The bloody South African connection with Liverpool FC’s famous “Kop” stand!

One for the football fans! Another back of the “chappie gum wrapper” did you know fact. South African military history and the 2nd Anglo Boer War specifically are forever bound in a number of terraces and stands at sports stadiums attended by hardcore fans in the United Kingdom – the most notable is “The Kop” stand at Liverpool FC’s Anfield Stadium.

Spion Kop (or Kop for short) is a colloquial name or term used for a number of sports stadium terraces and stands. Their steep nature resembles a hill near Ladysmith, South Africa, that was the scene of the Battle of Spion Kop in January 1900 during the Second Boer War.

The Battle of Spion Kop was fought about 38 km west-south-west of Ladysmith on the hilltop of Spioenkop along the Tugela River, Natal in South Africa from 23–24 January 1900. It was fought between the Boer Forces of the South African Republic and the Orange Free State on the one hand and British forces during the campaign to relieve Ladysmith. It was a British defeat.

After a tense standoff between Milner and Kruger over political and citizenship rights for the mainly British immigrant gold miners living in the Transvaal (South African) Republic. In a pre-emptive move to gain an upper hand in the negotiations, put the arrogant Milner and other British Imperial expansionist warmongers in Cape Town in their place and obtain a swift victory whilst British garrison forces were relatively weak and unsupported in Southern Africa (and whilst the Boer forces had superior fire-power, weapons technology and troop numbers) with what was hoped to be a minimum loss of life – war was declared by the Boers against the British.

President Paul Kruger and Sir Alfred Milner departing after the failed Bloemfontein conference in June 1899.

So with war officially declared on 11 October 1899 by Kruger, the Boer forces immediately went on a surprise offensive (literally the same day as declaring war) invading the two British colonies of Natal and the Cape Colony.  However the British garrison towns at Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley held up the invasion and the Boer forces took to the tactic to besiege these towns, bombard them (using their famous “Long Tom” cannons and other artillery pieces) and in so literally starve them of fighting capability and pound them into a surrender.

The Victorian British political class, press (media) and public, somewhat surprised by this bold move by two small “farming” Republics invading British territory, and aghast at the starvation and bombardment of both British soldiers and British civilians alike in their  towns, then mustered the largest expeditionary force ever seen date to relieve these towns – literally to go and get them back.  However, the then world’s only real “superpower” was in for a big surprise in this first phase of the Anglo Boer War as the Boer forces initially took the upper hand and gave them a bloody nose they would never forget.

The first full attempt to relieve Ladysmith by this expeditionary force to South Africa was met with absolute disaster at Spion Kop (or Spionkop) for the British. Spion Kop (Afrikaans: Spioenkop meaning “spy hill”) is a mountain located near the town of Ladysmith, 27 km to the South West.

On the 23rd January 1900, the British climbed up the Spion kop hill at night and in dense mist. They surprised the small Boer piquet there and drove them off the kop at bayonet point. The Boer piquet retreated down the hill to their camp waking up their fellow Boers by screaming “Die Engelse is op die kop.” (The English are on the hill.). At that time a half-company of British sappers began to entrench their position on the hill with a mere 20 picks and 20 shovels (oddly – while almost 1,000 soldiers stood around idle).

As dawn broke, the British discovered that they held only the smaller and lower part of the hilltop of Spion Kop, while the Boers occupied higher ground on three sides of the British position. The British had no direct knowledge of the topography of the summit and the darkness and fog had compounded the problem. Furthermore, the British trenches were inadequate for all defensive purposes. Because the summit of the kop was mostly hard rock, the trenches were at most 40 centimetres (16 in) deep and provided an exceptionally poor defensive position – the British infantry in the trenches could not see over the crest of the plateau and the Boers were able to fire down the length of the crescent-shaped trench from the adjacent peaks.

By the end of the battle, the British suffered 243 fatalities; many were buried in the trenches where they fell. Approximately 1,250 British were either wounded or captured. The Boers suffered 335 casualties of which 68 were dead.

The British, unable to hold the Spion Kop hill under withering and accurate fire from the Boer forces retreated back over the Tugela, but the Boers were too exhausted from the fight to pursue and follow up their success. Once across the river the British rallied their troops and Ladysmith would be relieved four weeks later.

This first significant loss by the British in The Anglo Boer War was to be forever emblazoned on the collective British memory, and the first recorded reference to a sports terrace as “Kop” related to Woolwich Arsenal’s Manor Ground in 1904.

However, it was in Liverpool that the tradition really took hold when a local newsman likened the silhouette of fans standing on a newly raised bank of earth to soldiers standing atop the hill at the Battle of Spion Kop.

In 1906 Liverpool Echo sports editor Ernest Edwards noted of a new open-air embankment at Anfield: “This huge wall of earth has been termed ‘Spion Kop’, and no doubt this apt name will always be used in future in referring to this spot”. The use of the name was given formal recognition in 1928 upon construction of a roof. It is thought to be the first terrace officially named Spion Kop.

The Kop became the Liverpool FC home supporters’ end of Anfield Stadium and is widely dedicated to the many Liverpool-born soldiers who died at The Battle of Spion Kop. This stand became legendary in football for the atmosphere, and is still regarded as creating the most intense atmosphere in English football, with the many songs and massive volume that LFC fans create wherever they go. The capacity is 12,409.

Even the nickname sometimes given to Liverpool supporters “Kopites” derives from this home supporters end “The Kop”.

Many other English football clubs and some Rugby league clubs (such as Wigan’s former home Central Park) applied the same name to stands in later years.

Villa Park’s old Holte End was historically the largest of all Kop ends, closely followed by the old South Bank at Molineux, both once regularly holding crowds in excess of 30,000. However in the mid-1980s work was completed on Hillsborough’s Kop which, with a capacity of around 22,000, became the largest roofed terrace in Europe.

The “Kop” stands at St Andrews (left) and Meadow Lane (right).

Even one for the golfers, The Wrekin Golf Club in Shropshire, founded in 1905, named its 13th hole Spion Kop in honour of the men from the region who fell in the battle.

