The Battle of Spioenkop, 23-24 January, 1900 wasn’t that long ago – not in the greater scheme of things. Visit this infamous battlefield with Simon Blackburn of Three Tree Hill Lodge, and you can picture every fascinating, if tragic, wave, surge and retreat of this oft-recounted Anglo-Boer War clash.
My second and final day at Three Trees started precisely as I had hoped: coffee on the deck, the bushveld waking up in front of me. I should have been exhausted after two days running in the Northern Berg and a long game walk in the Spioenkop Game Reserve in the preceding 48 hours. But the day’s prospects were too good for that.
This was my first tour of the Anglo-Boer War battlefields. I had read about these fights and even listened to the inimitable David Rattray (one of the founders of TTH) expound these tales on an audio CD. We know these are no substitute for a visit, to trudge the same earth and feel the same sun as those thousands of soldiers who fought and died.
After a hearty breakfast of French toast (ironically enough, a meal my fellow Dutch, American, British and French guests had never heard of!), we gathered in the lounge for an introduction from Simon. It was immediately clear that we were in the grasp of a master raconteur. Simon’s heart-on-sleeve passion and baritone voice set the tone for a gripping journey back in time.
Notice the rifle and shovel mounted on the fireplace. These are the sorts of relics one finds dotted all round the lodge. Both were of substantial importance to the Battle of Spioenkop, although we didn’t know that yet.
With our overseas visitors briefed on the background to the war, we set off for the site itself. An audio CD recorded by another of the TTH founders, Andrew Ardington, filled us in on further stories around the battle as we approached.
While the vehicle rolled towards the koppie and then spiraled up to the top, I imagined what it was like for those violent tens of hours just more than a century ago. There was torrential rain on the evening the British marched up the steep slopes – a hike made all the more sluggish by their uniforms: woollen coats and bulky boots.
“During the day it was viciously hot,” bellows Simon. “And we have proof that, unlike today, there was hardly a tree for miles around. Worse, the British, many from the Lancashire Fusiliers, had not brought nearly enough water up with them. The small store that they had was manned by a lowly young soldier who doled it out to those worst injured. Many were left delusional from thirst.”
Simon painted a picture that had us all on the edges of the little camping chairs we had brought along. Military tactics were imperative to this struggle by the Brits to relieve nearby Ladysmith. While they had the higher ground, it was such that the veld-savvy Boers could approach in relative safety and then start picking off their opponents with accurate shots at helmeted heads as they popped up against the skyline.
That said, this was not the triumphant Boer victory it is sometimes recounted as. British strategic miscalculations clearly cost them dear, especially early on. But this was an unshaven, lethal gunfight – in fact, it broke into hand-to-hand combat and bayonet scuffles at times.
Winston Churchill, then a young journalist covering events for newspapers back home in England, described it thus: “Corpses lay here and there. Many of the wounds were of a horrible nature. The splinters and fragments of the shells had torn and mutilated them. The shallow trenches were choked with dead and wounded.”
This winding, rocky monument traces the route the British trench had followed. It also highlights another key to the battle. The British had only been able to dig approximately 40cm into the hard surface of Spioenkop, making use of the spades of the sort mounted in the Tree Tree Hill lounge (the rifle was a once-cutting-edge German Mauser, as employed by the Boers). This was not enough to provide adequate protection from Boer fire from surrounding hills.
If any of us had expected one of the vacillations between Boer and British momentum to prove decisive, we were in for disappointment. More likely it was far closer to stalemate when the bangs of mortar shots and gunfire petered out. The Boers had also lost morale and begun retreating (despite a late charge the powerful personality of Gen. Louis Botha had inspired) when the British finally pulled back. A smaller Boer force (some 8 000 to the roughly 20 000 British forces) had punched above its weight, however Ladysmith was nonetheless relieved a month later.
Back at the lodge, a farm-style lunch of salad and lentil curry (for which I was sure to get the recipe, which I’ll publish soon) was precisely what the field medic would have ordered. Chewing over the day’s learning with my European and American cohorts was no less enlightening than the trip itself.
Whatever your stance on war, colonialism and the Battle of Spioenkop, visiting this site is an enriching experience that I cannot recommend highly enough.
All that remained was to bid farewell to the Blackburns, the American, Dutchman, Englishman and Belgian honeymoon couple, and sadly depart this genuinely special place. For four hours driving home, my mind re-traced everything that had happened in the days before. The history, the people, the delectable food. I’d be lying if I denied being a touch envious of the fortunate readers who win the two-night stay at this gem I already missed.
*Our next post about Three Tree Hill will include a quiz. If you can get all our questions correct, you’ll go into the draw to win two nights for two at Three Trees! Watch this space…