General Buller was ready to move his relief army of some 24 000 men, 58 guns and equipment. The 6th Division under Major-General Barton, would remain at Chieveley to guard the south as well as the railway whilst the remainder of the troops would head for Springfield, east of Colenso. Buller’s plan was to skirt around the western edge of a range of hills called Ntabamnyama and then on to Ladysmith.
To give some idea of the organisation by the British army when it went to war one must understand the amount of equipment that it took with it. As an example a 4.7 inch naval gun required either a team of horses or a Traction engine to pull it, therefore both had to be brought along. There were 232 ox-wagons each pulled by eight oxen (some required 36 to get them through the mud) 98 of which were drawn by ten mules each, 107 by six mules each and 52 drawn by four each. A total of 489 wagons pulled by 3686 animals, excluding the animals brought along as meat for the troops. There were 24 000 men and their equipment which included hospitals with their
ambulances and medical supplies, food, horses, ammunition, fodder for the horses and oxen, telegraph poles and cable, spares for the guns, the list went on and on. Officers “essentials” included steel baths, gramophones, cases of wine, polo horses, the best of foods and even a piano. The roads were soon turned to mud, which even the multispans of oxen could not overcome and to add to all that the rivers were swollen from the heavy rains that had occurred in the past couple of weeks. As the head of the column arrived in Springfield so the last wagon was leaving Chieveley, 34 kilometres away.
By the 12th January 1900 the Navy had their 4.7′s on Mount Alice and Buller had set up his headquarters there. So the scene was set, the British forces were now south of the Tugela showing Louis Botha their intent to cross at Potgieters drift. This was in fact a ploy by Buller to fool Botha as his intention was to cross at Trichardt’s drift some kilometres to the west but as we see later he was denied this surprise which arguably cost him the battle.
On 15th January Buller gave Warren his orders, to take his force and cross the Tugela at Trichardt’s Drift then move up the western side of Spioenkop. Warren interprets this to mean the immediate western side of Spioenkop, but Buller, it would appear meant Acton Homes, the very extreme west. The British had no accurate maps or intelligence information to go on and Botha was giving nothing away. Buller told Warren that he did not think he would be opposed by any more than about four hundred Boer troops and one or two of their big guns. Botha was still expecting Buller to make another attempt at Colenso, the logical place through to Ladysmith.
A Pontoon Bridge had been put across the Tugela at Trichardts Drift by the Royal Engineers and, early on the 17th January, Dundonald’s cavalry had reached the Drift ahead of Warren and crossed the Tugela.
Lyttleton meanwhile moved two of his battalions across the river at Potgeiter’s Drift as a feint. The following morning Dundonald, being young and full of energy, decides to head for the western corner of Ntabanyama at Acton Homes with the intention of going around and on to Ladysmith. About halfway along the range of hills he received a message from Warren ordering him to return half of his force to look after the cattle and horses. Warren was taking his dislike of Cavalry to the extreme and would pay for it. Moving on to Acton homes Dundonald met a small force of Boers that he defeated but because of his reduced force, he could no longer entertain any idea of galloping into Ladysmith. This was unfortunate for the way to Ladysmith lay unopposed.
At 3 am on the morning of the 20th January General Woodgate’s Lancashire Brigade, supported by Hart’s Irish Brigade start moving up Ntabanyama and by daylight they have reached the crest. Warren opens up with the Field guns on Three Tree Hill with a three-hour bombardment. Both Woodgate and Hart’s brigades advance but are met with a murderous fire from the Boer Mauser rifles and are halted.
By now Louis Botha was wise to Buller’s plan and began moving his Burghers from Colenso as fast as he can to the area north and west of Spioenkop. The element of surprise had gone and Buller is now faced with 4000 Burghers, four 75mm field guns and two Pom-Pom guns. On Spioenkop itself, were a maximum of 50 Burghers from the Vryheid and German units. Buller now loses his patience with Warren and orders him to do something or he (Buller) will. Warren decided to attack on the 22nd then changes his mind to the 23rd.
