The Battle of Spion Kop
War: The Boer War.
Date: 24th January 1900
Place: On the Tugela River in Northern Natal in South Africa.
Combatants: The British against the Boers.
General Sir Redvers Buller against General Botha
Size of the
armies: 20,000 British troops against 8,000 Boers.
Uniforms, arms and equipment: The Boer War was a serious jolt
for the British Army. At the outbreak of the war British tactics
were appropriate for the use of single shot firearms, fired in
volleys controlled by company and battalion officers; the troops
fighting in close order. The need for tight formations had been
emphasised time and again in colonial fighting. In the Zulu and
Sudan Wars overwhelming enemy numbers armed principally with
stabbing weapons were easily kept at a distance by such tactics;
but, as at Isandlwana, would overrun a loosely formed force. These
tactics had to be entirely rethought in battle against the Boers
armed with modern weapons.
In the months before hostilities the
Boer commandant general, General Joubert, bought 30,000 Mauser
magazine rifles and a number of modern field guns and automatic
weapons from the German armaments manufacturer Krupp and the French
firm Creusot. The commandoes, without formal discipline, welded into
a fighting force through a strong sense of community and dislike for
the British. Field Cornets led burghers by personal influence not
through any military code. The Boers did not adopt military
formation in battle, instinctively fighting from whatever cover
there might be. The preponderance were countrymen, running their
farms from the back of a pony with a rifle in one hand. These rural
Boers brought a life time of marksmanship to the war, an important
edge, further exploited by Joubert’s consignment of magazine rifles.
Viljoen is said to have coined the aphorism “Through God and the
Mauser”. With strong fieldcraft skills and high mobility the Boers
were natural mounted infantry. The urban burghers and foreign
volunteers readily adopted the fighting methods of the rest of the
Other than in the regular uniformed Staats Artillery and police
units, the Boers wore their every day civilian clothes on campaign.
After the first month the Boers lost their numerical superiority,
spending the rest of the formal war on the defensive against British
forces that regularly outnumbered them.
British tactics, little
changed from the Crimea, used at Modder River, Magersfontein,
Colenso and Spion Kop were incapable of winning battles against
entrenched troops armed with modern magazine rifles. Every British
commander made the same mistake; Buller; Methuen, Roberts and
Kitchener. When General Kelly-Kenny attempted to winkle Cronje’s
commandoes out of their riverside entrenchments at Paardeburg using
his artillery, Kitchener intervened and insisted on a battle of
infantry assaults; with the same disastrous consequences as Colenso,
Modder River, Magersfontein and Spion Kop.
Some of the most
successful British troops were the non-regular regiments; the City
Imperial Volunteers, the South Africans, Canadians, Australians and
New Zealanders, who more easily broke from the habit of traditional
European warfare, using their horses for transport rather than the
charge, advancing by fire and manouevre in loose formations and
making use of cover, rather than the formal advance into a storm of
Uniform: The British regiments made an
uncertain change into khaki uniforms in the years preceding the Boer
War, with the topee helmet as tropical headgear. Highland regiments
in Natal devised aprons to conceal coloured kilts and sporrans. By
the end of the war the uniform of choice was a slouch hat, drab
tunic and trousers; the danger of shiny buttons and too ostentatious
emblems of rank emphasised in several engagements with
disproportionately high officer casualties.
British artillery firing onto Spion Kop from south of the Tugela
The British infantry were armed with the Lee Metford magazine
rifle firing 10 rounds. But no training regime had been established
to take advantage of the accuracy and speed of fire of the weapon.
Personal skills such as scouting and field craft were little taught.
The idea of fire and movement was unknown, many regiments still
going into action in close order. Notoriously General Hart insisted
that his Irish Brigade fight shoulder to shoulder as if on parade in
Aldershot. Short of regular troops, Britain engaged volunteer forces
from Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand who brought new
ideas and more imaginative formations to the battlefield.
British regular troops lacked imagination and resource. Routine
procedures such as effective scouting and camp protection were often
neglected. The war was littered with incidents in which British
contingents became lost or were ambushed often unnecessarily and
forced to surrender. The war was followed by a complete
re-organisation of the British Army.