The Battle of Spion Kop was actually to shape the minds and politics of three key individuals, and in so shape the future of the world.  Involved in the Battle of Spion Kop as an Ambulance man (medic) was none other than Mahatma Ghandi, the famous Indian political reformer and spiritual leader.  Alongside him in the Battle were two other future heads of government – Winston Churchill and Louis Botha.  But that’s another story.

In part, the retribution for besieging and shelling British towns and civilians was going to come in the dehumanising approach in the way the war was conducted by the British, especially against Boer civilians in the closing phases, leading not only to atrocity but also Boer cultural annihilation. However that is also a story for another day.

Amazing how South African military history can yet deliver on some surprises, and how some very bloody and tragic events can be linked as a living memorial to the joys of watching football and singing in the stands.

Reference Wikipedia and “The Boer War” by Thomas Pakenham. Image shows the signboard and terraces at Anfield of “The Kop” and a Boer Commando with Spionkop in the background.

The ‘Casus Belli’ for war; compare the ‘Gulf’ Wars & the ‘Boer’ Wars

History repeats itself, that’s the ironic part. For starters let’s compare the Anglo-Boer Wars (both of them the 1st and 2nd Anglo-Boer War – one leads to the other) to the last two Gulf Wars (both of them – one leads to the other).  Let’s also take the seldom used ‘Economic History’ model rather than the ‘Political’ History model for a change.

The 2nd Anglo-Boer war (1899 to 1902) started due to a mix of Imperial interests in Africa, the wealth in the ground in the ZAR Republic and Cape Colony – gold and diamonds respectively, a ‘old score’ to settle on the land stemming itself from the 1st Anglo-Boer War (1880-1881), territorial expansionism of both the Imperialist British and the South African Republic and finally the suppression and threat as to civil rights by the South African Republic as to the mainly British citizens working in their Republic on the mines as well as as other indigenous African populations (this last part was the British ‘Casus Belli’ – the justified case for war).

The Gulf War 2 (or Iraq War 2003 – 2011) started due to a mix of USA interests and USA expansionist ‘influence’ in the Gulf, Iraqi expansionism and the wealth in the ground – Oil, the unfinished business on Iraqi expansionism which formed a ‘old score’ to settle caused by Gulf War 1 (1990-1991) and finally the perceived threat to Americans and Israelis (or ‘the world’) from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (entirely fabricated) and threat to civilians in various religious sects, indigenous populations and minorities in Iraq (this last part was the American ‘Casus Belli’ for going to war).

All war is for ‘economic’ benefit, and the Boer and Gulf wars were no different. The  reasons given for the war – mainly that of ‘threat, oppression and persecution’ to minority groups in each case is no different. Like the USA in the modern-day Iraq context (citing oppression of Kurds, Christians, Kuwaitis), Great Britain also put it’s case forward to the ‘world’ (citing oppression by the Boers of British miners) and in both instances the war was passed off as entirely legitimate once it ended for these same reasons … the ‘Casus Belli’ had been made.

In Iraq, America remained as an occupier after their last war – Great Britain did the same in South Africa after their last war– and in both instances the rational given to the ‘world’ was the reconstruction of the state both economically and politically until it’s perceived ‘threat’ was removed and the country was moulded in a likeness of themselves i.e. a more palatable ‘less aggressive’ version to the ‘world’. In both instances they attempted coalition political parties to govern the country as a means to gradually withdraw from direct governance, but retain influence – and in both instances injecting huge economic aid into both to ‘reconstruct’ them.

In both instances, a tiny state took on a superpower and in both instances guerilla warfare as the only real means to fight a superpower.  In both cases civilians were oppressed and randomly imprisoned as a means of removing support to guerilla cells. In the case of South Africa it was to curtail supply to ‘guerilla cells’  and in Iraq it was to curtail supply to ‘terrorist cells’ (both these guerrilla groupings where locally based). In both instances civilians were exploited to achieve these military objectives.

Oil in 1990 is to Gold in 1900. On the economic front the ‘world’ was presented a case that ‘aggressive’ states where not allowed to be in charge of the world economy as they hold the ‘key’ to it, and these states needed to be removed to ensure worldwide economic stability – this was argued by the USA in 1990 and by Great Britain in 1900 with a similar outcome and some support to both.

The ‘Gulf’ wars – lets face it the whole WMD thing was a complete farce, human rights, aggression and expansionist reasons lie behind the war and millions of people were affected and will be for years to come, and whose kidding whom it was also about the MONEY i.e. wealth – same thing with the ‘Boer’ Wars, human rights, aggressive and expansionist reasons lie behind the war, millions of people affected for years to come, and whose kidding whom it was also about the MONEY i.e. wealth.

In summary, the cruel thing about history is that it repeats as it is often only one basic human condition that guides it, wealth generation (expressed by all sides in the conflict, never just one). The reasons for war are always about economic gain but they are also guided by emotional and political convictions (religion, political dogma, ethnic oppression, human persecution etc).

The even crueller thing about both Iraq and South Africa is that ‘world’ opinion will always justify the war because of the strong cases put forward before and after the war by the victor (albeit very flawed cases in both instances). For this reason it is very unlikely that the USA will be compensating Iraqi families 110 years after the war and apologising, the same is also true of Great Britain and South Africa.


Written by Peter Dickens

Kruger “blunders” and declares war on the world’s Superpower!

This period cartoon captures that moment when President Paul Kruger, who in a game of political chess with Queen Victoria, is about to make a “blunder” – a disastrous move in chess which is ill considered. The British Army is ominously overseeing the move and Kruger, rightfully so, looks very worried.

The “blunder” move was simply this, after much sabre rattling and posturing by Milner and other British Imperialists in Southern Africa over mineworker representation in the Transvaal, on 11 October 1899 President Paul Kruger of the Transvaal/South African Republic (a day after his 74th birthday) in alliance with another Boer Republic – The Orange Free State, in a rather surprising move to many – declared war on Great Britain.

The move by two relatively small Boer Republics to declare war on what was then the world’s only real superpower came with some astonishment to Queen Victoria and the British Government in the United Kingdom. The British Imperialists in Southern Africa, along with the British Gold and Diamond mining magnets, on the other hand could hardly believe their luck.

