The second part of my travels through darkest Africa led me to Natal and the sites of various Zulu and Boer War battlefields. After doing my bit for Queen and country and visiting Isandhwana and Rorkes Drift, (not a bloody spear in sight Michael!), I came upon a hill (or ‘Kop’) with a distinct connection to the events in Whitechapel just twelve years before its notoriety. The place is Spion Kop,* a hill some 1,500 ft high and overlooking the Tugela River on the approaches to Ladysmith. This was the route taken by the British Commander of Allied forces, Sir Redvers Buller, on his way to relieve the beleaguered inhabitants of said Ladysmith.
Now his own idea was to cross the river more easterly and march direct to the town, but his second in Command persuaded him to cross by the westerly route, but first take the Kop that overlooked the valley. The said office was none-other-than the Lieutenant General Charles Warren, ex-Metropolitan Police Commissioner and figure of fun for many popular newspaper columnists. Unfortunately, Buller’s innate self-doubt allowed Warren to not only persuade him to go for the Kop but also to let Warren lead the forces in the attack. Now there was the first of many mistakes.
Buller was very disdainful of Warren as he only held an honorary dormant Commission but was destined to become Commander if Buller befell any accident. In fact, Warren was known by members of the General Staff as “the dug-out ex-policeman”. There was also a bit of animosity on Warren’s part because of Buller’s heroics and Victoria Cross from the Zulu Wars 20 years earlier.
Having advanced to the base of the hill it was learned that there was only one way up, a steep incline to the east, so Warren instructed one of his staff to make a map of the hill for use by forces climbing. Here was where the whole thing fell apart as the top was covered in mist. So the officer drew it from ground level, making the top a completely flat surface, only for soldiers to find that when the mist cleared there was another level held by Boers with conical hills to the west known as Twin Peaks occupied by artillery. The initial force of 17,000 men climbed the steep slope only to be peppered by gunfire when the mist cleared from Boer positions – barely 90 yards apart, as well as the artillery. Also, the ground the British found themselves on was hard and rocky, unsuitable for trenches so the only cover afforded was earth poles of about a metre, as opposed to the Boer trenches on the higher level which enabled those in them to stand up, (the famous picture of British dead is, in fact, the Boer trenches where they were buried!). At one point when the firing was so intense and the sun was at its highest a later medical report stated that 70% of casualties were inflicted over the right eye where the men were turning their heads to avoid the direct sunlight!
Many more mistakes were attributed to Warren in the bloody mess of a battle, including leaving any communication devices (telegraph wires) in the baggage train some 25 miles from the battle along with spare ammo, no artillery able to be pulled to the top, even though special road surfaces were also stuck in the baggage train and the only means of information was a heliograph in the day and lanterns at night, apart from various runners. There was even a strong rumour that while the battle was raging Warren was in fact dealing with mundane paperwork while sitting in his bath! In fact his headquarters weren’t even in sight of the battle, some 10 miles away.
The officer in charge of the assault chosen by Warren, Coke, was also the most unsuitable person to lead a hill charge suffering from a broken leg and by the time he reached the battle, command was turned over to a lesser officer; Thorneycroft on Warren’s orders, but at the insistence of Buller. Unfortunately, no one told Coke which caused countless problems between battalions. Thorneycroft pleaded with Warren to send up some of the 10,000 reserves waiting, but, once again, Warren ignored all pleas even from a young lieutenant actively running messages to and from the summit.
Eventually, after much pleading and intervention from Buller, Thorneycroft pulled all the men from the top and down again. This was ironic as the Boers also pulled out without a sound and right under the noses of the waiting reserves! The final toll of this battle on 22nd January 1900 on the British was 12,000 casualties with over 300 dead and 300 Boer casualties.
An interesting footnote to the whole affair is that if three people who were at the battle had died the shape of the world today would be totally different. The first, Lois Botha, went on to become the first President of the Republic of South Africa and the father of Apartheid.
The second, the eager young officer running messages, was Lieutenant Winston Churchill, the great war leader.
And finally, a stretcher bearer shipped in from India with thousands of others was Mohandas K. Ghandi. It is said that he formulated his idea of passive resistance upon seeing the carnage on top of Spion Kop.
*It is interesting to note that the Battle of Spion Kop, which Sir Charles Warren helped to ‘lead’ inspired the naming of parts of football grounds back Britain in the immediate aftermath. That is why Liverpool Football Club, amongst others, still have a section of its terracing known as ‘The Kop’ to this day.