1750 men killed or wounded
Boers with Spion Kop behind them
By far the most dramatic and humiliating encounter of the early months of the war was at Spion Kop on 24 January. It was probably the worst defeat of the war and made such an impact that football grounds were to name their high terraced ends the 'Kop End'. What happened at Spion Kop illustrated aspects of the Boer and British rivalry.
For the encounter that led to Spion Kop, Buller had 30,000 men under his command. On 16 Jan, Buller set off with 24,000 infantry, 2,500 mounted troops, 8 field batteries and 10 naval guns. The plan was to gain the open ground to the north of Spion Kop and to do so by sending General Warren on a sweeping left flanking movement round the Rangeworthy Hills to link up with General Lyttleton's brigade forging up from the south over Potgieter's Drift.
The Tugela was bridged by Warren but then he found it too difficult to move his wagons, so he halted his forces and persuaded Buller to allow him to attack the Spion Kop. The assault column set off before midnight and grappled with mist, rock strewn slopes fearing detection at any moment. The men reached the summit and dislodged the 70 Boers with a bayonet charge and at 4am the Kop was in British hands.
The British dead at Spion Kop
The trenches where the British died as they are today
The troops dug in for several hours but the ground was so rock hard they could only dig shallow trenches. At 7am as the mist began to lift the true situation was revealed. The British had only taken part of the summit and the troops were dangerously exposed with Boers on neighbouring summits able to fire from several directions.
Within an hour the Lancashire Fusiliers, the Scottish Rifles and General Thornycroft's mounted infantry was being shot to pieces. Their trenches began to fill up with bodies as the Lancashires began to wave the white flag. Thornycroft managed with reinforcements to retrieve the situation but Buller's generalship managed to lose the situation as with General Woodgate, the officer commanding the right flank attack, was severely wounded and the decision as to who was to replace him in command was not communicated clearly enough.
Thornycroft decided to withdraw as reinforcements waited at the bottom of the summit. As Thornycroft's troops were struggling downhill the Boers were also drifting away from the battlefield. It was only the exhortations of General Botha that persuaded the Boers to return to the battle whereupon they found the summit vacated by the British.
Buller then insisted on a full retreat across the Tugela. The whole fiasco had cost 1,750 men killed or wounded.