Alfred Milner, the Governor of the Cape Colony had taken a belligerent stand with Kruger and pressed very hard for war against the “Transvaal” Boer Republic, it essentially stood in the way of Imperial expansionist plans.  However he did not generally have poplar support back in the United Kingdom for a war .  Once the declaration of war came from Kruger it was used as a “causes belli” (a legitimate justification to go to war) to the British public.

More alarming to the British at home in the United Kingdom was that night 800 men of the Potchefstroom and Lichtenburg commandos under General Koos de la Rey (one of General Piet Cronjé’s field generals) attacked and captured the British garrison and railway siding at Kraaipan between Vryburg and Mafeking, some 60 kilometres south west of Mafeking and well inside sovereign British territory.

Thus, with the invasion by Boer forces of a British Colony, so began the Second Anglo-Boer War. Under the orders of Cronjé the Mafeking railway and telegraph lines were cut on the same day, and the dice was rolled.

Not to trivialise the matter as a game of chess, the move by Kruger would have horrific consequences for the Boer nation. The war would see the desperation of Guerrilla tactics being employed by the Boer Forces, after the “conventional” phase of the war was lost, as a last ditch effort to maintain their sovereignty “in the field”.  The use of this tactic spurred the British to fight the remainder of the war in an utterly ruthless and murderous manner, especially in the treatment of Boer women and children – the British policies of scorched earth and concentration camps would leave a very bitter and tarnished legacy.

The question we ask now, with all the 20/20 hindsight in the world is why? Why on earth would Kruger fall for all the sabre rattling and posturing by The British?   Did he not anticipate the massive mobilisation of biggest expeditionary force the British had ever assembled to go “get their Colonies back”? Did he not see the underpinning greed of mining concerns operating in Africa – did the Jameson Raid not warn him of this?

Contrary to less informed opinion, at the onset of the war there no “massive” build up of British arms along the borders of the two Boer Republics to really threaten imminent invasion of them.  “Sabre rattling” (limited reinforcements where ordered) and warnings – yes, but a vast build up of arms – no. To coin a phrase – they where playing “chess” using an age old tactic to force the hand.

At the on-set the Boer Republics in fact had the upper hand militarily and quickly put siege to the relatively small and isolated British garrisons on the two British Colony’s borders (notably Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking).  At the start of the war, numbers and arms in fact favoured the Boer Republics, it was only after war was declared that a truly massive British Imperial build up of arms and men to be shipped to Southern Africa occurred.

Central to the dispute, for the British at least was the issue of workers rights and political representation of mainly British expatriate population setting up business and working on the Gold mines in the Transvaal. The two sides summited on the 15 May 1899 in Bloemfontein to avoid war and Milner and Kruger immediately clashed over the issue of citizenship – Kruger was only prepared to grant expatriates citizenship to the “Transvaal” i.e. South African Republic after 14 years of residency, Milner insisted the period be 5 years.  The issue came to head and negotiations broke down – both protagonists as belligerent to one another as ever.

Both Milner and Kruger knew that the vast number of British expatriates  in the Transvaal would unseat the Boer government by simple majority if they became citizens, to Kruger the proposals where an attempt by Britain to take over his country (and its resources) by simple subjection.  It is best summed up in his own reply to Milner when he said “Our enfranchised burghers are probably about 30,000, and the newcomers may be from 60,000 to 70,000 and if we give them the franchise tomorrow we may as well give up the Republic.’ Kruger went on to say, “It would be ‘worse than annexation’.

To the British it was a matter of individual rights to political representation in the Republic, which was now at a boiling point on the rand.  Given the simple change in the country’s demographic due to the Gold Rush, this change was likely to be permanent and these rights could not be avoided – in essence the Boer Republic would eventually cease to exist through popular vote, it was just a really a matter of when.

To the Boers it was a fight to remain in power and keep their country. It had been contested before, the British military had already taken over the Transvaal some years before as a British Protectorate (over the issue of representation again – this time the African tribes had disputed the territory) and the British had been outed by the Boers in a small and swift war (the 1st Boer War or “Transvaal War” in 1880/81) which re-gained them their sovereignty over the territory.  It however remained a disputed territory to many, it had now become even more complex with the massive influx of expatriates and business, and the memory of Britain’s control of the Transvaal was still fresh – for both the Boers and the British.

The answer to why Kruger moved when he did, lay in the hope that the initial successes of the Boer Forces against the smaller British Forces garrisoned in Natal and the Cape Colony at the time would bring about detente.  As with the victory of the Transvaal War (the 1st Boer War 1880 to 1881) to out the British from that Republic then, Kruger hoped a swift victory would bring sense to the British position with regard to British expatriates “rights” and “citizenship” on the mines in the Transvaal and put any Imperial British expansionist plans and Milner’s obstinate attitude towards the Boer Republics to bed.

In hindsight, the move was indeed a blunder, Kruger did not get the detente he sought.  Change in the Transvaal’s political and demographic make-up was inevitable, and Kruger would not embrace it – a fierce sense of patriotism and sovereignty where central edifices for him and he chose to take up arms to stall the inevitable in a last ditch effort to keep his country under Boer control (a similar parallel can be drawn years later when the “union” of South Africa was taken back politically by the hard line Afrikaner Nationalists in 1948).

No doubt “Gold” played a role, the simple fact that it was discovered is very central to the dispute.  However of interest is just how much of a factor it played – The Boer standpoint at the time was Britain’s “Gold-magnets” started the war out of greed (the Jameson raid in their eyes proved that to them).  Some modern option is the British wanted to “steal” the Republic’s gold, however the economics of matter is that the Gold was in fact already owned by the British private concerns mining it and they paid a tax to the Transvaal government for the sale of it. This agreement on ownership and tax did not change when the Union of South Africa was established after the war, so there was no real financial gain for Britain in going to war (the fact is they owned the Gold already).

