Friday, August 12, 2011

Spioenkop Battlefield

The memorial to the British soldiers that fell at Spioenkop 

 KwaZulu Natal is famous for its battlefields which includes battles between the British and Zulus, the Boers and the Zulus (during the Great Trek) and between the British and the Boers (during the Anglo Boer War). One of the famous battles during the latter took place at Spioenkop.  The battle was fought about 38 km south-west of Ladysmith on the hilltop of Spioenkop on 23–24 January 1900.  I haven't had the opportunity to visit many of the battle sites around the province, but on a visit to the Drakensberg I made my way up Spioenkop to have a look around.

 Grave stones and small memorials to fallen British soldiers

The story of the Battle of Spioenkop is quite a complicated one.  I visited the site on my own and not on a tour, so I'm just relating part of the story as I picked it up on Wikipedia afterwards.  The battle was fought between the South African Republic and the Orange Free State on the one hand and British forces during the campaign to relieve Ladysmith.  At that stage the Boers occupied the town and surrounding areas and the British had to devise a plan of attack to relieve Ladysmith.  It was decided that the British army was to launch a two-pronged offensive designed to cross the Tugela River at two points and create a bridgehead.  They would then attack the defensive line that blocked their advance to Ladysmith.

 The trenches became mass graves for the fallen British soldiers

The British climbed up the very steep and very high (I should know because I was standing at the top and you can see forever) hill of Spioenkop at night and in dense mist.  They surprised the small Boer piquet and drove them off the kop (hill) at bayonet point.  As dawn broke, the British discovered that they held only the smaller and lower part of the hilltop, while the Boers occupied higher ground on three sides of the British position.  The British had no direct knowledge of the topography of the summit and the darkness and fog had compounded the problem.  To make matters worse, the British trenches were inadequate for all defensive purposes.  Because the summit of the kop was mostly hard rock, the trenches were at most 40 centimetres (16 in) deep and provided an exceptionally poor defensive position.  The British were sitting ducks and the splinters and fragments of the shells torn and mutilated them. The shallow trenches were choked with dead and wounded.  These trenches became mass graves for the fallen British soldiers.

Graves of unknown Boer soldiers

In the following battle the Rifles cracked the thin Boer line and advanced on the summit.  In the darkness and unknown to the commander, the battle was as good as won, but his nerve was also shattered.  He ordered the brigade to retreat.  When morning came, the Boer Generals were astonished to see two Burghers on the top of Spioenkop, waving their slouch-hats in triumph.  The only British on the Kop were the dead and the dying.  The British retreated back over the Tugela River but the Boers were too weak to follow up their success and four weeks later Ladysmith would be relieved by the British.

A guide leading a group tourists around the Spioenkop Battlefield

During the two days of the battle the British suffered 243 fatalities, many of whom were buried in the trenches where they fell.  Approximately 1,250 British were either wounded or captured.  The Boers suffered 335 casualties of which 68 were dead.  Interestingly, Mahatma Gandhi was a stretcher-bearer at the battle, in the Indian Ambulance Corps he had organised, and was decorated. 

I'm really hoping that next time I visit a site like this that I would be able to do so with one of the many guides that offer tours of the Battlefields.  You get to hear so much more on a guide tour and I wouldn't be relient on generic information off the internet when I post on here. 

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