The lassitude induced by the battle of Colenso affected each combatant on the Tugela. The Boers put the finishing touches to their works on the left bank, and at their leisure continued the position across the river eastwards from Hlangwhane. They did not seem to have been withdrawn in force26 to assist the besiegers of Ladysmith in the great assault on Wagon Hill and Caesar's Camp on January 6, for a demonstration ordered by Buller at White's request during the crisis showed that the Tugela front was as strongly held as ever.
On January 8, Buller, whose Head Quarters were at Frere, was reinforced by the Vth Division under Warren, and he now resumed his original plan, out of which he had been scared by Magersfontein, of advancing on Ladysmith by way of Potgieter's Drift, rejecting an alternative plan proposed by Warren, which differed little from that by which the relief of Ladysmith was effected six weeks later, of a direct advance by way of Hlangwhane and Pieter's Hill. Between Buller's army and Ladysmith lay not only the tortuous and difficult Tugela, but also a barrier of heights and ridges through which there were but four or five possible ways of access, one of which had already been tried without success, to the beleaguered city lying on a plain considerably above the level of the open ground on the right bank of the Tugela.
Buller, having selected the route which seemed at the time to be the line of least resistance, began on January 9 to transfer the bulk of his force from Frere to Springfield, a distance of sixteen miles, but owing to difficulties of transport and the necessity of accumulating a large stock of supplies at the new base, it was six days before the concentration was effected. One brigade was left at Chieveley to watch the Boer front at Colenso.
In Orders issued at Frere on January 9, Buller announced that he "proposed to effect the passage of the Tugela in the neighbourhood of Potgieter's Drift, with a view to the relief of Ladysmith." His scheme was based upon imperfect information and misleading maps, and was in fact not so much a surprise flank attack, as all his movements had to be made in full view of the enemy, as an attack from a position higher up the river that must be frontal, because the enemy would have ample time to make it so: and herein lay its weakness. When, however, he personally surveyed the situation from Mount Alice, which overlooks Potgieter's Drift, the aspect of the curving amphitheatre showed the danger of attempting to force the river at that point. On the N.E. was Vaalkrantz and Doornkop, and the high ridge of Brakfontein, which the enemy had already begun to entrench, and over which passed the road by which he proposed to reach Ladysmith, everywhere commanded by the heights, filled the quadrant towards Spion Kop on the N.W.
On January 13, Buller reported to the War Office that, having found the Potgieter's Drift scheme impracticable, he proposed as "the only possible chance for Ladysmith" to send Warren across at Trickhardt's Drift, five miles higher up the river. The new scheme was based upon a theory which had been evolved out of the experiences of autumn manoeuvre battles collated on the office desks of Pall Mall, that the easiest method of defeating the enemy with a small casualty list was to contain his front and attack one or both of his flanks; and General Officers had come to regard this as the regulation opening to which they were bound to conform.
Buller divided his force into two unequal portions. Warren with the stronger portion was to attack the Boer right which Buller believed to be weak, while Lyttelton with the remainder demonstrated at Potgieter's Drift. To himself Buller reserved the part of the Chorus in a Greek play, taking a general interest in the action, yet not personally concerned in it; and in that capacity he issued a stirring appeal to the relieving force.
On January 15 "secret instructions" were given to Warren. He was recommended, after crossing the Tugela at Trickhardt's Drift, to proceed west of Spion Kop, and to pivot his right and swing round on to the open plain in rear of the Boer position facing Potgieter's Drift.
Warren, who was not of opinion that the Boer right was weak, marched out of Springfield on the evening of January 16. Lyttelton had already started, and during the night occupied a position on the north side of the river near Potgieter's Drift.
The task before Warren was hard. In order to carry out Buller's plan he must cross an unbridged river and struggle through a country of which little was known. Next day two bridges were thrown over the Tugela above Trickhardt's Drift, which recent rains had made dangerous, and Hart's and Woodgate's Brigades were transferred to the left bank to cover the crossing: but it was not until sunset on January 18 that the entire force with its tedious transport was established on the north side of the river.
