Battle of Spion Kop

Battle of Spion Kop

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Spion Kop
partof=Second Boer War

caption=Boers at Spion Kop, 1900.
date=23-24 January, 1900
Spioenkop, 38 km west-southwest of Ladysmith
result=Boer victory
combatant1=flagicon|United Kingdom United Kingdom
commander1=flagicon|United Kingdom Sir Redvers Buller
flagicon|United Kingdom Charles Warren
flagicon|United Kingdom Edward WoodgateKIA
flagicon|United Kingdom Neville Lyttelton
flagicon|United Kingdom Alexander Thorneycroft
commander2=flagicon|Transvaal Louis Botha
flagicon|Transvaal Schalk Willem Burger
36 field guns
casualties1=1,500cite web|url=|title=The Battle of Spion Kop|publisher= [ British Battles] |accessdate=2008-05-31]

The Battle of Spion Kop ( _nl. Slag bij Spionkop; Afrikaans: "Slag van Spioenkop") was fought about 38 km (21 miles) west-south-west of Ladysmith on the hilltop of Spioenkop(1) along the Tugela River, Natal in South Africa. The battle was fought between Boer and British forces from 23-24 January 1900 as part of the Second Boer War, and resulted in a famous British defeat.

Planning and crossing the Tugela

General Sir Redvers Buller, VC, commander of the British forces in Natal, was attempting to relieve a British force besieged in Ladysmith. The Boers under General Louis Botha held the Tugela River against him. Although Botha's men were outnumbered, they were mostly equipped with modern Mauser rifles and up-to-date field guns, and had carefully entrenched their positions. In late December, 1899, Buller made a frontal assault on the Boer positions at the Battle of Colenso. The result was a heavy British defeat.

Over the next few weeks, Buller received further reinforcements, and also acquired sufficient carts and transport to operate away from the railway line which was his main supply line. Buller devised a new plan of attack to relieve Ladysmith. His army was to launch a two-pronged offensive designed to cross the Tugela River at two points and create a bridgehead. [Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War, p. 281 - 283] They would then attack the defensive line that blocked Buller's advance to Ladysmith. The area was only Convert|20|mi|km from Ladysmith. Buller delegated control of his main force to General Sir Charles Warren who was to cross at Trikhardt's drift. Buller would then send a second smaller force, under Major General Neville Lyttelton to attack east of Warren's force as a diversion at Potgieters drift. Once across the Tugela the British would attack the Boer defensive positions and then cross the open plains to relieve Ladysmith.

Warren's force numbered 11,000 infantry, 2,200 cavalry, and 36 field guns. [Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War, p. 282] On the 23rd they marched westward to cross the Tugela. However their march was easily visible to the Boers, and so slow that by the time they arrived at the Tugela, the Boers had entrenched a new position covering it. British mounted troops under the Earl of Dundonald enterprisingly reached the extreme Boer right flank, from where there was little to stop them riding to Ladysmith, but Warren recalled them to guard the force's baggage. [Kruger, p.183] Once all his force had crossed the river, Warren sent part of an infantry division under Lieutenant General Francis Clery against the Boer right flank positions on a plateau named Tabanyama. The Boers had once again entrenched a new position on the reverse slopes of the plateau, and Clery's attack made no progress. Meanwhile the secondary British attack by Lyttelton at Potgieters drift had yet to commence in full.Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War, p. 284]

The Kop

Spion Kop, just northeast of Warren's force, was the largest hill in the region, being over Convert|1400|ft|m in height. It lay almost exactly at the centre of the Boer line. If the British could capture this position and bring artillery to the hill then they would command the flanks of the surrounding Boer positions. On the night of 23 January, Warren sent the larger part of his force under Major General Edward Woodgate to secure Spion Kop. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Thorneycroft of the colonial Mounted Infantry was selected to lead the initial assault.

The British climbed up the hill at night and in dense mist. [Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War, p. 286] They surprised the small Boer piquet and drove them off the Kop at bayonet point. Of the 15 men in the piquet, one was mortally wounded and his grave lies on the hill till this day. A half-company of British Sappers began to entrench the position with a mere 20 picks and 20 shovels (while almost 1,000 soldiers stood around idle) and Major General Woodgate notified General Warren of the successful capture of the hilltop. [Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War, p. 288]

With the dawn of the new day the British discovered that they held only the smaller and lower part of the hilltop of Spion Kop, while the Boers occupied higher ground on three sides of the British position. The British had no direct knowledge of the topography of the summit and the darkness and fog had compounded the problem. To make matters worse, the British trenches were inadequate for all defensive purposes. Because the summit of the kop was mostly hard rock, the trenches were at most 40 cm deep and provided an exceptionally poor defensive position - the British infantry in the trenches could not see over the crest of the plateau and the Boers were able to fire down the length of the crescent-shaped trench from the adjacent peaks.

