Tourism, Accommodation and Historical Attractions in Natal, South Africa
The Natal Battlefields
The Battle of Spioenkop.
The Second Boer War - The Battle of Spioenkop.
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23rd January 1900
Buller's next attempt to relieve Ladysmith took him to Spioenkop ('Spy Hill') overlooking Ladysmith. Spioenkop is allegedly the final point reached by the Voortrekkers following their descent from the Drakensberg.
In the absence of any prior reconnaissance of note, nineteen hundred British soldiers scaled the heights of Spioenkop in the early misty morning.
The Mist Clears
When the mist cleared the British found that they although they had trenches of sorts, they had occupied only the summit and not the crestline overlooking the Boer positions.
Worse, although Spioenkop was higher than adjacent hills, their position was extremely exposed and they were sitting ducks for the Boer guns there.
Although the British had some days before occupied a nearby hill (Ntambamnyama) and were in a position to harass the Boers, the Commanding Officer, General Warren ordered them to withdraw for not following orders - whereupon the Boers quickly retook the hill and were to exact a terrible toll on Spioenkop five days later.
The decision to occupy Spioenkop was taken on the spur of the moment after Warren was rebuked by Buller for lack of progress.
Unable to dig any sort of a trench, the British were pinned down all day, amidst scenes of dreadful carnage and confusion. For most of the day, it was unclear which British Officer was actually in charge of the troops.
The Line Falters
Eventually a portion of the line gave way and British troops started surrendering despite an argument between a Boer and the British O.C. Lt. Col. Thorneycroft as to what the white flags represented in the British trench. Thorneycroft shouted at the Boer soldier - "Take your men to hell Sir! There is no surrender!"
Boer fire was directed with deadly accuracy onto the British by a Boer soldier on the slopes of Spioenkop who was in contact with the artillery using a heliograph. Reinforcements eventually breached the Boer lines but British incompetence also produced an order for withdrawal despite the fact that the British had also taken several adjacent hills from the Boers.
The Final Retreat
The British retired at nightfall having lost 2300 men - 1340 killed or wounded and the rest surrendering. The British did not know that the Boers, also fearing the battle was lost, had already departed the summit. Throughout the night, the only soldiers on the hill were the dead.
Ghandi's stretcher bearer unit that he had formed himself served with distinction at this battle. In the morning, Boer soldiers cautiously climbed the hill looking for their wounded only to find it was theirs. Buller's second attempt at relieving the siege of Ladysmith had failed.
A visit to the battlefield is well worthwhile. Several informative booklets are available on site as well as a self guided trail that takes visitors chronologically through the action of that day.
It is interesting to note that Botha, Churchill and Gandhi were all present at Spioenkop that day and to wonder what the course of history might have been had any one of them not survived.