What lies more at the heart of this matter of greed is “Empire” as an ideology central to the world politics at the time – the expansion of territory around the globe by the British – the concept of a “Cape to Cairo” band of control over the whole of Africa and the sun never setting on the British Union flag.  British global expansionism was central to Milner and others as Victorian characters and the two Boer Republics stood in the way of it.

To put perspective on the robust, very brave, tenacious and largely suicidal move by Kruger in today’s context – it would be akin to two relatively small prosperous oil/gas neighbouring states like “Qatar” and “The United Arab Emirates” getting into a coalition and then declaring war against the current global Superpower – the United States of America – who has vested interest in their territories (business and large numbers of expats) and in their product (oil/gas). Today’s “Oil” is yesterday’s “Gold” in the context of global monetary exchange and world dominance (the on-going wars in the Middle East involving all the Superpowers is testament to that).  There would only be one outcome, and it would be as disastrous in this comparison context now as it was for the Boer Republics in their context then.


Written by Peter Dickens

Boers; ‘Don’t forget Majuba, boys’. Brits; ‘No fear, Boere, no fear’.

A little bit of ‘Army’ banter between Boer and British Forces. Graffiti scrawled by both sides on a bedroom wall in a house originally taken by the Boers and recaptured by British forces. The Boer graffiti reads: ‘Don’t forget Majuba, Boys’. The British grafitti reads: ‘No fear, Boere, no fear’. Majuba was a disastrous British defeat in the lesser known First Boer War of 1881, and it was an “old score” to be settled in the Second Boer War 1899-1902 with devastating effect and further reaching punitive damage.

Many people in South Africa don’t know too much about the history of the 1st Boer War (also known as The Transvaal War) as they do about the 2nd Boer War i.e. the “Anglo Boer War” or “South African War” (as it is known in Britain).  As, by far, the second war had the most devastating and greatest impact to modern South African history, especially when the Concentration Camp policy and Scorched Earth policies are factored.  In fact it’s only as a consequence of the 2nd Anglo Boer War that South Africa as a “whole” country came into existence.

Many people in South Africa would also be surprised to learn that at one point, some 22 years before the 2nd Anglo Boer War, the Transvaal (known as the South African Republic) was “colonised” by way of a political annexe and effectively became British in 1877. A special “warrant” was issued by the British ostensibly to protect the Transvaal Boers against Zulu and local Pedi aggression.

It was the Transvaal War that changed this arrangement and re-established the South African Republic (Transvaal Republic) under the control of the Boers, setting the stage for the bigger conflict to come.

The Battle of Majuba Hill (near Volksrust, South Africa) on 27 February 1881 was the main and decisive battle of the First Anglo-Boer War (Transvaal War). It was a resounding victory for the Boers and the battle is considered to have been one of the most humiliating defeats of British arms in history.

Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley occupied the summit of the hill on the night of 26–27 February 1881. His motive for occupying the hill remains unclear. The Boers believed that he may have been attempting to outflank their positions at Laing’s Nek. The hill was not considered scale-able by the Boers for military purposes and thus it is often assumed that the purpose of occupying the summit may have been Colley’s attempt to emphasize British power and strike fear into the Boer camp.  Who knows, but the end result was that it was scaled and a resounding and very one sided Boer victory  ensued – the Boer suffering only 1 dead and 5 wounded, whereas the British suffered 92 dead, 134 wounded and 59 captured.

The impact of this battle was far reaching. It led to the signing of a peace treaty and later the Pretoria Convention, between the British and the reinstated South African Republic (Transvaal Republic), effectively ending the First Boer War and giving the Transvaal back to the Boers.

Coupled with the defeats at Laing’s Nek and Schuinshoogte, this third crushing defeat at the hands of the Boers ratified the strength of the Boers in the minds of the British, arguably to have consequences in the Second Anglo-Boer War, when “Remember Majuba” would become a rallying cry (as is seen in the feature image).

This defeat marked the beginning of the decline of the British Empire. Since the American Revolution, Great Britain had never signed a treaty on unfavourable terms with anyone and had never lost the final engagements of the war. In every preceding conflict, even if the British suffered a defeat initially, they would retaliate with a decisive victory. The Boers showed that the British were not the invincible foe the world feared.

However the British “Retaliation” for the Battle of Majuba Hill and the surrender of a British “protectorate” (the Transvaal) was yet to come and when it did, twenty two years later, the punitive measures of the British military, against combatants and non combatants alike, had devastating and tragic consequences for the Boer nation as a whole.

This underpinning “old score to settle” was very much a rally call of the 2nd Anglo Boer war, it’s often overlooked by some historians that claim they entire war was about British Imperial greed for Gold and Diamonds, and whilst only partly true – there remains a score of other reasons for the Anglo Boer War (2nd Boer War) – and this is no doubt, one of them.

Images above show a 2nd Boer War (Anglo Boer War) postcard to “avenge” Majuba and wipe the slate clean and British soldiers from the 2nd Anglo Boer posing at the Battle of Majuba Hill memorial on the summit of Majuba, making a profound statement of eventual victory.

Feature Image: Copyright Imperial War Museum Collection, reference wikipedia and the Imperial War Museum.

I’m not pro Boer, I’m British, this isn’t OUR way!

There are few times you see a balanced documentary on the 2nd Anglo Boer War when it comes to the issue of the British concentration camps, but this landmark documentary “Scorched Earth” is about the best you will ever see … a MUST watch.

As South Africa addresses its history from a holistic perspective,  the complete story of the 2nd Anglo Boer War starts to emerge – the scale of the concentration camps as not strictly a “white” issue, but a “black” issue too is now becoming highly apparent.  That the war is now been viewed in both contexts and in the context of its historical time opens up new questions on the deep scars of hatred, still not fully addressed, affecting all of South Africa’s ethnic groups.

Apportioning ‘Blame’ 

That the concentration camps are a human tragedy on an epic level is not debatable, that within the history of the camps exist war crimes there is little doubt.   The key question to be addressed is the aspect of “blame”.