Once again very little thought has been given to the layout of the Hill or where the Boer strengths might be, taking Spioenkop is all that matters. Warren gave the task to General
Talbot Coke but at the last moment Buller intervenes and “suggests” Major-General Woodgate. This move by Buller not only upset Warren but was to cause confusion later. The assault column consisted of about 1700 men from the Lancashire Brigade some Royal Engineers and 200 Thorneycrofts Mounted Infantry. The involvement of this Lancashire Brigade was reason enough for the Liverpool Football Club to subsequently name their ground “The Kop”.
The men assembled at the bottom of Three tree Hill at 8.30 pm and walked from there to the bottom of Spioenkop where at around midnight they began the climb to the top. The men had strict orders not to talk or show a light and rifles were to be carried unloaded with bayonets fixed. Each soldier should have carried, in addition to his normal accoutrements, a shovel, water bottle and a sandbag, which were to be collected by them at the base. However in true “Tommy Atkins”
tradition over half of them either did not collect, or discarded them on the way up. A decision to be regretted by many before 24 hours had passed. As the ground levelled out they were suddenly challenged by Boer sentries and immediately fall to the ground as the Boers opened fire. The British charged with fixed bayonets killing one of the sentries whilst the others turn tail into the night. The troops gave three cheers, the signal to the men below that they had been successful; then, they set about digging trenches which was not easy because over half of them had left their spades behind.
As dawn came up at 5 am, the British could see very little because of the mist but, once the scouts had been out to reconnoitre, the news for General Woodgate was not good. Instead of being on the northern edge of the hill they had entrenched themselves almost in the centre, exposed to the Boers on all sides.
The British guns started their bombardment and the Boer guns joined in, the two armies accurately getting the range, the problem being that shells from both were landing among the British trenches, resulting in many casualties to the British. The mist cleared at 7.30 am, revealing the awful predicament that the troops were in. Earlier Colonel A’Court, Buller’s Staff officer, had returned to camp full of confidence for the success of the operation.
Woodgate attempted to get word back to Warren of the situation but discovered that the Heliograph had been destroyed on the way up. At about 8.30 am Colonel Blomfield drew Woodgates attention to Boers coming up the hill towards Aloe Knoll and, as Woodgate rose to take a look, he received a mortal wound to the head from which he died on 23rd March 1900. The command was “assumed” by Colonel Croften the most senior officer on the hill and he immediately sent a message down to Warren that reinforcements were essential if the hill was to be held. Warren in the safety of his headquarters promised to send the reinforcements instructing Croften to hold out at all costs.
On Mount Alice, Buller can clearly see the way the action was going and telegraphed Warren that “unless you put some really good hard fighting man in command on the top you will lose the hill. I suggest Thorneycroft.” Buller could see the huge form of Thorneycroft moving all over the hill and organising the men. Warren agrees and sent a message to this effect to Thorneycroft. Unfortunately he had just promoted Coke who was on his way back up the hill with reinforcements, which would bring the total number of men on the summit to 3000. The first runner to reach Thorneycroft was killed before he can open his mouth, the second is more fortunate. At the northern end of the British trench a group of troops decided to surrender and raised a white rag. The Boers got up to accept this but are confronted by Thorneycroft who tells them to “take your men back to hell. I allow no surrender”. Thorneycroft firmly believes that without further reinforcements including artillery the hill is lost. By now the men are out of water and low on ammunition.
To take Spioenkop without back-up attacks on the neighbouring hills was little short of madness. Lyttleton, who had made the feint across the Tugela at Potgeiters Drift, saw that a diversionary tactic could ease the pressure on Thorneycroft and decided to try and capture Twin Peaks. Unfortunately for him he had not obtained permission for the attack and, when Buller found out, he was ordered to withdraw.
At 6.30 pm Thorneycroft sent a message to Warren informing him that a tragedy would occur if reinforcements are not sent immediately. At this point Winston Churchill made an appearance on the peak and could clearly see the dilemma. Returning back down the hill he reported his observations to Warren and was promptly arrested on Warrens orders.
Fortunately for Churchill, an officer intervened, pointing out that this was Lord Randolf’s son and Churchill was released. Warren asked Lieutenant Churchill to return to Spioenkop with orders for the troops to hang on until reinforcements arrived. Nearing the summit Winston met Thorneycroft who was on his way down, having decided that enough was enough. The time was 7.30 pm.
