A Bloody Play on a Small Stage of Death

A Visit to the Famous Battlefield of Spioenkop in the Green Land of Natal

By H Labuschagne

The soldier stared at the thick Natal mist with bleary eyes. He never could have imagined that Natal would have such baffling mists. Eerie. Still. He was tired. Tired to the point of death. He had spent the entire night climbing this damned hill with his company. He hadn’t slept a wink in forty-eight hours, and he was soaked through.

Suddenly the mist began to thin. It lifted. For a moment, only a brief moment. The private’s eyes grew wide. Were his eyes playing tricks on him?

And then an icy dagger of fear struck into his heart. "Good Lord, deliver us!" he whispered his plea as the blood drained into his legs and froze. "We’ve dug the trenches at the wrong place!" Terror broke his voice as he turned to his mate and yelled: "Bloody hell, Cyril, we’ve dug the damned trenches in the wrong place!"

Spioenkop turned out to be the bloodiest battle of the entire Anglo-Boer War. It proved to be a day-long battle that saw some of the fiercest action, some of the most incredible bravery and some of the most sickening scenes of suffering. The story about the climatic Battle of Spioenkop has been told many times and in great detail. What most accounts fail to mention, however, is the enchanting scenery of Spioenkop. It really is hard to imagine that such a savage, brutal war could have been fought in such a beautiful place. The old Dutch name, "Spioenkop" translates literally to "spy-hill." The name was aptly chosen, for indeed, Spioenkop forms a high vantage point from where the early Boer pioneers once surveyed or "spied upon" the unknown land that they were entering. More than half a century later, Spioenkop mountain happened to be standing in the way of the British army as it tried to come to the relief of the town of Ladysmith, which at that point, had been besieged by the Boers for months. With Spioenkop in their possession, the Boers could easily place their artillery on top of it, and in so doing, blow any relief columns sky-high as they passed below it towards Ladysmith. Indeed, that was exactly what the Boers were planning...

The story about the battle of Spioenkop is a strange one. The British knew they had to take it at all costs, and the Boers knew they had to hold it at all costs. The British soldiers succeeded in surprising the Boer guard on its summit after an all-night climb which left them utterly exhausted. Their concerns had been justified. The Boers had just completed new gun-emplacements for installing their artillery on the summit! But then the soldiers made the one massive mistake that probably cost them the battle in the end. During the night and early morning, the top of the mountain was shrouded in thick mist. The soldiers grimly set to digging a long line of trenches along the rim of the reasonable flat-topped mountain. Only later that morning, however, did they realize that they had mistakenly dug their trenches dozens of yards away from the real rim of the hill. This meant that they could not see any attacking force storming up the mountain if they staid in their tenches all the time. It was a terrible realization for them when the mist lifted and they realized their plight.

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A photograph showing how the British soldiers filled the long trenches. These trenches were merely filled in and turned into mass graves and can still be seen today. Each man in this trench had been a brave hero.

The news about the loss of the hill struck the Boers like a bombshell. General Schalk Burger even hurriedly struck his camp and made off to Ladysmith, fearing that the British would place guns on the mountain and bomb his men to pieces, much as the Boers had planned on doing to their enemies. General Burger was a man who rarely displayed particular faith. Other leaders, however, proved to be more steadfast – especially the young General Louis Botha, who had meteorically risen from being a private burgher, to becoming probably the most illustrious Boer general at that particular time. In the darkness he rallied everybody that he could locate. Spioenkop had to be retaken at all cost!

Commandant Hendrik Prinsloo was the closest to the scene, and the task fell to him to keep the enemy busy until such time as reinforcements could arrive. It was a terrible task to dish out to anybody, for Spioenkop stood tall, like a fortress from the Boers side. Prinsloo had no more than about ninety men with him, but the commandant was like a mountain himself, and his burghers were solid men with determination. As they stood at the foot of the mountain, Prinsloo made a short but famous speech:

"Burgers, we’re going to attack the enemy today, and not all of us will return."

The men eyed the tall mountain which they were expected to storm and try to surprise. The mountain, in turn, sullenly frowned down upon them with its head buried in the mist.