The British artillery was a
powerful force in the field, underused by commanders with little
training in the use of modern guns in battle. Pakenham cites Pieters
as being the battle at which a British commander, surprisingly
Buller, developed a modern form of battlefield tactics: heavy
artillery bombardments co-ordinated to permit the infantry to
advance under their protection. It was the only occasion that Buller
showed any real generalship and the short inspiration quickly died.
The Royal Field Artillery fought with 15 pounder guns; the Royal
Horse Artillery with 12 pounders and the Royal Garrison Artillery
batteries with 5 inch howitzers. The Royal Navy provided heavy field
artillery with a number of 4.7 inch naval guns mounted on field
carriages devised by Captain Percy Scott of HMS Terrible.
Automatic weapons were used by the British usually mounted on
special carriages accompanying the cavalry.
The British Order of Battle:
Cavalry (Earl of Dundonald)
1st Royal Dragoons
Bethune’s Mounted Infantry
Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry
South African Light Horse
Imperial Light Horse
Imperial Light Infantry
Second Division under Lieutenant General Sir C. F. Clery
2nd Brigade (commanded by Major General Hildyard)
2nd East Surreys
2nd West Yorks
2nd Queen’s West Surreys
4th Brigade (commanded by Major General Lyttelton)
1st Rifle Brigade
1st Durham Light Infantry
3rd King’s Royal Rifles
2nd Scottish Rifles (the old 90th Light Infantry)
Squadron of the 14th Hussars
7th, 14th and 66th Batteries, Royal Field Artillery (less 10 guns
lost at Colenso)
5th Irish Brigade (commanded by Major General Hart)
1st Inniskilling Fusiliers
1st Connaught Rangers
1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers
1st Border Regiment
6th Fusilier Brigade (commanded by Major General Barton)
2nd Royal Fusiliers
2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers
1st Royal Welch Fusiliers
2nd Royal Irish Fusiliers
Squadron 14th Hussars
63rd, 64th and 73rd Batteries Royal Field Artillery.
Fifth Division (Lieutenant General Sir Charles Warren)
10th Brigade (commanded by Major General Coke)
2nd Dorset Regiment
2nd Middlesex Regiment
Eleventh Brigade (commanded by Major General Woodgate)
2nd King’s Royal Lancaster Regiment
2nd Lancashire Fusiliers
1st South Lancashire Regiment
1st York and Lancashire Regiment
19th, 20th and 28th Batteries Royal Field Artillery.
2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers
2nd Somerset Light Infantry
61st Battery (Howitzers)
Natal Battery with 9 pounders
Battery of six Royal Navy 12 pounders
4th Mountain Battery
4.7 Inch Royal Navy guns
Of all the Boer War battles Spion Kop retains an appalling notoriety
for the incompetence of British leadership and the slaughter of the
small number of men engaged on each side in the struggle for the top
of the hill. The battle graphically showed the failure of the
British Army to understand the requirements of modern warfare:
tactics to cope with powerful long range artillery and magazine
rifle fire, the need for proper communications and systems of
reconnaissance, maintenance of chains of command in action and
training and leadership at all levels.
General Buller’s defeat at Colenso on 15th December 1899 left him
with the same strategic conundrum; how to relieve Ladysmith. Before
he assumed the position of commander-in-chief in South Africa,
Buller had urged that the small British force in Natal must remain
on the defensive behind the Tugela River in the face of a Boer
invasion of the colony. General Penn Symons had ignored this advice
and advanced to the northern tip of Natal, where he had won the
battle of Talana -dying in the process- a minor success that did
little to stem the Boer invasion. General Sir George White, arriving
in the colony with reinforcements, had not felt able to pull his
troops back from Ladysmith behind the Tugela, although fundamentally
he agreed with Buller, and found himself besieged in the town with
most of the British troops in the colony.
Boers at the Battle of Spion Kop
Similar actions in
Mafeking and Kimberley left British garrisons besieged by forces of
Boers in the North West of South Africa. Instead of having a free
hand to counter invade the two Boer republics, The Orange Free State
and the Transvaal, Buller had to attempt the relief of these three
towns. In particular it was inconceivable that White be left to
surrender to the Boers with 10,000 British troops.
and his Boer burgher army were enabled to entrench on the line of
the Tugela River and await attack by Buller’s Natal Field Force.