Can blame be put at one man’s feet – Lord  Kitchener under whose watch and policy this tragedy unfolded and a man with a disdain for the Boer nation and women in general, or does blame lie in cultural misunderstanding – actually going as far as blaming the women themselves for not following British heath regulations for tented camps, not trusting the nursing and hospital staff due to language and cultural barriers and using ancient remedies which accelerated the deadly social diseases instead?

Or, more to the point, does blame lie in the complete British maladministration of the camps, lack of medicine and lack of site and logistics planning by the British policy makers and proponents of the camp system?

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White Concentration Camp of the 2nd Anglo Boer War

Does blame lie with the Boer Commanders insistence on continuing a war after it had been “lost” through conventional war – fully in the knowledge that their kinfolk and entire nation’s survival was heading to complete annihilation?

Does blame lie in the sheer racism and lack of human respect to ‘non whites’ and ‘lesser civilised’ peoples by prevailing Victorian attitude and the subsequent attitude of the army officer and political elite, and by default the broad British public, to purposefully ignore an unfolding human tragedy?  Does blame even lie with men at war with one another and the propaganda to paint one another as somehow lesser human beings?

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Black Concentration Camp of the 2nd Anglo Boer War

Does blame lie in the British initiating a medieval policy of putting to the crucible those women and children whose menfolk where still fighting and rewarding those whose men had stopped fighting with extra food by way of incentive?  And then the very thorny question – does blame lie in a system used knowingly by the British which would have had only one outcome, the decimation of a nation’s fountain of youth?

In essence, there is a strong case to argue that the concentration camps where a punitive measure to stop a phase of war which nobody really understood – the conventional war was lost when the Boer’s capital cities were taken, the decision by the Boer commanders and “government in the field” to take the war into a guerrilla one – supplied and fed by homesteads – simply brought the homesteads into the line of fire and war’s ravages – especially disease which proved the biggest killer.

But there is also a strong case to argue, that the targeting by the British of Boer nation’s most vulnerable – the old men, the women and children, to effect a victory – is simply a despicable act of barbarity, especially when considering the standing British conventional army in South Africa by far out-weighted the whole Boer nation population, let alone the combatants.

To the Victorian men and women such behaviour in South Africa was shielded for much of the war and when exposed in the media by the likes of Emily Hobhouse, the British government and media quickly regarded much of it as an “act of barbarism” and the backlash in Britain as to the conduct of the Boer war by British officers and the urgent need to help a nation in distress ultimately came, but it was too little and far too late.    In this respect Emily Hobhouse’s words to Kitchener are sharply poignant “I’m not pro Boer, I’m British, and this isn’t our way”.

In Conclusion

There is a very long way to go – but the future in reconciling the true effect of this war and redressing it as a nation – is to understand that the Boer War was not only a “white” man’s war, nor the concentration camps strictly about Afrikaans women and children, a much bigger story exists and which needs to be reconciled with – and that is the suffering of South Africa’s black population and the extraordinary losses they experienced in these concentration camps too – which only now are becoming fully understood.  For more on the ‘Black’ concentration camp history do visit this Observation Post link for a fuller story: To fully reconcile The Boer War is to fully understand the ‘BLACK’ Concentration Camps

The redress for white Afrikaners in South Africa as to any form of global awareness and world condemnation of this tragedy to their nation lies in the reconciliation of the history with the previously unwritten and misunderstood “black” history behind The 2nd Anglo Boer War.  Only if it is a national issue, a common cause and a national healing process implemented to dealt with it – will amends and long-awaited apologies from the British be found.


Written by Peter Dickens.  Image copyright, Imperial War Museum.  ‘Scorched Earth’ documentary, Director Herman Binge, produced for M-Net by Pearson Television, copyright 2001.

The Battle of Spionkop shaped 3 future leaders – Churchill, Botha & …. Gandhi

A little more unknown military history on just how one small battle in South Africa has shaped some of the greatest men of our time, including, believe it or not, Mahatma Gandhi, the famous Indian political reformer and spiritual leader.

Gandhi’s formative years were in South Africa and many don’t know this, but he even took part in the 2nd Anglo Boer War. He was also present at the battle of Spionkop, fighting for the British Army as a stretcher bearer and medic.

Spionkop is such a significant battle that three future heads of government were present, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi and Louis Botha. As a result, South Africa, and that battle in particular, played a significant role in moulding the contemporary history of the world in the years to come, simply because of the way the battle influenced these three men.

Background to the Battle of Spion Kop

After much sabre rattling over British immigrant workers rights on the mines in the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (Transvaal Republic) and Rhodes’ Imperial expansionist visions, The 2nd Anglo Boer War was officially declared by the Boers on 11 October 1899 when they invaded the British Colonies of Natal and the Cape.

The move by two relatively small Boer Republics – the South African Republic (Transvaal) and Orange Free State Republic – to declare war on what was then the world’s only real superpower – The United Kingdom (Great Britain) – came with some astonishment to Queen Victoria and the British Government. The British expansionist Imperialists in Southern Africa, along with the Gold and Diamond mining magnates, on the other hand, could hardly believe their luck.

From the Boer’s perspective, the pressures Milner had put on Paul Kruger’s government to grant citizenship rights to mainly British mine workers on the Rand had simply become too much to bear.  Numerically speaking there were to be more miners than Boers in the Transvaal and the granting of such rights would have ended Boer governance of the province eventually – simply by the ballot alone.

As with the 1st Anglo Boer War (or Transvaal War as it was known) fought 20 years earlier from 16th December 1880 until 23rd March 1881, the Boers banked on a quick and decisive victory over the British Colonial forces in Natal and the Cape (which were somewhat weaker than Boer forces at the start of the 2nd Anglo Boer war), and bring to an end the United Kingdom’s demands on them and give them an upper hand in re-establishing their peaceful relations with their British neighbours – exactly as they had done after their victory over the British at The battle of Majuba in the 1st Anglo Boer War.

