South African Battle: 24 January 1900

Battle of Spioenkop

The Battle of Spioenkop was the most ferocious and bloody of the Boer War and marked the end of Buller’s second attempt to relieve Ladysmith. Spioenkop was the natural strongpoint of the Tugela range and if occupied and held by the British, it was thought, would secure them the path to Ladysmith.

Attempting to make a two-pronged encirclement of Boer forces on the Tugela River, thus clearing the way to Ladysmith, the forces under General Sir Redvers Buller V.C. proceeded to the easterly flank, and those under General Sir Charles Warren took the westerly flank towards the crossing point at Trichardt‘s Drift.

Met by Boer forces on the facing hill crest of Thabanyama, a bombardment and subsequent infantry attack by Warren’s forces was easily repulsed by the entrenched Boer troops, and Warren looked toward taking the great hill of Spioenkop to allow him to turn the Boer flank.

He ordered the hill to be taken on the night of 23 January 1900. A lightly equipped force of 1 700 men, comprising eight companies of the 2nd Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers, six of the 2nd Royal Lancasters, two of the 1st South Lancashires, 180 men of Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry, and half a company of Sappers, slowly climbed the hill. The column overwhelmed the Boer picket on the ‘summit’ and at 3.30am gave three resounding cheers to let the rest of Buller’s Army know that the hill was theirs.

For the rest of the early morning, in a pitch black and swirling mist, the British dug a line of trenches some 300 yards long on what they thought was the crest of Spioenkop. Dawn showed that they were not on the summit of Spioenkop but rather 100 to 200 yards back from the crest.

As hasty attempts were made to dig a new position, an even worse situation came to light. Conical Hill and Aloe Knoll on either side of Spioenkop gave the Boers a murderous field of fire onto the British trenches. Rifles on Green Hill and the Artillery on Aloe Knoll burst into life and raked the trenches with shot and shell, particularly those of the vulnerable Lancashire Fusiliers on the right, who bore the brunt of the Artillery barrage.

Whilst the Boers pounded the hill, the Carolina Commando embarked on a brave frontal assault to recapture the hill, resulting in a ferocious battle between the crest line and the British main trench. Woodgate was mortally wounded, which prompted the message back to Warren: “Colonel Crofton to G.O.C. Force. Reinforce at once or all lost. General dead.”

While Warren digested this urgent plea for help, the close quarter battle on the summit became increasingly desperate, as described by The Times historian: “The incessant roar and crackle of musketry as it rose and fell; the whistling of bullets rising to a screech as they ricocheted among the rocks; the booming of the guns and shriek of bursting shrapnel; the constant undertone of human voices, the orders of the officers, the shouts for reinforcements, the guttural exhortations in the ‘taal’ (language), the agonised cries of the wounded, the groans of the dying – all combined into one indescribable din in the glaring sunshine beating down on that little death-swept patch of stony hill-top. The little patch was probably no more than one acre in size.

The main British trench became choked with dead and wounded and those living craved water in the stifling heat. Having taken the crest line, the Boers kept up their fire on the main trench and Louis Botha pushed the Utrecht Commando onto Green Hill to add weight to the firepower. The Pretoria Commando assaulted the hard-pressed Lancashire Fusiliers on the right and at about 1pm the first white flags appeared. Thorneycroft, now commanding on Spioenkop and leading the counterattacks on the crest, intervened to stop the white flags spreading across. In blunt terms he told the Pretoria Commando, “I’m Commandant here; take your men back to hell, sir! There’s no surrender.” In the ensuing melee the Boers pushed 167 prisoners down the slope.

Reinforcements from Warren joined the firing line. The Scottish Rifles, 2nd Battalion Middlesex and Imperial Light Infantry joined the fray. Lyttleton, to the right of Spioenkop, attacked Twin Peaks with the King’s Royal Rifles; it was captured at heavy cost but still the pressure on the forces on Spioenkop could not be relieved. 

Acting as a courier between Spioenkop and Buller’s Headquarters that day, a young Lieutenant and journalist Winston Churchill reported of 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.” By nightfall of 24 January Thorneycroft ordered his remaining, exhausted, unfed and thirsty troops to retreat to the foot of the hill, leaving the equally weary remaining Boer troops in control of the hill.

In the course of the day’s fighting the British suffered approximately 380 killed, more than 1 000 wounded and 300 taken prisoner.

Boer losses were some 60 killed and 140 wounded.  

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