Following Churchill up the hill was Captain Braithwaite of the Somerset Light Infantry with 200 men, with orders to dig trenches for Thorneycroft’s men and a note from Warren. He met Thorneycroft and Churchill on their way down and handed over Warren’s note. Thorneycroft replied “I have done all I can and am not going back, my troops have been ordered to retire”.
From this point on luck certainly favoured the Boers. Buller had withdrawn Lyttleton, Thorneycroft was retreating down from Spioenkop and Warren really did not know what was going on. Botha, not one to miss an opportunity, successfully rallied his men, who had retreated down the other side and were saddled up ready to leave. By dawn he was back in control and the British had gone leaving the dead and dying. Once again Botha had won a decisive victory over a much superior opponent. Buller assumed command from Warren and pulled all the troops back across the Tugela which he accomplished by the 27th January, much quicker than Warren on the outward journey.
* Warren at no time visited the top of Spioenkop, in fact he was in no position to even see the battlefield. His way of finding out what was going on, because the heliograph was damaged and did not work, was to send for a runner, General Talbot Coke. Had Warren done so he would have seen immediately, with his soldiers eye, have known how critical the state on Spioenkop was. Warren was after all an engineer and he would have been in a better position than anybody to judge whether artillery could have been of use and if so if it could have been manoeuvred to the top.
* Regarding the order given by Thorneycroft to abandon the hill there was considerable difference of opinion. Buller officially excused his action “Preparations for the second day’s defence should have been organised during the day and have been committed at nightfall. As this was not done I think that Colonel Thorneycroft exercised a wise discretion”. Lord Roberts disagreed. “I regret that I am unable to concur with Sir Redvers Buller in thinking that Colonel Thorneycroft exercised a wise discretion in ordering troops to retire. Even admitting that due preparations had not been made for strengthening the position during the night, reorganising the defence and bringing up artillery-admitting that the senior officers on the summit of the hill might have been more promptly informed of the measures taken by sir Charles Warren to support and reinforce them, I am of the opinion that Colonel Thorneycroft’s assumption of responsibility and authority was wholly inexcusable”. Roberts went on to suggest that what Thorneycroft should have done was to ask Warren for permission to retire because, Roberts points out, it was getting dark and the Boer fire had bated and would not have been resumed until the morning.
* Roberts did not express an opinion whether Spioenkop should have been held or not, after all both he, Warren and Buller had not been up there and therefore could not pass an opinion on this point. Warren states that he was in the process of sending artillery up to the top but others who had been there thought that the Boer guns would have taken them out before they could have been brought into action.
* The following excerpt is taken from Cassell’s History of the Boer War page 497:
The signallers stuck to it pluckily, though their post was one of the greatest danger. There were four of them altogether; Lieutenant. Martin of the Royal Lancaster regiment and signallers Goodyear of the West Yorks and Lomax and Turner of the Lancashire Fusiliers. Hardly had they set up their apparatus than a shell pitched on it and wrecked it totally. They set it up again and the first message they were able to send was from Crofton to Spearman’s Hill for transmission to Warren as follows: “Reinforcements at once or all lost, General dead.” It was impossible to hold communication with Warren direct.
BRITISH FORCE AT SPIONKOP
Mounted Brigade commanded by Lord Dundonald with the 1st Royal Dragoon Guards, 2nd Kings Royal Rifles Mounted infantry company, 2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers, ‘A’ Squadron Natal Police, E Squadron Natal Carbineers, ‘A’ Squadron Imperial Light Horse, Bethunes Mounted Infantry, Thorneycrofts Mounted Infantry, seven Squadrons South African Light Horse, No. 6 company Army Service Corps and a Medical unit from the Royal Army Medical Corps.
2nd Division commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Cornelius F Clery KCB with:
2nd Infantry Brigade commanded by Major-General Hildyard CB with the 2nd Battalion West Surrey, 2nd Battalion Devonshire Regiment, 2nd Battalion West Yorkshires, 2nd Battalion East Surreys, No.16 company Army Service Corps, No. 2 Bearer Company RAMC and a Field Hospital.
5th Infantry Brigade commanded by Major-General Fitzroy Hart CB with the 1st Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, 1st Battalion Border Regiment, 1st Battalion Connaught Rangers, 2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers, No.4 company Army Service Corps, No.16 Bearer Company RAMC and No.10 Field Hospital.
