himself and fully supported it with additional troops.
It was Louis Botha who proved to be one of the true heroes of the battle. He
painstakingly continued to urge his Boers, demoralized as they were, to stay
and fight. This untrained but energetic farmer-turned general truly
demonstrated the insight, fortitude, and courage to capitalize on his
opponent's mistakes and weaknesses and, simply put, out-generaled the
professional British generals to win the battle.
Footnotes and Works Cited
Copyright © 2007 Robert C. Daniels.
Written by Robert C. Daniels. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Robert Daniels at:
About the author:
Robert Daniels, after retiring from the U.S. Navy as a Chief Petty Officer, received
his AA from Tidewater Community College, Virginia Beach, VA, his BA in History from
Old Dominion University (ODU), Norfolk, VA, and his MA in Military Studies, Land
Warfare from the American Military University (AMU), Manassas Park, VA. He has also
written and published two books telling the exploits of both WWII era veterans and
civilians: 1220 Days and World War II in Mid-America. Excerpts of these books, as
well as access to order autographed copies of them, a short author bio, and info
on his current writing projects can be viewed on his web page at http://www.robertcdaniels.com
He currently teaches adjunct U.S. and Western Civilization History at Tidewater
Community College in Virginia Beach, VA, when not managing a U.S. Coast Guard schoolhouse.
Published online: 3/31/2007.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.