9 July 2024

Battle of Spion Kop: 125 Years On

Spion Kop 125 year anniversary

An expensive, divisive, and unpopular war, fought by a great global power against a small band of mobile guerillas, in a far-flung corner of the world, and over difficult terrain.

These are but a few of the similarities between American involvement in Vietnam (or, more recently, Afghanistan) and British involvement in South Africa during the Second Boer War (1899-1902).

The key difference is that whilst America lost both of those wars, Britain won hers. But was that outcome a foregone conclusion?

By June of 1900, the British had captured Bloemfontein and Pretoria, the two capitals of the Boer Republics. From that point onward, with overwhelming firepower, manpower, and economic resources, British victory in the Boer War was all but certain. But in the preceding half a year, the picture was altogether quite different.

In December of 1899, the British suffered three humiliating defeats at the battles of Stormberg, Magersfontein, and Colenso, in what was to be termed “Black Week”. A month later, with British domestic opinion increasingly turning against the war, the Imperial Government needed a resounding victory.

Three figures who would each become some of the defining statesmen and political leaders of the 20th century.

Above: Gandhi (centre row, third from right) is seated with the stretcher-bearers of the Indian Ambulance Corps.

Below, left: General Louis Botha at Colenso, December 1899, weeks before the Battle of Spion Kop (Credit: South African Military History Society)

Below, right: Churchill in the uniform of the South African Light Horse Unit, 1900 (Credit: photograph reproduced from The Broadwater Collection, original held at The Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge)

Decisive Boer victory

The scene would be the hills outside of Ladysmith, one of three major South African cities at the time besieged by the Boers (the others being Kimberley and Mafikeng). The actors? Three of the most influential people of the 20th century. The immediate result? Decisive Boer victory.

38km outside Ladysmith lies the rocky outcrop of Spion Kop. Being the largest hill in the region, it held significant strategic value to the two-pronged British army which was advancing on the besieged town, having crossed the Tugela River days before.

In the dark mist of the night of the 23rd of January 1900, British forces ascended what they thought was the summit of the kop, driving off the Boers at bayonet point. When the sun rose the following morning, however, and the mist had burned off, the British realised that they had only taken the lower portion of the kop.

The upper ridge, and the surrounding kops, still remained in Boer hands. What followed was some of the most intense fighting ever seen on South African soil, involving close-quarters combat as well as heavy rifle and artillery fire.

By the time the smoke had cleared, the British had suffered nearly 1,300 casualties, compared with the relatively small number of 300 on the Boer side. The British, their tails tucked between their legs, were forced to retreat back over the Tugela, and Ladysmith would remain in Boer hands for another month.

With Westminster finally learning its lesson, General Sir Redvers Buller was relieved of his command of the British forces, replaced by the much more capable Field Marshal Frederick Roberts. Roberts in turn appointed Field Marshal Horatio Kitchener, recently fresh from his crushing victory against the Mahdist Sudanese, as his Chief of Staff.

Disastrous decision to fight on

Within months, the three major Boer sieges had been lifted, the Boer capitals taken, and the Boer Republics politically dismantled. If it were not for the reckless and selfish decisions of the Boer leadership to turn the war into a guerilla fight (taken at Kroonstad after the fall of Bloemfontein in March 1900) and to reject a British peace offer in March 1901, the war would have ended much sooner than it did and tens of thousands of lives could have been saved.

The decision to continue the war against a now undefeatable British military machine was disastrous, with the war only ending halfway through 1902, by which time Boer farms had been turned to ash and many of the Boer people lay rotting in British concentration camps. Relations between English and Afrikaans-speaking South Africans remain bitter more than a century later.

While the finer details of the battle have been recorded in depth by military historians (and need not be revised here), there is an interesting counterfactual that could have made Spion Kop even more important than it already is.

As we approach the hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of the battle, let us reflect on some of the major events that unfolded during those 125 years.

spion kop monuments

Defining statesmen and political leaders of the 20th century

Here, within our own borders, and shortly after the Second Boer War ended, the Union of South Africa was incorporated as a self-governing country within the British Empire. A few decades later, that Union would play a significant role in a colossal war against fascism which was fought across the globe.

As a consequence of that war, a few years later India gained independence from British rule, the first domino to fall in the decades-long collapse of the largest empire in world history. Today, India has the world’s largest population and its fifth-largest economy. What does any of this have to do with a hillside skirmish in the plains of Natal?

Present in the vicinity of Spion Kop during the battle were three figures who would each go on to be some of the defining statesmen and political leaders of the 20th century.

Commanding the Boer forces was General Louis Botha. A decade after the slaughter at Spion Kop, Botha would become the first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa.

Somewhat ironically, having dedicated years of his life to fighting British rule, Botha the Prime Minister oversaw the incorporation of South Africa as a dominion of the British Empire. He led his young country through the Great War, in which over a quarter of a million South Africans took part in several different theatres.

Secondly, reporting on the battle as an ambitious young war correspondent was the 25-year-old Winston Churchill, who had just a month before made a daring escape from a Boer prison in Pretoria.

Thirdly, also present was a lawyer born in Porbandar, on the west coast of India, and educated in London. His name was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the future leader of arguably the largest nationalist independence movement in world history. Gandhi created the Natal Indian Ambulance Corps, in which he volunteered as a stretcher bearer at Spion Kop.

Global importance of historical events in South Africa

Thousands of men fought at Spion Kop. Thousands of bullets and artillery projectiles flew through the air, many hitting their mark. What if any one of these, a stray bullet, a piece of shrapnel, had hit any one of our three key actors?

Would South Africa have been able to successfully transition to Union government? Would India have gained its independence from British rule? Most importantly, who would have stood up to Hitler in 1940 when no one else did?

With a young Churchill being caught in the crossfire at Spion Kop, it becomes extremely difficult to imagine anyone else in Britain rallying the public (and Westminster) to hold back the Nazi war machine that was spreading across Europe like wildfire. What implications would that have held for the survival of western civilisation? Would I be writing this article in German?

South Africans critically underappreciate the global importance of events which took place within our homeland.

The battle of Spion Kop, and indeed the entire Second Boer War, may be confined to just a few pages in school history textbooks today, but these events shaped British rule in southern Africa, and the agents who were centre stage in them shaped the politics of the world.

125 years on, we as a nation must remember this. Our history matters, but only insofar as we bother to pay attention to it.

By Liam King

spion kop commemoration