on Tabanyama could be brought to bear on the British positiondisputed-inline and that rifle fire could be brought to bear from parts of the Kop not yet occupied by the British. However, the Boer Generals also knew that sniping and artillery alone would not be sufficient to dislodge the British - and the Boer position was desperately vulnerable. If the British immediately established positions on Conical Hill and Aloe Knoll (the two unoccupied kojes on the kop itself) they could bring their artillery to bear on Tabanyama, threatening the key Boer positions there. More importantly, there was a risk that the British would storm Twin Peaks "(Drielingkoppe)" to the eastern end of Spion Kop. If Twin Peaks fell, the British would be able to turn the Boers' left flank and annihilate the main Boer encampment. The Boer Generals realised that Spion Kop would have to be stormed quickly if disaster were to be averted.

The Boers began to bombard the British position, dropping shells from the adjacent plateau of Tabanyama at a rate of ten rounds per minute. Meanwhile, Commandant Henrik Prinsloo of the Carolina Commando captured Aloe Knoll and Conical Hill with some 88 men while around 300 Burghers, mainly of the Pretoria Commando, climbed the Kop to launch a frontal assault on the British position. Prinsloo told his men, "Burghers, we're now going in to attack the enemy and we shan't all be coming back. Do your duty and trust in the Lord." [Pakenham, p 303] The British Lee-Metford and Lee-Enfield Rifles were no less deadly than the Boer Mausers however. After suffering serious losses, the Boer assault carried the crest line, but could go no farther.

A kind of stalemate now settled over the Kop. The Boers had failed to drive the British off the Kop but the surviving men of the Pretoria and Carolina Commando now held a firing line on Aloe Knoll from where they could enfilade the British position and the British were now under sustained bombardment from the Boer artillery. The British had failed to exploit their initial success and the initiative now passed to the Boers.

Morale began to sag on both sides as the extreme heat, exhaustion and thirst took hold. On one hand the Boers on the Kop could see large numbers of Burghers on the plains below who refused to join the fight. The sense of betrayal, the bloody failure of the frontal assault, the indiscipline inherent in a civilian army and the apparent security of the British position proved too much for some, who began to abandon their hard-won positions. On the other hand the bombardment began to take its toll on the British. Major General Woodgate fell about 8:30 am, mortally wounded by a shell splinter. In quick succession, the colonel of the Lancashire Fusiliers was wounded, while the sappers' officer and Woodgate's brigade major were killed. [Pakenham, p 307] Officers and men from different units were intermingled, and the British were now leaderless, confused and pinned down.

Colonel Malby Crofton of the Royal Lancasters took charge and semaphored a plea for help, "Reinforce at once or all is lost. General dead." [Pakenham, p 308-309] After that the stunned colonel failed to exercise any leadership. Thorneycroft seems to have taken charge, leading a spirited counterattack that failed in the face of withering fire. Warren had already dispatched two further regular battalions and the Imperial Light Infantry (raised in Durban) on their way up to the firing line. However, he refused to launch an attack on Tabanyama and barred his guns from firing on Aloe Knoll, believing this to be part of the British position. At 11:40 am, Buller, who could see that things were not going well, suggested to Warren that Thorneycroft be appointed commander on the Kop. The first runner to Thorneycroft was shot dead before he could utter a word. Finally, a second runner brought the news, "You are a general!"Pakenham, p. 312]

Winston Churchill was a journalist stationed in South Africa and he had also been commissioned as a Lieutenant in the South African Light Horse by General Buller after his well-publicised escape from Boer captivity. Churchill acted as a courier to and from Spion Kop and General Buller's HQ and made a statement about the scene: "Corpses lay here and there. Many of the wounds were of a horrible nature. The splinters and fragments of the shells had torn and mutilated them. The shallow trenches were choked with dead and wounded."

About 1:00 pm, the situation proved too much for the Lancashire Fusiliers who attempted to surrender. Thorneycroft personally intervened and shouted at the Boers, "I'm the Commandant here; take your men back to hell sir! I allow no surrenders." Luckily, the first of the British reinforcements arrived at this monment. A vicious point-blank firefight ensued but the British line had been saved.

In midafternoon, a battalion of the King's Royal Rifle Corps was sent by Lyttelton from Potgieters's Drift to attack Twin Peaks. After losing Lieutenant Colonel Riddell killed and 100 other casualties, the Rifles carried the double summit at 5:00 pm.

The aftermath

Shattered by the loss of Twin Peaks, General Schalk Willem Burger took his commando out of the battle line that night. On Spion Kop, the Boers who had fought bravely since morning abandoned their positions as darkness fell. They were about to retreat, when Botha appeared and convinced them to stay. However, the Boers did not reclaim their positions. Unknown to Thorneycroft, the battle was as good as won. But Thorneycroft's nerve was also shattered. After sixteen hours on the Kop doing the job of a Brigadier General in total absence of instructions from Warren, he ordered a retreat after reporting that the soldiers had no water and ammunition was running short. Churchill appeared on the scene for the second time. This time he brought the first orders from Warren since he elevated Thorneycroft to brigadier. Churchill said 1,400 men were on the way with two large naval guns. Thorneycroft told him, "Better six good battalions safely down the hill than a bloody mop-up in the morning." [Pakenham, p 319] He ordered the brigade to retreat.