At Colenso Buller had attempted an assault straight up the railway
line to Ladysmith, hoping that White would mount a simultaneous
assault from Ladysmith against the Boer rear. Colenso was a severe
reverse for Buller which left him with the problem of crossing the
British troops crossing the Tugela River to attack Spion Kop
White’s losses in the Boer assault on Wagon
Hill and Caesar’s Camp on 6th January 1900 caused him to signal to
Buller that he was unable to make any further foray to assist the
relief operation. Relieved of the obligation to attempt a joint
attack with White, Buller planned the next attack further west on
the Tugela, to outflank the main Boer entrenched positions around
the north-south railway line.
Substantial reinforcements arrived
in Natal from Britain in Warren’s Fourth Division. Once they reached
the main army Buller moved to the West and began his assault across
The point chosen for the attack lay opposite the
Rangeworthy Hills, of which Spion Kop was one. Major General
Lyttelton’s brigade of rifle regiments initially crossed the river
at Potgeiter’s Drift to the East of the main attack, at a point
where the river bending in a loop to the South protected the
crossing from enfilade fire.
British casualties coming down from the Battle of Spion Kop
Lieutenant General Warren with 13,000
men and 36 guns had the task of crossing the river further west at
Trikhardt’s Drift and pushing up onto the Rangeworthy Hills, thereby
diverting Boer attention so that Lyttelton could punch through to
Ladysmith. Buller planned to follow Lyttelton’s attack with a
further force of 8,000 men and 22 guns.
Warren’s force set off for
the Tugela on 15th January 1900, beginning the crossing of the river
on 17th January. On 19th January Warren was still bringing his
column across the river and had not begun his attack although his
artillery opened an extensive bombardment along the Tabanyama Ridge
immediately opposite Trikhardt’s Drift. In the meantime Botha
realising the threat to his extreme right flank brought Boer
commandoes and guns to the area, settling them into the threatened
hills and opening fire on Warren’s waiting troops.
with Warren’s lack of urgency on 23rd January 1900 Buller rode
forward and ordered Warren to begin the attack on the Rangeworthy
Warren’s plan was to climb and capture the hill of Spion Kop,
which he considered to be the key to the Rangeworthy position. With
his troops established on Spion Kop he would overlook the open
ground leading to Ladysmith.
The column assigned to take Spion Kop
comprised a party of Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry, battalions
from Woodgate’s Lancastrian brigade and sappers of the Royal
Engineers to dig the necessary entrenchments. The column made a
night approach finally setting off up the steep side of the hill and
arriving at the top in the early morning. The hill was shrouded in
mist. A small Boer picket fled, leaving Warren’s men in possession
of the summit, which the sappers began to entrench. It seemed to the
British that the relief of Ladysmith was near at hand.
picket rushed to warn Botha who directed the Boer guns in the area
to fire on the summit of Spion Kop. A few hundred Boer burghers were
persuaded to climb the hill and attempt to recapture it from the
On Spion Kop the mist prevented the British force from
realising that the area occupied was insufficient to hold the summit
and that their position was overlooked by higher features. The
infantry soldiers fell asleep after the strenuous climb while the
team of sappers dug the trenches. The entrenched area extended to
just an acre.
The British trench in "the murderous acre" on Spion Kop after the
The bombardment began and the Boers on the lip of
the summit of the hill fired into the entrenched area; which the
British troops were to find was too small and too shallow.
the storm of artillery and rifle fire the British troops in the
trenches on the summit suffered heavily. General Woodgate was an
early casualty, as were the commanding officers of the Royal
Lancasters and the Royal Engineers, leaving the British troops
without senior command.
Warren in the meanwhile ordered General
Coke to take reinforcements to the summit: Imperial Light Infantry,
2nd Dorsets and 2nd Middlesex. Hart and other senior officers urged
Warren to attack Tabanyama. Instead Warren signaled Lyttleton that a
diversion was needed.
On the Boer side the fighting was just as
desperate. Only volunteers could be persuaded to climb to the top of
Spion Kop and the surrounding heights. The hillside was littered
with Boer casualties and many were killed on the summit. The sense
of desperation was as great on the Boer side as on the British.
