Recounting Spion Kop’s bloodshed

2012-11-28 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

Hill of Squandered Valour

Ron Lock

Casemate

 

RON Lock is well-known for his books on the Anglo-Zulu War — some co-authored with Peter Quantrill — but, as a historian and a guide, he’s also well-acquainted with the KwaZulu-Natal battlefields of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). So it’s not surprising they should finally become the subject of his pen.

The hill of the title is Spion Kop, where over three days in January 1900 a British force, intent on breaking through the Boer line to lift the siege of Ladysmith, came to bloody grief.

A night march up the commanding hill ended with the British mistakenly entrenching themselves in the wrong position. When the sun rose they were caught in withering fire from the Boers in what became known as the “acre of massacre”.

Lock uses the battle as the climax to a brisk run-through of the Natal campaign, including the siege of Ladysmith and the various attempts to relieve it, of which the battles of Colenso and Spion Kop provide two classic cases of military blunders.

Quite apart from the appalling bloodshed, the battle of Spion Kop is famous as featuring the presence of two future leaders of the 20th century: war correspondent Winston Churchill, the future British prime minister, and, in charge of Indian stretcher bearers, Mohandas Gandhi, the future Mahatma.

Oddly, Mahatma Gandhi is only referred to in the book’s epilogue — with Lock posing the question as to how different history might have been if either had been killed — but there is no mention of him in the chapter on the battle. A strange omission.

 

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