"Do your duty and trust in God!" Prinsloo, commanded, and with that, the Boers began to stream up the hill.

Soon shots were exchanged, and by the time that the fierce summer sun burnt away the mist that morning, blood was already flowing thick and fast. Louis Botha would wear him out that day, in trying to gather about a thousand men out of his meagre total force of only about four thousand. Botha could not choose. He had to send up every available man that he could find. It was desperate fight. In places, the Boers had to climb right to the very edge of the summit, and there had to wrest the rifles from the hands of their foes. Meanwhile the young commandant-general ordered his artillery guns on the neighbouring hills, to be swung off the British main force and to be focussed on the summit of Spioenkop.

The artillery support was welcome, but the Boers found that they still had one of the most unenviable tasks of the war. The burghers had taken the rim of the mountain in places, but they now found that they still had up to 150 years to cross over mostly bare open ground if they were going to drive their enemies from the trenches. The battle turned desperate. The Boer guns began to blindly rain down their shrapnel upon the British trenches under the direction of a Boer heliographer who had to signal to the gunners where to aim in order to hit their completely invisible enemy. This teamwork effort turned out to be amazing. The shells fell with pin-point precision. Most of the British guns were too far to be able to fire accurately, and they battled in vain to silence the Boer guns.

During the course of that day, both sides continued pouring up reinforcements. The British trenches became totally overcrowded, but even with all their manpower they could not stop the reinforcements from coming in. Soon the men were rolling the bodies out to form protective bulwarks which would have the macabre effect of to deepening the shallow trenches somewhat. Both sides were fighting with the passion and fury of wounded lions. Both sides charged each other’s positions several times and several time the odds of the battle hung precariously in the balance. The Boers captured some trenches. The British re-captured them. The act was repeated. A lucky British shell struck the Boer heliographer and smashed his instrument’s tripod. The promptly dusted himself, placed the remains of his instrument on a large rock and continued signalling. The British heliograph, in turn, was smashed by a Boer shell. A flag man was told to signal. The moment he rose, he was struck by a bullet. Eventually the British soldiers lost contact with their commanders on the ground. Confusion reigned everywhere. The British general Woodgate had been mortally wounded in the head and the soldiers didn’t know who was in command anymore. The battlefield was far too small for so many people, and the Boer artillery was literally cutting them to pieces, while Boer snipers had taken the summit under a long-distance rifle cross-fire.

Each fresh batch of British reinforcements tried to recapture lost ground by storming the Boers, but each time their waves crashed against an unyielding, solid wall of Mauser fire. A few paces gained, only to be lost again an hour later. Some soldiers simply fell asleep in the blood-soaked and slippery trenches. The effects of the sun, terror, shock and exhaustion had wasted them. They dare not even lift their heads, for they knew that to do so would mean running the grave risk of almost certainly getting a bullet through the eye. All they could do was lie down, waiting for the moment when they would be struck by shrapnel from above, listening to the ear-shattering din of battle, praying, thinking about loved ones... Many Boer bodies were strewn about the open terrain over which they had charged, and to crown all, the merciless sun began to fry the men alive as they lay underneath the sweltering, angry sun of summer. Almost no water reached the wounded. No shade. No food. Most had no medical and could only lie and suffer helplessly as the flies swarmed into their eyes and nostrils.

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A very famous picture, showing how the dead littered the summit of Spioenkop. Mos of the corpses here are Boers -- probably those that have been killed on the open plain whilst storming the British trenches.

Towards evening, the situation grew desperate. Many of the burgers and soldiers had been involved non-stop in some of the most intense fighting of the entire war, for the entire day, without food or water. They were just about finished. It took ages for the sun to sink away like a gigantic blood-shot eye. Eventually the guns fell silent, and only periodic rifle fire could be heard in the darkness. Flashes of light playing here and there. The entire summit of Spioenkop had been turned into a ghastly, bloody stage where the actors slipped and slid on the grass which was covered with their own blood and that of their closest companions. The artillery fire had ripped of limbs, heads, torn open bodies. Clouds of flies were swarming around, the metallic smell of blood in the breeze. Everybody was demoralized, confused, stunned... The shock on the summit of the acre of death must have been virtually tangible.