The Boer advance was however stopped by three small garrison armies at the British border towns of Mafeking, Kimberley and Ladysmith.  The Boers promptly put all three of these towns to siege and brought up heavy artillery and cannons to bombard them, both the garrisons and the civilians alike came under repeated and constant fire, the British citizens in these towns – especially women and children, were forced to near starvation and were now living rough in bunkers, mine shafts and caves.  This prompted an outrage back in Britain and fuelled by public opinion of the arrogance of it all Queen Victoria was able to draft the biggest British expeditionary force ever seen to go to Southern Africa and get their towns back. Central to all of this was the plight of the citizens in Ladysmith – Ladysmith was to become the pride of the British empire in Southern Africa and the rally call.

General Sir Redvers Henry Buller VC landed in Cape Town on the 31st October 1899 to appraise the situation, the main body of the first wave of expeditionary forces due to arrive shortly afterward by 10 November 1899.  By the beginning of December 1899 Buller had assembled all his forces in Durban to begin the relief of Ladysmith – what the British did not expect was to get was a resounding beating, ‘Black Week’ awaited them.

Buller’s woes in Natal started  with the Battle of Colenso – which was the third and final battle fought during the ‘Black Week’ – 10th to 17th December 1899 (the other two been resounding Boer victories at Magtersfontein and Stormberg in the Cape Colony),

At the Battle of Colenso, fought on the 15th December 1899, Buller’s forces came up against well entrenched Boer forces under the command of General Louis Botha (the first of the men profiled here).  Despite a brave attempt to ‘save the guns’ at Colenso, inadequate preparation and reconnaissance and uninspired leadership led to a heavy, and in some respects humiliating, British defeat. Buller’s army lost 143 killed, 756 wounded and 220 captured. Boer casualties were only eight killed and 30 wounded.  Buller retreated to reinforce, he requested even more British expeditionary battalions from the War Office by January 1900 and next up for Buller in a second attempt to relieve Ladysmith was The Battle of Spion Kop.

In a nutshell, the Battle of Spion Kop (Dutch: Spionkop; Afrikaans: Slag van Spioenkop) was fought about 38 km (24 mi) west-south-west of Ladysmith on the hilltop of Spion Kop along the Tugela River, Natal in South Africa from 23–24 January 1900.  It was fought between the South African Republic (Transvaal Republic) and the Orange Free State forces under the command of General Louis Botha on the one hand and British forces under command of General Sir Redvers Henry Buller VC in their second push to relieve Ladysmith on the other hand.  Spion Kop occupied the centre of the Boer line, and was therefore of strategic and tactical importance.

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Iconic photograph of British dead in situation after the Battle of Spionkop

So what were these three future statesmen and reformers doing at Spion Kop? During the battle, Gandhi performed the role of a medic, Churchill acted as a courier and Botha led the Boers during the battle.  So let’s have a look at these three and their involvement a little more in depth, and chart how this singular battle affected their future views and helped shape their careers.

Louis Botha

vo017cbaAt the onset of the war in 1899, Louis Botha initially joined the Krugerdorp Commando, he fought under Lucas Meyer in Northern Natal, and later as a General commanding and leading Boer forces rather impressively at the Battle of Colenso and then at the Battle of Spion kop.

General Louis Botha’s forces came up against General Sir Redvers Buller VC forces as he was trying to relieve Ladysmith.  Botha’s forces held the Tugela River and although Botha’s men were outnumbered, they were mostly equipped with modern Mauser rifles and up-to-date field guns, and had carefully entrenched their positions. In December, 1899, Buller made a frontal assault on the Boer positions at the Battle of Colenso The result was a heavy British defeat.

Over the next few weeks, Buller received further reinforcements, and he moved to cross the Tugela river and capture the hill of Spion Kop in a second attempt to advance on Ladysmith – Spion Kop lay at the centre of the Boer line, so of great strategic and tactical advantage if taken.  So on the night of 23 January 1900, General Sir Charles Warren, tasked with the advance on Ladysmith, sent the larger part of his force to secure the top of Spion Kop.

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Boer Forces on Spion Kop, January 1990

The British climbed up the hill at night and in dense mist. They surprised the small Boer piquet  and drove them off the kop at bayonet point. The Boer piquet retreated down the hill to their camp waking up their fellow Boers by screaming “Die Engelse is op die kop.” (The English are on the hill.). At that time a half-company of British sappers began to entrench their position on the hill with a mere 20 picks and 20 shovels (oddly – while almost 1,000 soldiers stood around idle).

As dawn broke, the British discovered that they held only the smaller and lower part of the hilltop of Spion Kop, while the Boers occupied higher ground on three sides of the British position. The British had no direct knowledge of the topography of the summit and the darkness and fog had compounded the problem. Furthermore, the British trenches were inadequate for all defensive purposes. Because the summit of the kop was mostly hard rock, the trenches were at most 40 centimetres (16 in) deep and provided an exceptionally poor defensive position – the British infantry in the trenches could not see over the crest of the plateau and the Boers were able to fire down the length of the crescent-shaped trench from the adjacent peaks.

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Orange Free State Republic flag

In the resultant murderous and accurate Boer rifle and artillery fire as well as Boer assaults – the British ran up an unacceptable level of casualties and deaths – in what was to become known later as the ‘murderous acre’.  Although they eventually broke the Boer line after a herculean effort they withdrew from the hilltop as an exhausted and broken force, allowing the Boer’s to re-occupy it and win the day.

The British took 20,000 men and 36 Field Guns into the battle and by the end of the battle, the British suffered 243 fatalities; many were buried in the trenches where they fell and 1,250 wounded.  Whilst the smaller Boer force of 8000 men, 4 Field Guns and 2 cannon only sustained 68 killed 267 wounded.  It was a resounding Boer victory against the numerically superior British.

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South African Republic (Transvaal) flag

The Boers, including Botha, thought that their victory at the Battle of Spion Kop would be the end of all the hostilities, and like the end of the 1st Boer War which saw a similar British defeat on the hill of Majuba – the Boers thought the British would now sue for peace and so many of them even went home.  (see Observation Post Boers ‘Don’t forget Majuba, boys’. Brits ‘No fear, Boere, no fear’. for more on this battle).

Little did they foresee the ‘total war’ that was to become the 2nd Anglo Boer War and British resolve to not only take back their captured cities but also to eventually conquer the two Boer Republics with a degree of ruthlessness never before seen in South Africa, and never seen again.

