Scott Balson's trip to South Africa -
9th September 2006 - Spioenkop Battlefield

Perth : Johannesburg : Pretoria : Pietersburg : Pilgrim's Rest : Ladysmith : Champagne Castle : Estcourt : Durban : Ixopo
Kokstad : Port Elizabeth : Plettenburg Bay : Cape Town : Victoria West : Griquatown : Mafikeng : Johannesburg : Perth

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I visited Spioenkop at about midday. Access was just ZAR15 - excellent value. I received an informative brochure when entering and after climbing a steep road arrived at the crest where so much death and destruction took place on 23-24 January 1900. My guide informed me that a group of six British guests staying at the Tugela River Lodge had come with metal detectors and left laden with gun shells and personal stuff like coins... sickening. I just took my cameras and spent a couple of very happy hours there. The lay out at the top is excellent and I had no problem following what had happened.

In short General Buller was desperate to relieve Ladysmith after being earlier routed by the Boers at Colenso. So he decided to take Spioenkop which was only held by a small force of about 100 Boers. The trek by a force of 1,700 men under Major General Woodgate started climbing the daunting hill with its steep sides at 9pm on the 23rd January - reaching the plateau below the summit at about 2am.

They were ordered to fix bayonets in preparation for close combat and as they moved towards the summit occupied by the Boers a Boer Guard called out "Wie's daar" (Who's there) - then fired a shot in the direction of the approaching soldiers.

The Boers caught unaware by the raid on their position fled and the British took over what they soon realised was a very exposed summit. Very little cover - just a few large boulders. Their exposed position in bright red tunics left them as sitting ducks for sniper attack by the Boers hidden in the neighbouring hills. Woodgate realised the predicament and the British soldiers, already exhausted from their climb, were ordered to build a large shallow trench about 40 centimeters deep - where they could hide from gunfire.

The Boer General, Louis Botha, ordered 400 of his men to launch an attack on the north east face of Spioenkop - coming from the cover of the conical hill sanctuary. There was thick mist and all these counter attack preparations, including the placement of seven field guns by the Boers, all pointing at the summit - an area not much larger than  football field. (The flat area on Spioenkop is just over 1000 metres in circumference).  

Image right - the enormous mass grave where hundreds of British soldiers are buried.

It was only 6.30am when the exhausted British soldiers finished digging their shallow defensive trench and at 7am when the mist lifted Woodgate realised that his men were exposed to the hills nearby so he ordered them to move to the shelter of the rocks lying facing conical hill some one hundred meters way from the summit. When the mist cleared at 8am the Boers sitting on the nearby hills could easily pick out the British soldiers in their red tunics and started firing with deadly accuracy. During this initial attack Woodgate was mortally wounded and confusion reigned as to who was now in command. By midday the Boers had advanced onto the plateau and were firing directly at the British defensive positions not 100 meters way.

At 1pm 172 Lancashire Fusiliers on the right flank surrendered to the Boers coming from conical hill. The men were exhausted, suffering from the heat and high casualties both dead and wounded.

At this time the Boers under general Burger started to outflank the British by attacking from the south side - from Aloe Knoll. When it appeared that the British would have to surrender or die a large relief force was sent in by Buller through Aloe Knoll and Burger and his men escaped as darkness fell.

The British retreated from the deadly Spioenkop as did the Boers - who returned the next morning to get their dead - finding the devastation that they had created - killing 343 British soldiers in their worst defeat of the entire Boer War. A further 563 British soldiers were wounded - while just 68 Boers were killed.

Deneys Reitz who was in the attacking force described it thus on the morning of the 25th: "There must have been 600 dead men on this strip of earth, and there cannot have been many battlefields where there was such an accumulation of horrors within so small a compass." His book in electronic form can be seen and read on-line at this link.

The thing that struck me about the summit of Spioenkop was the lack of vegetation and what was there was largely dead. Just a few spring flowers dared live in this place of death.

Interactive Map - click on marked locations

The road up to Spioenkop

The northern face of Spioenkop

Approaching the plateau

On the eastern plateau

Heading south on the plateau

Distances to neighbouring hills

Conical hill - Boers attack base

The southern plateau

Looking over the plateau

The British started their midnight

assault below here

Looking back at the summit

The slopes the British climbed

in the dark on 24 January 1900

The summit as seen from the spur

The spur below which the

British troops climbed

British troops fixed bayonets here The slope near the gathering point

Beautiful spring flowers.

While walking across Spioenkop you can only imagine the devastation that destroyed the British and the immortal and moving words of that Irish ballady come home.... yes, my father was Irish.

Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side
The summer's gone, and all the flowers are dying
'tis you, 'tis you must go and I must bide.

But come you back when summer's in the meadow
Or when the valley's hushed and white with snow
'tis I'll be there in sunshine or in shadow
Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so.

And if you come, when all the flowers are dying
And I am dead, as dead I well may be
You'll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an "Ave" there for me.

And I shall hear, tho' soft you tread above me
And all my dreams will warm and sweeter be
If you'll not fail to tell me that you love me
I simply sleep in peace until you come to me.

What a hell hole, so close to heaven yet forged in hell - how many dying Irish men played back the tune of Danny Boy as they lay dying. We will never know. 

Below are four images scanned from Michael Davitt's excellent 1902 book "The Boer Fight for Freedom". The images graphically display the tragic loss of life by the British over a stupid hill in the middle of nowhere. A copy of this excellent book is in the Balson Holdings Family Trust.

and how it is today...

The summit held by the Boers

from the fixed bayonet position The distance from the Boer sentry

The view from the sentry's spot

The grave where the unknown

sentry was killed

Spioenkop Dam lies below

The inadequate 40cm trench

dug by the British in the dark

Looking up at the summit

Looking over the dam

The trench as seen from summit

Monument at summit

Monument near Aloe Knoll

Spioenkop dam from

Eastern face of Spioenkop

Aloe Knoll where the Boers
tried to outflank British

The mass British grave near the

summit of Spioenkop

Several hundred soldiers died here

The exposed location of summit

Distance to nearby hills

Location of other battle fields

The main British monument on the
summit can be seen for miles

The slopes up which the Boers

launched their counter attack

The Boer memorial

The main Boer attack route

Boer graves near the plateau

The British were located in these

rocks by Woodgate

The ridge of rocks where the
British soldiers dug in

The enormous mass grave where
Deneys Reitz saw the bodies

The main face to face conflict
took place here

Cross on mass grave

Plan of Spioenkop battlefield

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