On both sides, men began to aimlessly stumble down the mountain without waiting for orders. They had los their hats, their rifles, their wits. Many had no aim and no plan. Nothing. Nobody knew who was in charge anymore. A slender young lad by the name of Winston Churchill desperately tried to stop the flow of British soldiers as they poured down the hill that night, but it was already too late. Not even the news that fresh reinforcements were on their way could stem the flow. It was final. The order for retreat had been given. Blood-soaked Spioenkop was emptying itself of its last survivors who had miraculously survived the twenty-four hour long nightmare. As far as they were concerned, the mountain could go to hell, for they themselves, had been in hell all day long. As the hours dragged by like weeks and months, the summit gradually became more quiet, until only the moaning of the wounded could still be heard. The Boers left only eighty men on the summit. The rest stumbled back in exhaustion. There were no more reinforcements to send up. They too, were finished. And so, as the cold and clammy mists of the night descended on the mountain once more, the curtain was drawn on the bloody stage of death. The savage play of Spioenkop was finally over..

The north-eastern trench. The Boers had to charge uphill across the open space to the left of the trech -- and right into the murderous fire of the soldiers. Nevertheless, they captured and lost the trench several times. The iron cross in the foreground marks the spot where general Woodgate was mortally wounded.

The Boers were astonished when they found the mountain deserted the next morning. When they rushed to the top in great excitement, the summit resembled a slaughterhouse. Piles and piles of corpses filled the trenches. Everywhere the grass was stained with blood. The air reeked of death and corruption. Piles and piles of empty cartridge cases glistened next to stiff corpses in the early morning sun. Everywhere, equipment lay discarded, abandoned... It was a savage scene. Even greater still, were their surprise, however, when they came to the southern rim of the summit and beheld a scene which must have stunned them into silence. Before them, in their thousands, marched the troops and soldiers who had been fighting so gallantly for the passage to Ladysmith over the past week. The burghers could hardly believe their eyes. "Could it really be true? Wasn’t this perhaps just some new trick?" they wondered. But there was not trick. Not anymore. Generals Buller and Warren had given up. Spioenkop had proved to be too formidable an obstacle. The British lion knew that it would have to try elsewhere, some other time.

As the Boers stared at the long convoys that rumbled away across the vast open expanses, it is easy to imagine that chills must have run up and down their spines. It had been a close call. They knew that General Buller and General Warren would try again. For now, however, there would be rest. Blessed rest and peace, while they would mourn their dead and help to bury the corpses of their own kin and those of their enemies.

And so the climatic Battle of Spioenkop came to be recorded in the annals of South African history as the most bloody was that had ever been fought between white men. Spioenkop is one of the most popular South African battlefields today. It receives hundreds of visitors annually who come from all parts of the world to come and view this once famous battlefield. The place has a queer effect on people. There is something about that hill that defies description. Some kind of rare and special awe-inspiring atmosphere. Whatever it is, it is something which has moved countless people to return to Spioenkop again and again.

Spioenkop mountain, as seen from the British main forces' position in the south. The Tugela river lies at the bottom of the valley. What looked like an easy mountain to capture, turned out to be hell in every sense of the word. The topography is completely misleading.

Click here for an article on the Battle of Spioenkop centenary commemoration activities this year, as well as more pictures. 


A Few Months with the Boers The War Reminiscences of a Russian Nursing Sister., Izedinova, S., (Translated: C. Moody). Perskor., Johannesburg, 1977.

Geskiedenis Van Die Tweede Vreiheidsoorlog in Suid Afrika, 1899-1902. Vol. I., Breytenbach, J.H., Die Staatsdrukker, Pretoria, 1973.

Oorlogsavonture van Genl. Wynand Malan., Pieterse, H.J.C., Nasionale Pers., Kaapstad., 1941.

Black and white photos: Courtesy of the SA National Archives, Pretoria, South Africa. Colour photographs, property of H. Labuschagne