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Louis Botha as the first Prime Minister of South Africa

The successes at Colenso and Spion Kop eventually saw General Louis Botha take control of all Boer Forces.  However, once the British won the conventional phase of the war and captured the capital city of Pretoria, the Boer commanders decided to move their government ‘into the field’ and embark on a new Guerrilla warfare phase.  This resulted in the British using heavily handed scorched earth and concentration camps systems to squeeze off supply to the guerrillas in the field.  The net result of these policies is that by the end of the 2nd Anglo Boer War, the Boer Republics’ farming sector was economically broken and Boer armies and Boer people’s completely decimated.

To build their country up again General Louis Botha teamed up with General Jan Smuts to propose ‘Union’ between the two British colonies and the two Boer states, take control back in the form of an independent South African parliament from Westminster (so it would be able to make its own laws) and create a new country – South Africa.  The Union of South Africa was born in 1910 with these two ex-Boer commanders leading it (without a shot been fired) and as one of these two reformers Botha took the mantle of South Africa’s very first Prime Minister.

Botha is literally the co-founder of South Africa and Smuts was very prepared to let him take the Prime Minister position as he was a far more popular man than the deep thinking broody Smuts,  here Smuts felt their relationship was perfectly balanced for the work of creating a new country and all the challenges that would bring.  Botha’s popularity, especially amongst the Afrikaner lay in his great deeds during the 2nd Anglo Boer War and his popular and likeable manner in command, this popularity was forged by his successes at Colenso and Spion Kop.

Botha would die in office on the 22 August 1919, and in a further ironic twist, it would be Field Marshal Smuts, Botha’s partner in Union who would go on to be come a key advisor and close friend to Winston Churchill during the invasion of France in World War 2 and the formation of the post war world.  To read more on Smuts and Churchill read Observation Post “The force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”- the death of Jan Smuts.

Winston Churchill

Winston ChurchillWinston Churchill took initially part in the 2nd Anglo Boer War as a ‘war correspondent’ for The Morning Post.  War Correspondents like Churchill tended to be commissioned officers serving in uniform attached to Regiments or formations, their reporting was intended to toe the military line.  South Africa literally made Churchill into a national hero and it is the epicentre of his rise to political greatness.

Churchill’s activities in South Africa read like a ‘Boys Own’ Adventure Novel.  His impertinent nature saw him arrive in Cape Town with General Sir Redvers Henry Buller’s expeditionary force, and he immediately teamed up with journalistic colleague John B. Atkins of the Manchester Guardian to go to the front at Ladysmith before any other journalists could do so. They took a 700-mile undefended train ride, boarded  a small steamer bound for Durban and promptly sailed into the teeth of an Indian Ocean storm. After several harrowing days, the pair arrived at Durban.

Still determined to get to see the Boer forces’ siege of Ladysmith ahead of Buller’s advancing forces, Churchill and Atkins made another dangerous train ride of 60 miles to within hearing range the artillery fire of the Boer guns on Ladysmith. Churchill, still keen on getting closer to the action accompanied a scouting expedition on an armored train. The train was ambushed by the Boers and on 15 November 1899, Churchill and after a firefight in which Winston played a direct combatant role, he was captured by none other than Louis Botha (the other future statesmen profiled here).

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Churchill – standing off-set to the right as a POW

Churchill was imprisoned in a Prisoner of War (POW) camp. He managed to escape, and with a ransom price on his head and the assistance of an English mine manager, he eventually made his way to Delagoa Bay (Mozambique) after forging rivers, hiding in mine shafts and stowing away on a train . Hailed as a hero back in England, Churchill returned to Durban.

Here Churchill joined Buller’s advance on Ladysmith and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the South African Light Horse by General Buller whilst he was basking in the glory of his well-publicised escape from Boer captivity.  By January 1900, at the Battle of Spionkop just outside Ladysmith Churchill acted as a courier to and from the summit at Spion Kop and Buller’s headquarters and made a statement about the scene: “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.”

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Churchill on horseback during the 2nd Anglo Boer war, this photograph was taken just after his escape from Boer captivity.

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British Union Flag

Later, after the war Churchill used his new-found status as a national hero and turned his attention to politics, winning a seat in Parliament in the 1906 general election.

Ironically, it was Winston Churchill who revealed that General Botha was the man who captured him at the ambush of the British armoured train he was travelling in on 15 November 1899. Churchill was not aware of the man’s identity until 1902, when Botha travelled to London seeking loans to assist his country’s reconstruction, and the two met at a private luncheon.

Churchill became the Chancellor of Exchequer (Cabinet Minister) in 1924 upon rejoining the Conservative Party. Churchill was outspoken on a number of issues, such as the danger of Germans re-armament after World War One. His warnings against Hitler were largely ignored, but at the outbreak of the Second World War, his foresight was acknowledged and he became the war-time Prime Minister. His speeches and military strategy were a great encouragement to the British, and he is regarded today as one of the greatest Britons of his time.  It is largely due to Churchill’s leadership during the war that Britain was not invaded by Hitler’s nazi forces at the on-set of The Battle of Britain, that Britain (and Western Europe for that matter) is the modern democracy with the freedoms it enjoys today is largely thanks to Churchill (whether his detractors, of which there are many, like it or not, it remains a fact).

Mahatma Gandhi

Historians have forever struggled to explain why this apostle of peace and non-violence rendered support to the British Empire in the Boer War, the 1906 Natal Rebellion and the First World War.  However what is clear by Gandhi’s own writings was that his intentions in supporting the British Army in Southern Africa was to buy the Indian population in Southern Africa more political concession and representation based on endorsement and participation in British war efforts.

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Natal Colony Flag

When the Boer War came about Mahatma Gandhi actually played a pivotal role in the forming Natal Indian Ambulance Corps which fell under the British Military command.  He even raised the money to form the Corps from the local Indian Community.   It consisted of 300 “free” Indians and 800 indentured labourers (Indians were encouraged to emigrate to South Africa as labourers under contract, once the specified dates of the contract finished they were “free” to own land and make their own way as citizens).

