Battle of Spion Kop
The 24th of January 1900 AD
British military history is littered with idiot generals. For some Haig would head the list of most dangerous to his own troops, incapable of learning from mistake after mistake. For others the teamwork stupidity of Lord Raglan and the Earls of Lucan and Cardigan that culminated in The Charge of the Light Brigade takes some beating. But the combined foolish forces of Sir Redvers Buller, Charles Warren and Edward Woodgate at the Battle of Spion Kop vies for top spot.
The ineptitude began even before Buller left England, with troops at Aldershot drilled not to dig trenches – it could damage the land – nor to lie down – that could damage their uniforms. He also deeply resented the unwillingness of the Boers to stand like men and be shot at, it simply wasn’t cricket.
Attempting to relieve the besieged Ladysmith Buller’s army advanced to the Tugela River held by the Boers. Charles Warren commanded a division that when it neared its crossing point by good fortune faced few Boer defenders, offering an easy bridgehead. Sadly Warren – his fellows might have suspected his abilities given his recent post as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police where he had singularly failed in his pursuit of Jack the Ripper – was more concerned with his baggage, which contained a full cast-iron bathroom set in which it was his pleasure to bathe in public. It took more than a day to get all the baggage across the river, by which time the Boer defenders had received 5000 or more reinforcements. Those arrivals notwithstanding, a cavalry force reached the Boer flank and had the way open to Ladysmith. Naturally Warren recalled them to guard the baggage.
Next strategic target was the hill called Spion Kop, rising 1400 feet above the surrounding territory. Buller chose the brilliant Warren to capture it. Warren assigned about 1000 men of the Lancashire Brigade to the task, with the experienced but apparently ungifted Major-General Edward Woodgate leading the force. Another 2000 men under Warren were not felt necessary, left to wait while their comrades acted.
The assault began in thick fog, which along with the darkness that soon fell confused the force – or its leaders - into believing it had reached a plateau at the summit. It was then decided to hunker down, though sadly nobody had remembered the sandbags and they only had 20 picks and shovels between them to dig into the rock. A shallow crescent-shaped scraping about 15 inches deep was created before the fog dissipated and daylight revealed they were only half way up, with Boers on three sides above them able to fire with impunity into the utterly useless trench, the deadly Boer rifles backed by deadlier artillery.
A quarter of the assault force was slaughtered. Woodgate at least had the good grace to die with those men. When night fell again the survivors retreated. Winston Churchill who had recently escaped from a Boer prison camp acted as a runner during the fight, and was officially a war correspondent. When he told Buller about the hopeless position in which the assault force found itself the commander reacted decisively and ordered Churchill’s arrest. Another great figure took part in the battle too – Gandhi a stretcher bearer in the Indian Ambulance Corps.
The battle for Spion Kop and the Tugela River territory would continue, and eventually Ladysmith was relieved. At Liverpool’s Anfield Ground , and Preston North End’s Deepdale , steeply banked stands are named after the Spion Kop to honour Lancastrian soldiers wiped out in the battle.
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