Divisional Troops comprising a Squadron 13th Hussars, the 7th, 64th and 73rd Batteries Royal Field Artillery, Ammunition Column, 17th company Royal Engineers, a Supply Column Army Service Corps, and a Field Hospital.
5th Division commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Charles Warren, GCMG; KCB with:
4th Infantry Brigade commanded by Major-General Hon. N G Lyttleton CB with the 2nd Battalion Scottish Rifles, 3rd Battalion Kings Royal Rifles, 1st Battalion Durham Light Infantry, 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade, No.14 Company Army Service Corps, No.14 Bearer Company RAMC, and No.14 Field Hospital.
11th Infantry Brigade commanded by Major-General Woodgate, CB; CMG with the 2nd Battalion Royal Lancaster Regiment, 2nd Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers, 1st Battalion South Lancashire Regiment, 1st Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment, No. 25 Company Army Service Corps, No. 6 Bearer Company RAMC, a Field Hospital RAMC.
Corps Troops comprising of: Cavalry with a Squadron 13th Hussars. Artillery with the 61st(Howitzer) and 78th Batteries, two 4.7 and eight 12 pound Naval guns and an Ammunition Column.
Engineers were the Pontoon Troop, Balloon section and Telegraph division of the Royal Engineers.
10th Brigade Commanded by Major General J T Coke with the 2nd Battalion Somersetshire Light Infantry, 2nd Battalion Dorsetshire Regiment, 2nd Battalion Middlesex regiment, No. 32 Co9mpany Army Service Corps, No.10 Stretcher Bearer Company RAMC and No.11 Field Hospital RAMC.
In the above were 324 wagons, each making two trips from Frere to Springfield with supplies for 16 days.
Garrison at Chieveley commanded Major-General Barton CB with 200 all ranks Mounted Brigade and four 12 pounder Naval guns. The 2nd Battalion Royal Fusiliers, 2nd Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers (less half a Battalion), 1st Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers, 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers, No.24 Company Army Service Corps, No.17 Stretcher Bearer Company RAMC and No.11 Field Hospital RAMC.
Garrison at Frere commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Blagrove with 400 all ranks Mounted Brigade, including the Mounted Infantry companies of the 4th and 5th Brigades, two guns 66th Royal Field Artillery, two 12 pounder Naval guns, Half Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers, detachment of the 3rd Battalion Kings Royal Rifles and a detachment of the 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade.
Louis Botha saw the huge British army moving out of Chieveley on the 10th January headed west but thought this a ruse on Bullers part to make him think the main attack would take place east of colenso. It was not until the 18th January that Botha realised Buller was serious in his plan to relieve Ladysmith via Spioenkop. Up until this time there were no more than 500 Burghers between Spioenkop and Acton Homes, the western end of Ntabanyama. To complete the forces east of Colenso there were 500 Freestate Burghers and one gun at Brakfontein to the east of Spioenkop and to the south east a further 500 men from the Johannesburg Commando.
Louis Botha now began moving his Burghers from Colenso as fast as he could to the area north and west of Spioenkop. The element of surprise had gone for Buller who was now faced with 4000 Burghers, four 75mm field guns and two pom pom’s. In addition Botha sent the German unit to dig and prepare a gun emplacement with 70 Burghers from the Vryheid Commando under the command of Commandant Solomon Grobbler in support. The Pretoria and Carolina Commandos, under Commandants Opperman and Prinsloo were sent up early on the 24th January.
Botha’s artillery was hidden from Warren’s batteries and with one exception they all fired smokeless powder. Two guns were on the rear slope of Green Hill and a pom pom at Rosalie Farm. Later they were joined by a Krupp that had been hauled half way up Spioenkop but quickly removed when the British seized the top. A third Krupp was sited on the slope behind Twin Peaks with a pom pom forward of it. All the guns had an excellent siting of the summit of Spioenkop.
The name KOP features at several sports arenas in the UK among which are Leicester Rugby ground, Sheffield Wednesday football ground, Preston North End, Barnsley. The most famous of course is the main stand at Liverpool football ground. The name is taken from battle of Spionkop where so many of the Lancashire soldiers died and are buried there.