Over One Hundred years ago, on the evening of Tuesday 23rd January, 1900, 1,700 British troops prepared to attack a hill in South Africa known as Spionkop.
Spionkop means 'Spy Hill' and was coined by the Dutch settlers for the commanding views it afforded. The following days witnessed a bloody battle between the British Empire and a ragged collection of Boer farmers and the British Empire lost.
The British soldiers were from the Second Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers, the Second Battalion of the Royal Lancaster Regiment and the First Battalion of the South Lancashire Regiment. Capturing Spionkop meant that the British Army could relieve their countrymen besieged by the Boers in the Natal town of Ladysmith and be home by Christmas.
However, that reckoned without a series of blunders by the British High Command, led by Sir Redvers Bullers, and the terrifying fighting qualities of the Boers. Reports at the end of the battle, which raged for two days stated 332 killed, 563 wounded and 163 prisoners taken, but these figures are still open to question with some claiming up to 340 killed and 1000 wounded. The Boers had beaten the mightiest army in the world and the reverberations were felt around the globe.
To commemorate the their fallen, upon returning home the surviviors named stands at their local football grounds 'the Kop', the most famous of these being 'the Kop' at Anfield (Liverpool FC).
The Kop remembers the Liverpool men who lay, frightened, at the foot of an obscure hill in Africa all those years ago. The Kop has proved equally daunting to visiting teams and has witnessed many great victories for Liverpool FC. Hopefully, it will continue to do so for another 100 years.
The Battle of Spionkop
On the 23-24th January 1900 the Battle of Spioenkop took place, a terrible military blunder, by the British forces on their way to relieve the siege of Ladysmith in the Boer Wars of South Africa. As a direct result of this awful battle, one side of Anfield preserves to this day the name of a conical, sun drenched and water-less hill in distant Natal.
The battle arose as British forces numbering 1700 under the command of Major-General Sir E.R.P. Woodgate marched towards the town of Ladysmith that was held under siege by the Boers. Woodgate could not advance straight onto the township without passing a row of four hills - Goenkop, Conical Hill, Spionkop and Twin Peaks. The Boers were encamped along Twin Peaks and Groenkop and part of Spion itself, and Woodgate believed that if his troops could quietly ascend one face of the Spionkop and entrench upon the top, he would command a view of the Boer positions and direct artillery and infantry attacks into their exposed positions.
A military reporter from the Manchester Guardian understood the thinking behind the assault and outlined the Major-General's approach for the readers back home: "If we could get on to the Southern crest of it we could probably push on to the northern end, once there we could open a flanking fire on the Boer lines which ran east and west. Spioenkop, properly used was the key that would open the door of Ladysmith. Patrols had reported that there were only a few Boers on it." The attack commenced on the evening of the 23rd January.
"Soon after dusk on Tuesday a party set out to make a night attack on the hill. There were Thorneycrofts' Mounted Infantry, the Lancashire Fusiliers, the Lancashire Regiment, two companies of the South Lancashire Regiment and a company of Engineers. General Woodgate Commanded. It was a hand-and-knee march up the southern face - a climb over smooth rock and grass. It was slow".
Along the way a Boer sentry challenged the advancing British and he was shot on sight, and a charge was made by some of the Lancashire Fusiliers upon the Boer line which in fact proved to be only a tiny outpost. Maybe this caused some over confidence within the party as they steadily marched, curiously unopposed, towards the hill's crest as night fell. A war correspondent described the events: "The crest was not reached until dawn. When dawn came the party found that it was in the clouds.
It could see nothing but the plateau - 400 yards across - on which it stood. Trenches were made but it was difficult to determine the right place for them. The Boers were invisible. At last the mist lifted. The curtain rose upon the performance of a tragedy. The Boers - need I say, on another ridge of Spionkop? - began to fire heavily, and our men seemed to have no sufficient protection in the trenches. The space was small; they were crowded together."
The terrible miscalculation of their actual position was to prove costly. How the Major-General had lost track of the various false horizons was not recorded, but it was all too clear in the blistering light of day that things were wrong; "I will describe the scene as I saw it from below. I shall always have it in my memory - that acre of massacre, that complete shambles, at the top of a rich green gully, with cool granite walls (a way fit to lead to heaven), which reached up the western flank of the mountain.
"To me it seemed our men were all in a small square patch; there were brown men and browner trenches, the whole like an over-ripe barley field...The Boers had three guns playing like hoses upon our men. It was a triangular fire and our men on the Kop had no gun. Men must have felt that they had lived a long life under that fire by the end of the day". The intense heat, lack of water and the relentless shelling and sniping took its inevitable toll upon the British forces.
Fortunately the arrival of reinforcements prevented the losses escalating beyond the 332 killed, 563 wounded and 163 prisoners - the remaining 642 finally released from their hill-top suffering by the close of day on the 24th January when they retreated down the hill.