Buller’s urgings Warren put Thorneycroft in command on the crest of
Spion Kop. Some of the despairing and exhausted British troops
attempted to surrender to the Boers. Thorneycroft on taking command
ordered the Boers back and shouted that there was to be no
surrender. At the critical moment Coke’s reinforcements burst onto
the hilltop, although Coke himself stayed beneath the crest and
settled down for a nap, so it is reported. The most critical battle
for the British Empire in many decades was left to a colonel to
At this point in the battle Lyttelton launched his
diversionary attack. The 2nd Scottish Rifles climbed Spion Kop to
join Thorneycroft’s troops while 1st Rifle Brigade attacked straight
up the Twin Peaks to the East of Spion Kop.
commanding the Boers on the Twin Peaks, panicked at the assault on
his position and many of his burghers made for the rear, leaving the
60th to take the summit of the ridge.
The roasting hot day came to
a close and Warren began to organise reliefs and supplies for the
hard pressed infantry on the summit of Spion Kop. Still under
artillery fire Thorneycroft and his men were at the end of their
tether. Warren had sent Thorneycroft no orders of any sort during
the day, other than his appointment in command, and he now sent no
message to inform Thorneycroft that substantial reinforcements were
on their way. Not until 9pm did the reliefs begin to climb the hill.
Medical orderly looking for the
wounded after the battle
On the Boer side the effect of the battle had been just as
devastating and the diversionary attack by the 60th Rifles had been
the last straw. The Boers had left the summit of Spion Kop.
Thorneycroft did not realise it, but he had won the battle. Instead
of moving forward after the retreating enemy Thorneycroft resolved
to withdraw off the hill with the confused and demoralised remnants
of the Lancashire battalions, Middlesex, Scottish Rifles and his own
Imperial Light Infantry. The reinforcements began to arrive and a
vigorous dispute developed, a newly arrived commanding officer
insisting that the hill must be held. Thorneycroft was adamant. He
was in command and he was taking his troops down from this hellish
hill top which they could no longer hold.
At dawn the next day the
Boer leaders saw that their men had re-occupied Spion Kop. The
battle had been won.
Warren’s force trailed back across the
Tugela. The second attempt to force through to Ladysmith had failed
Casualties: The British lost 1,500
casualties, 243 of them dead in the trench on the peak of Spion Kop.
The Boers suffered 335 casualties.
News of Spion Kop caused consternation in Britain and nearly brought
down the government. The cabinet was at a loss to work out what
could have gone wrong. The decision was made to send out Lord
Roberts and Lord Kitchener to take over as commander in chief and
chief of staff in South Africa.
Spion Kop drove the final nail
into the coffin of Buller’s reputation. With the end of the war
Buller was dismissed from the army, a terrible end to a worthy life
of service to the British Crown, in spite of his failings.
Buller’s incompetence as a general was fully demonstrated at Spion
Kop. In spite of his overwhelming strength he allowed the battle to
be decided by a few hundred men fighting in what came to be called
the murderous acre, on the top of a hill beyond any proper command
control. In spite of his reservations as to Warren’s conduct of the
battle Buller failed to intervene.
Curiously Spion Kop was
something of a disaster for the Boers. Many of the Boers assumed
that, as after Majuba in the First Boer War, the British would sue
for peace and leave them their independence. Numbers of burghers
including Botha, considering the war as good as won, went home,
leaving insufficient men to resist Buller’s next and decisive
attacks at Val Krantz and Pieter’s Hill.
Denys Reitz, author of
Commando, was one of the Boer volunteers who climbed onto Spion Kop
and fought through the day, finally despairing of success and
pulling back. It is an irony that in 1918 Reitz commanded 1st Royal
Scots Fusiliers in France.
The Boer War is widely covered. A cross section of interesting
volumes would be:
The Great Boer War by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Goodbye Dolly Gray by Rayne Kruger
The Boer War by Thomas Pakenham
South Africa and the Transvaal War by Louis Creswicke (6 highly
Books solely on the fighting in Natal:
Buller’s Campaign by Julian Symons
Ladysmith by Ruari Chisholm
For a view of the fighting in Natal from the Boer perspective:
Commando by Denys Reitz.