The Nightmare of Spion Kop

A contemporary image of Churchill. His entire dispatches from the war are both well written and too often overlooked. Photo Credit: Imperial War Museum
A contemporary image of Churchill. His entire dispatches from the war are both well written and too often overlooked. Photo Credit: Imperial War Museum

Back in London the news of Black Week stunned the British. Writing just before the grisly losses, Churchill’s brilliant prose captures the feeling of the time:

“The enduring courage and confident spirit of the enemy must also excite surprise. In short, we have grossly underrated [the Boer’s] fighting powers. Most people in England-I among them-thought that the Boer ultimatum was an act of despairs, that the Dutch would make one fight for their honour, and, once defeated, would accept the inevitable. All I have heard and whatever I have seen out here contradict those false ideas. Anger, hatred, and the consciousness of military power impelled the Boers to war…the whole people sprang to arms with alacrity, firmly believing that they would drive the British into the sea. To that opinion they still adhere. I do not myself share it; but it cannot be denied that it seems less absurd today than it did before a shot had been fired.”[1]

Unlike in the First Boer War though, there was no sense of making peace, the British were playing to win. Finally listening to generals like Wolseley, another larger wave of reinforcements was approved to finish the job. But the British weren’t keen on repeating their past mistakes, and a critical eye was cast on how the war had been conducted thus far. Boer tactics were studied, and a broader strategy drawn up to relieve the besieged areas. Also cognizant of his failures, Buller tried to retrain his army in the Boer manner of smaller units, cover, and leapfrogging advances. Also sizing up the Boers, General Buller suggested deploying similar men from across the Empire to fight them. The call was put out in the back country of Britain, Ireland, Canada, and Australia for the kind of farmers who were used to killing game with their first shot at long range and seemed born in the saddle. The newly formed Imperial Yeomanry was 10,000 strong, and served as a hard outer unit of scouts and reconnaissance for the British. Though his willingness to adapt put him ahead of most generals of the time, it didn’t save Buller’s role as commander of the war, and he was relegated to the Natal front.

Spion Kop. The British seized the
Spion Kop. The British seized the “hook” portion of the hillside. Photo Credit: A Handbook of the Boer War.

Still in his now demoted role, Buller was determined to make progress and took another stab at a breakthrough on January 20, 1900. Opposite Buller, the Boer line commanded by Louis Botha rested in a horseshoe format, built into a line of hills on the far side of the Tugela River. Aware that Boer accuracy with rifle and artillery made another frontal assault a tremendously stupid idea, Buller tried to get clever. The lynchpin of the entire defensive line was a series of connected hills called Spion Kop, and Buller opted to strike there in a daring night raid. While the attack was a success, the morning light revealed they had actually secured the smallest of the three connected hills. As the Boers stared at their new neighbors, General Botha reacted quickly. Playing against type, the Boers launched a daylight assault on the hilltop under cover of artillery. It was a desperate throw, and the fighting turned into vicious hand to hand grapples with knife and bayonet along the line. In the end, the British still clung on to part of the hill, and the frustrated Boers switched back to shooting them with artillery at nearly point blank range. Attached to the unit, Churchill raced to Spion Kop and painted the scene of a unit under the gun:

“Streams of wounded met us and obstructed the path. Men were staggering along alone…or crawling on hands and knees, or carried on stretchers.[2] Corpses lay here and there. Many of the wounded were of a horrible nature. The splinters and fragments of the shell had torn and mutilated in a most ghastly manner…There was, moreover, a small but steady leakage of unwounded men of all corps. Some of these cursed and swore. Others were utterly exhausted and fell on the hillside in stupor. Others again seemed drunk, though they had no liquor”.[3]

The British dead in their trenchline. More than 200 soldiers were killed, and another 1,250 injured. Many of the dead were simply buried in the trenchline where they fell. Photo Credit: The Transvaal Archive.
The British dead in their trenchline. More than 200 soldiers were killed, and another 1,250 injured. Many of the dead were simply buried in the trenchline where they fell. Photo Credit: The Transvaal Archive.

Later soldiers fighting in 1914 would have called it shellshock. The sensation was too new for the British to handle. After losing hundreds of men, the British finally abandoned the hilltop to the Boers, who were too psychologically shattered themselves to follow up the victory. Spion Kop tested the limits of both sides. While the Boers had held the line, Botha had been struggled to find just 400 out of his 4,000 men willing to launch a strike at Spion Kop. Even then, he had been forced to personally wander the line and beg each man in turn not to fall back. Just a few months of conventional war had stretched the Boers, and it wouldn’t take much for the war’s new British commanders to snap through.

[1] Churchill, W. 1902. The Boer War. The dispatch is actually from just before Black Week in mid-November, but there’s no accounting for Churchill’s typical ability to be miles ahead of his contemporaries.

[2] One of these stretcher bearers was actually Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, better known as Mahatma Gandhi, the father of Indian Independence.

[3] Ibid. As a sidebar, Churchill goes to obnoxious pains to emphasize the valor of the “English-for they were all English”.

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