Monday, 24 January 2011

On this day in Scottish Military History - The Battle of Spion Kop

The Battle of Spion Kop was fought between the British Army and the forces of the Orange Free State & South African Republic, as the British attempted to relieve the Siege of Ladysmith.
The Battle was incredibly brutal, but while at the time it was remembered and commemorated, the events of 24th January 1900 were soon overtaken by bloodier events just a little over fourteen years later, and nowadays it is largely forgotten. How many football fans know the real reason that a stand at Anfield is known as "The Kop"?

The Battle is a fascinating one, and there are many personalities who were involved- both Winston Churchill and Ghandi were present at the battle, but I feel the battle is extensively covered elsewhere (the wikipedia article is quite well researched and is a good starting point) so I don’t want to dwell too much on the events as they happened.

Ghandi, pictured while serving with the Ambulance Corps in the Boer War

There were no doubt a large number of Scotsmen involved in the battle, particularly as part of the 2nd Battalion of the Scottish Rifles, who took an active part during the day.

One of the men of that battalion was a young man named Allan Lynch. He had joined the regiment five years previously, and he had received his baptism of fire at the Battle of Colenso shortly after arriving in South Africa in 1899.
Lynch, photographed circa 1904

I could go into more detail of Lynch’s life, but I will save that for another day.

Many years later, in the 1940s, Lynch wrote down the story of his time serving with the Scottish Rifles, from the date of his enlistment in 1895, right through his time in South Africa, and his time as a veteran who reinlisted and saw service in the Great War.

So, rather than go over the facts of the Battle of Spion Kop, I thought it would be better if Allan Lynch told you about the events as he saw them. I have editied this passage somewhat for reasons of space, but the words themselves are unchanged from what Lynch wrote.

His account begins at 2 o'clock on the 24th January:
When we got to the foot of Spion Kop we could see the fighting going on at the top. For about ten minutes we saw hand-to-hand fighting going on when the Boers tried to rush a British trench, and we could also see the bayonets flash in the sunlight.
The enemy, seeing reinforcements coming, made a desperate attempt to get the hill before we could get there. In our excitement we shouted and cheered to the troops on top. Had the Boers recaptured this trench, it would have been almost impossible for the Scottish Rifles and the King's Royal Rifles to fight their way on to the hill at this point.

The K.R.R.'s went up the face of the hill in extended order, and the Scottish Rifles up a trench on the hill in Indian file.

When we reached the top we got into line and extended to four paces between each man. The rifle fire, the shell and pom-pom fire were terrific, and men shouted as they were struck and fell, in many cases never to rise again. Major E. H. S. Twyford advanced us at the double for about two hundred yards and reached a small trench, where we crowded in to get cover.

The Major gave us a few seconds to regain our breath, and then he again shouted, "Advance, rush!"
We just cleared the trench in time, as a shell from the Boers landed in it and cut it up badly. We reached the firing- line and threw ourselves down behind some rocks and whatever cover we could find. The Major ordered us to fire half-company volleys at two hundred yards, where the Boers were entrenched, but it was hard to pick them out as they were so well hidden and had good cover, while we were very much exposed to their fire.

We were now lying amongst the killed and wounded - it was pitiful! Some of the poor fellows had been lying there since morning in the burning sun and they were craving for water, and we freely gave them all we had in our bottles. One poor fellow who belonged to the Middlesex Regiment was shot in the neck while lying down, and the bullet went right down through his body. I can see him now lying there, saying he would not last much longer as he felt he was dying. The poor fellow died before we left the hill. While we were firing half-company volleys, a shell struck a rock about six yards to my right and a man named Montgomery was cut to pieces. My own feelings at this time were that I should never come off that hill alive, as it seemed almost impossible to escape. We kept up firing until dark, when Major Twyford shouted to all the troops on the hill to fix bayonets, loud enough for the Boers to hear. No doubt this had some effect on the Boers, as they had learned to fight shy of steel. We had settled down to hold the hill all night when, to our surprise, an order was quietly passed along the firing line by man to man to prepare to retire. It was now pitch dark. The Boers were still firing occasional shots, and just as we were retiring a young man named Gavin Smith was shot in the back. He dropped down with a groan, and Sergeant McDonald (my section sergeant) stayed with him until he saw it was impossible to bring him off the hill then. It was afterwards ascertained...that he had died.

It was a perilous descent in the dark and we had to be very careful in some place, for, if we lost our foothold, there was every probability that we would be dashed to pieces two hundred feet below. I and three other men carried a wounded man of the Middlesex Regiment down the hill on a stretcher. When we got to the bottom we handed him over to the stretcher-bearers, who took him to the temporary hospital. It was after midnight of the 24th January when we finally reached the bottom of the hill. We collected together in companies as well as we could in the dark, when to our surprise the order was given to get re-supplied with ammunition and to retake the hill. This caused some very angry remarks from the men, myself included, as it seemed to us that some terrible mistake had been made in leaving the hill at all. This order was finally cancelled, and we returned across the River Tugela. We got as far as Spearman's Farm and stopped there till daylight. The Major called the roll to see how many men were missing. We had four killed and three wounded, but the total casualties of the regiment for the afternoon's fighting were just over 100 killed and wounded, including four officers killed and five wounded. The total casualties for the five days' fighting around Spion Kop were just on 1,700 On 26th January, we buried Major S. P. Strong under a big tree. The whole battalion paraded, and it was a sad scene. Colonel Cook, who commanded the regiment, felt the loss of his second-in-command very keenly, and I noticed tears in his eyes; in fact, I felt like it myself as the burial service was being read by the chaplain.
Greylingstad Hill, 1900. Lynch is pictured second from left.

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