Spioenkop: A tragedy of errors

At Spioenkop, in the bloodiest battle of the Anglo-Boer war, the British generals snatched a humiliating defeat from the jaws of victory.

On a warm and sunny day, standing at the top of an imposing, but not particularly striking hill in KwaZulu-Natal, it’s hard to imagine anything shocking or sinister could have happened here. Your gaze is naturally drawn to the views – the Tugela River sliding peacefully by down below, the Drakensberg Mountains rising soft and blue in the distance and, beyond rolling fields speckled with aloes and cows, the jumbled houses of the townspeople of Ladysmith, who are blithely going about their daily business.

On the night of 23 January 1900, there were no views. A cold, wet mist had descended on the slopes of Spioenkop, masking the ponderous, awkward climb of almost 2#000 British troops who’d been sent to seize the summit from a handful of Boers. The mountain was key to commanding the approach to Ladysmith, which been under siege by the Boers for almost three months.

In the battle that followed, the mistakes made by both sides – but especially the British – were so numerous and ridiculous, that the account seems almost farcical. At one point, three different British officers believed themselves to be in command. Men surrendered only to be ordered back to their lines, guns ceased firing on enemy positions in the belief they were firing on their own troops. Crucial messages were never delivered – one because there was no oil for the signal lamp. In a final act of befuddlement, both sides retreated from the battlefield simultaneously, each believing the other to have won. The hill was taken next morning by four Boers who had snuck up to search for their wounded.

It’s a riveting story, but as you wander around Spioenkop’s sloping summit, a multitude of monuments and graves bear testimony to the horror of that long day of thirst, heat, agony and death. Perhaps the most poignant is a long, curved ditch lined with white stones and filled with gravel. In it lie several hundred British soldiers, buried where they fell in the shallow trench which became their grave. And as you stand beside that long, low trench in the sunshine, it’s quite possible that you will shiver, despite the heat.

One battle, three world leaders

Three men who would shape the course of history were present at the battle of Spioenkop

Louis Botha, destined to become the Union of South Africa’s first prime minister, was the general in command of the Boers at Spioenkop. As the last of the Boers were abandoning their posts, Botha rode up and rallied them to return to their positions east and west of Spioenkop. However, nothing he could say would induce them to go back up the hill that night.

Winston Churchill was a war correspondent and a lieutenant in the South African Light Horse, which had been confined to camp. Driven mad by standing idly by, he and a friend climbed Spioenkop that afternoon without permission. He rode back to the British HQ to tell General Warren what he had seen – then climbed the hill again.

Mahatma Ghandi was serving on the British ambulance corps as a stretcher bearer during the battle.

In their own words

‘The English troops lay so near that one could have tossed a biscuit among them, and whilst the losses which they were causing us were only too evident, we on our side did not know that we were inflicting even greater damage upon them. Our own casualties lay hideously among us, but theirs were screened from view behind the breastwork, so that the comfort of knowing that we were giving worse than we received was denied us.’ – Deneys Reitz, fighting on the Boer firing line at around 08h00.

‘Streams of wounded met us and obstructed our path. Men were staggering along … or crawling on hands and knees …. Corpses lay here and there … The splinters and fragments of shell had torn and mutilated in the most ghastly manner. I passed about 200 while I was climbing up. There was, moreover, a small but steady leakage of unwounded men … Some of these cursed and swore. Others were utterly exhausted and fell on the hillside in stupor. Others again seemed drunk, though they had had no liquor … Fighting was still proceeding.’ – Winston Churchill, climbing Spioenkop at around 17h00.

Did you know?

Many English football stadiums and some rugby clubs have stands called ‘The Kop’. The most famous of these is Liverpool’s Anfield Stadium. The name is a direct reference to the battle of Spioenkop, possibly as a result of a contemporary journalist comparing the silhouette of fans on the terrace to soldiers standing on Spioenkop, and perhaps also a tribute to local men who died there. ‘The Kop’ is usually behind the goal and is occupied by the club’s most vocal supporters.

Travel guide

The battlefield is in the Spioenkop Nature Reserve, which has a variety of wildlife (including white rhinoceros) and abundant birdlife. Other activities in the reserve include horse-riding, self-guided nature walks and boating on Spioenkop Dam.

How to get there:

To reach Spioenkop Nature Reserve, from Durban, turn off the N3 onto the R74 signposted Winterton. One kilometre past Winterton, cross the Little Tugela and turn right onto the R600 to Spioenkop Dam. The reserve is approximately 13 km from the turn-off.

From Joburg, turn off the N3 toll road at the Bergville off ramp (R616) Turn left in the direction of Ladysmith and follow this route for 5 km. Turn right onto the R600 to Spioenkop/Winterton. The reserve is 25 km from the turn-off.

Gate times:

Summer ( October to March ) 06h00 to 19h00

Winter (April to September ) 06h00 to 18h00

When to go

The KZN battlefields are a year round destination, but most of the anniversaries are in the summer months from October to March. Battles had to be fought when there were rains so that there was water for the troops.

Recommended reading

  • Battlefields of KwaZulu-Natal by Ken Gillings (Art Publishers Durban, 2003)
  • The Boer War by Thomas Pakenham (Avon Books, 1992)
  • Commando by Deneys Reitz (Jonathan Ball, 2005)

First published in the July 2010 issue of Getaway Magazine

If you’re interested in the KwaZulu-Natal battlefields, you might also enjoy this article about the battle of Isandlwana.

 

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