Spioenkop (lookout, or spy hill), or Spionkop as it is frequently, but incorrectly spelled, is another of the better known battlesites that litter the South African Battlefield Route. It is located about 20 miles southeast of Ladysmith, and was fought as part of the British attempts to break the Siege of Ladysmith that took place between 30 October 1899 and 28 February 1900, and which was one of the defining sequences of the early stage of the Anglo/Boer War.
I visited Spioenkop Battle Site in the midst of a low pressure system that was at the time subjecting much of the country to torrential rain, so it was a damp and rather morbid visit, possibly in keeping the extreme gravitas that this moment in the history of South Africa, and of course in British Military History, represents. The battle itself is well documented, and need not be articulated in any detail here, other that perhaps to say that it was an exercise in futility that cost the British expeditionary force the lives of 243 men, with some 1250 wounded. The object of British Commander Sir Redvers Buller’s decision to attempt to take the hill was to break, or at least compromise the Boer occupation of most of the strategic high ground surrounding the besieged town of Ladysmith – a strategy which, in the short term at least, failed.
The historic site of the Battle of Spion Kop is located, as many South African Battlesites are, on private land over which cattle, and in this case, horses roam freely. The summit of the hill stands at 1,460 m (4,790 ft) in altitude, and is the highest point in the local area. It is accessible by road to the summit, but it is easy to appreciate as one drive sup the winding road to the scene of the main monuments what a difficult tactical objective it would have been.
The scene is scattered with a variety of monuments recognize the contribution of the various units, and the individuals involved, covering an area of two or three acres. The most compelling of these are the mass graves, one of which marks the line of an entrenchment that was dug during the initial successful British occupation of the summit. Again, there is a tangible atmosphere here that seemed to me to be more appreciable than at any of the other battle sites in the area that I visited. Perhaps because so many individual names are mentioned, and so many poignant individual monuments have been erected.
Again, as with all local battlefields, the very best way to absorb not only the facts, but also the atmosphere of the battle, is through a guided tour by one or other of the many qualified and competent South African battlefield guides, in this case perhaps best represented by Raymond Heron, owner of the nearby Sionkop Lodge. A fantastic over fifties boomer travel experience.
This is without doubt one of the more rewarding sites to visit on the SA Battlefield Route, and best taken in combination with a review of both the Siege of Ladysmith and other key battles that took place in the immediate hinterland as the British fought to turn back the initial reverses suffered during the early phases of the campaign.