In an urgent response the siege of Ladysmith the British authorities recruited the Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps of about 1100 local White men, at the same time Gandhi pressed for his Indian stretcher-bearers to be allowed to serve, which was duly granted.

Gandhi lawyerMahatma Ghandi first saw action with Buller’s forces at the Battle of Colenso on 15 December 1899,  when the Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps we ordered to remove the wounded from the front line and then transport them to the railhead.

During the Battle of Spion Kop, the Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps (including Gandhi) moved into the frontline to collect the wounded. There is even an account of Ghandi’s bearing during the Battle of Spion-Kop. Vera Stent described the work of the Indians in the Illustrated Star of Johannesburg, July 1911, as follows:

“My first meeting with Mr. M. Gandhi was under strange circumstances. It was on the road from Spion Kop, after the fateful retirement of the British troops in January 1900.

The previous afternoon I saw the Indian mule-train moved up the slopes of the Kop carrying water to the distressed soldiers who had lain powerless on the plateau. The mules carried the water in immense bags, one on each side, led by Indians at their heads. The galling rifle-fire, which heralded their arrival on the top, did not deter the strangely-looking cavalcade which moved slowly forward, and as an Indian fell, another quietly stepped forward to fill the vacant place. Afterwards the grim duty of bearer corps, which Mr. Gandhi organised in Natal, began.

ghandi7It was on such occasions the Indians proved their fortitude, and the one with the greatest fortitude was the subject of this sketch [Mr. Gandhi]. After a night’s work, which had shattered men with much bigger frames I came across Gandhi in the early morning sitting by the roadside – eating a regulation Army biscuit. Everyman in Buller’s force was dull and depressed, and damnation was heartily invoked on everything. But Gandhi was stoical in his bearing, cheerful, and confident in his conversation, and had a kindly eye. He did one good… I saw the man and his small undisciplined corps on many a field during the Natal campaign. When succour was to be rendered they were there.”

34 Indian leaders were awarded the Queen’s South Africa Medal for actions in the Boer War. Gandhi’s is held by the Nehru Memorial Museum in New Delhi.

Mahatma Ghandi remained in the military as a reservist, and was eventually promoted to the rank of Sergeant Major, he also took part in the 1906 Natal Rebellion for which he again received 1906 Rebellion Medal.  For more in Gandhi’s military service see The Observation Post Gandhi was a man of peace, but he was also a man of war! .

In the below image is Gandhi as a medic on the side of the British this time, seen in this photo with the stretcher-bearers of the Indian Ambulance Corps during the Boer War, South-Africa cira 1900.

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Standing: H. Kitchen, L. Panday, R. Panday, J. Royeppen, R.K. Khan, L. Gabriel, M.K. Kotharee, E. Peters, D. Vinden, V. Madanjit. Middle Row: W. Jonathan, V. Lawrence, M.H. Nazar, Dr. L.P. Booth, M.K. Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi), P.K. Naidoo, M. Royeppen. Front Row: S. Shadrach, “Professor” Dhundee, S.D. Moddley, A. David, A.A. Gandhi.

After the wars (Boer War and Natal Rebellion), Mahatma Gandhi’s politics began to shape up as one of non violence, and no doubt his exposure to the violence on war guided Gandhi to his philosophy of peaceful resistance.

In another irony as his political career travelled in synch with that of Louis Botha, in 1910, the same year the South African Union was established, Gandhi established an idealistic community called ‘Tolstoy Farm’ near Johannesburg. It was here, based on his wartime experience and his unsuccessful experiences of trying collaborative politics with the British, that he nurtured his policy of peaceful resistance.

Mahatma Gandhi’s political path was to cross with Louis Botha and Jan Smuts on a number of occasions over the issues of Indian rights and franchise in South Africa, and although Gandhi was arrested on a number of occasions for civil dissonance, he and Smuts developed a strong mutual respect, see Observation Post “… I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man”  for more on this unique relationship.

In all Mahatma Gandhi spent 22 years of his life in South Africa, a significant period of time, and there is no doubt the region’s politics and violence forged the man he had become by the time he returned to India in 1915.  On arrival in India he brought with him an international reputation as a leading Indian nationalist, theorist and organiser.

He joined the Indian National Congress and was introduced to Indian issues by Gopal Krishna Gokhale, his mentor. Gandhi by the time he arrived in India was utterly devout to the ideals of non-violence and universal love. He was against “untouchability” of India’s most destitute and all sorts of injustice in society. He lived a frugal life and imposed self suffering and hunger strikes to see his ideals triumph. In essence he dreamed of a “Ram Rajya” where everybody would live in peace.

In Gandhi’s in book Hind Swaraj Gandhi outlined his ideals of change via principles of non co-operation, and he declared that British rule was established in India with the co-operation of Indians and had survived only because of this co-operation. If Indians refused to co-operate, British rule would collapse and “swaraj” (self rule) would come.

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Negotiation of independence for India, Gandhi with Lord and Lady Mountbatten in 1947

Whist using this idea of non co-operation to fight British rule in India, he maintained his principles of truthfulness, peace and non-violence. In 1942, he launched the “Quit India Movement” to drive the British out of the country and gave the famous slogan of ‘do or die’ to his countrymen. The movement brought tremendous pressure on the British who eventually granted full independence to India in 1947.

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National flag of India

He even famously crossed political paths with Winston Churchill when Churchill famously commented  “It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle [Inner] Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.”

Gandhi famously disarmed this typical Churchill rhetoric and insult when Gandhi wrote to Churchill in a letter saying, “Dear Prime Minister, You are reported to have a desire to crush the simple ‘naked fakir’ as you are said to have described me. I have been long trying to be a fakir and that [too] naked – a more difficult task. I, therefore, regard the expression as a compliment though unintended. I approach you then as such and ask you to trust and use me for the sake of your people and mine and through them those of the world.”


Written and researched by Peter Dickens.  References – wikipedia, Imperial War Museum, SAHO – South African History on-line, the escape of Winston Churchill.  Image copyright Imperial War Museum.  Colourised Spionkop image copyright Tinus Le Roux