At the same time, Buller sent Lyttelton strict orders to recall his troops from Twin Peaks.

When morning came, the Boer Generals were astonished to see two Burghers on the top of Spion Kop, waving their slouch-hats in triumph. The only British on the Kop were the dead and the dying.

The British suffered 243 fatalities during the battle, many were buried in the trenches where they fell. Approximately 1,250 British were either wounded or captured. The Boers suffered 335 casualties of which 68 were dead. Commandant Prinsloo's Commando lost 55 out of his 88 men.

The British retreated back over the Tugela but the Boers were too weak to follow up their success. Buller managed to rally his troops; Ladysmith would be relieved by the British four weeks later.

pion Kop Battlefield Memorials

The Spion Kop Battlefield, graves and memorials are maintained by Heritage KZN. The site is open to the public and an overview of the battle as well as a map of the battlefield in available at the entrance gate.

The site consists of
* Boer memorial
* British memorial
* South Lancasters memorial
* Imperial Light Infantry memorial
* Two mass graves
* A number of individual graves and memorials, including that of Major General Sir Edward Woodgate.

Note about the name

Although the common English name for the battle is "Spion Kop" throughout the Commonwealth and its historic literature, the official South African English and Afrikaans name for the battle is Spioenkop, which is in common use in South Africa and is the correct English spelling of the "borrowed" Afrikaans name; "spioen" means "spy" or "look-out", and "kop" means "hill" or "outcropping". Another variant that is sometimes found is the combination into Spionkop.

The name Spionkop originates from Dutch rather than Afrikaans. Spion (and not Spioen) is the Dutch word for "spy". Until the 1920s Dutch was still the official language of the Boers, especially in its written form.


*The Spion Kop at Anfield — home of the English football team Liverpool — is named in honour of the battle. The east side of Sheffield United's Bramall Lane, built on a hill, is also called "Spion Kop", as is the east side of their city rivals Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough Stadium. The south side of Birmingham City's St. Andrews ground is also known as the "Spion Kop". Similarly, Plymouth Argyle named a corner of Home Park 'the Spion Kop' in honour of the battle, but the disabled facility was torn down during Phase I regeneration of the football ground. The lower part of the South Stand at Leicester City's old Filbert Street ground was also called the 'Spion Kop'. The Terraced South end of Chesterfield's Recreation Ground is also named after the battle and used to be just a grass bank.
*A Terrace at Wigan Rugby League Football Club's former ground, Central Park, was also named the 'Spion Kop' which was named this a few years after the ground was built, making some believe that this is the "original" kop.
*There is a Kop stand at Windsor Park, home ground of Irish Football Association side Linfield F.C., and also of the Northern Ireland football team.
*The village of Spion Kop near Mansfield, Nottinghamshire was named in honour of the battle.
*Similarly, in places like Australia there are numerous hills bearing the name "Spion Kop". A railway hill in the Melbourne yards is called Spion Kop, (Gerald A Dee,"A Lifetime of Railway Photography" in "Photographer Profile Series", Studfield, 1998, p. 20) and at least two hills (one near Kilmore) also have the same name.
*"The Battle of Spion Kop" was an episode of the "Goon Show" radio program, originally broadcast on December 29, 1958. In this episode, the battle receives "very bad reviews in the press", and is made more musical to make it more popular.
*Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a British stretcher-bearer at the battle.

ee also

*Military history of South Africa
*Second Boer War



* Thomas Pakenham, "The Boer War". New York: Random House 1979.
* The 7 volume "The Times History of the War in South Africa", ed L.S. Amery,(pub 1900-1909)
* "An Illustrated History of South Africa", Cameron & Spies, Human & Rousseau publishers, 1986 (ISBN 1-86812-190-9).
* Military Heritage did a feature about the bloody Spion Kop battle for a hill of the Boer War (Herman T. Voelkner, Military Heritage, October 2005, Volume 7, No. 2, pp 28 to 35, and p. 71), ISSN 1524-8666.
* Winston, Churchill, "My Early Life". New York: Simon & Schuster, 1930.
* Byron Farwell, "The Great Anglo-Boer War". New York; Harper & Row, 1976.
* Denis Judd, "The Boer War". New York: MacMillan, 2003.
* William Manchester, "The Last Lion". Boston: Little Brown, 1983.
* Celida Sandys, "Churchill: Wanted Dead or Alive". New York: Carroll and Graf, 1999.
* Rayne Kruger, "Goodbye Dolly Gray", New English Library, 1964

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