The mounted troops under Dundonald were sent out at mid-day to reconnoitre towards the N.W. and in the course of the afternoon his advanced squadrons came upon a Boer commando which was easily dealt with, but before the issue was decided, he had reported that he was engaged near Acton Holmes, and asked for help. Warren assumed that the mounted troops, which he had sent out to reconnoitre, had wilfully and prematurely forced on an action, and were now in trouble; and it was not until the next morning, after an infantry brigade had been moved out to support them, that Warren heard from Dundonald, whose previous messages had not clearly described the situation, that he was able to take care of himself. Dundonald had at first expected that the main body would follow him, and his reports seem to show that he had hoped to induce Warren to move towards Acton Holmes. He was rebuked for assuming, not unnaturally, that the objective of the operations was Ladysmith, and instructed that the objective was a junction with the other portion of Buller's force. He was summoned to Warren's headquarters and ordered to abstain from further attempts to ride round the enemy's right. Thus, as before at Hlangwhane, a promising cavalry movement by Dundonald was thrown away.
The deliberate march of the British Army from Frere and the delay at the Drifts gave the Boers ample time to prepare for the attack. On January 19, on which day Warren moved to Venter's Spruit three miles from Trickhardt's Drift, they were in occupation of the whole line from Vaalkrantz to the Rangeworthy Heights. Fourie was in command of the left, Schalk Burger of the centre, which included the important features of Green Hill, Spion Kop, and the Twin Peaks; and L. Botha of the right, in which was Bastion Hill.
There were two roads by which Warren could advance; one running by Fairview northwards from Trickhardt's Drift between Green Hill and Three Tree Hill, and the other eight miles longer by Acton Holmes. The length of the latter and a report from White that several commandos were on their way to Acton Holmes from Ladysmith, led Warren to adopt the former route.
He informed Buller of his decision, adding that certain "special arrangements" which he had made would oblige him to remain near Trickhardt's Drift, and that he must therefore have further supplies. The "special arrangements" were in fact the steps which every general would take before attacking a strong position not immediately accessible; namely to acquire ground from which it could be threatened and shelled. Clery was ordered to direct the operation, which Warren believed would entail "comparatively little loss of life."
Early on January 20 Clery with one brigade and artillery advanced up the re-entrant which springs from the river towards the east end of the Rangeworthy Heights, and posted his guns half way up the valley on Three Tree Hill. Hart, with a brigade of five battalions, was sent to occupy the irregular southern crest of the heights running from Three Tree Hill towards Bastion Hill. He drove the Boers out of their advanced trenches, but found that the northern and higher crest to which they had retired, could only be won by a frontal advance across open ground. He and his brave Irishmen were as ready as ever to push on in the line of the greatest resistance, but he was ordered by Clery to forbear. Meanwhile Dundonald, not deterred by the damping of his trek on the 18th, and while obeying an order from Warren to come to heel, seized Bastion Hill, thereby securing Hart's left flank on the crest. So far as they went, the operations of January 20 were successful. Warren's pivot movement was in train, the whole of his force was now threatening the Boer right which was widely extended but deficient in depth; and the day's casualties were few. Following the example of Buller, who delegated his authority to Warren, the latter entrusted the conduct of the day's operations to Clery, who in succession ordered the chief movement to be carried out by Hart. Next day the mounted troops on Bastion Hill were relieved by infantry.
Buller was aware that the Ladysmith garrison, weakened by sickness and privation, could give him little or no help; but at least during the earlier phase of the Trickhardt's Drift operations he was confident. On January 17 he told White that "somehow he thought he was going to be successful this time," and that he hoped to be within touch of Ladysmith in six days. His Head Quarters were at Spearman's Camp, a few miles south of Mount Alice, whence he rode over daily to note and criticize the tactics.
It now occurred to Warren that he might have been mistaken as to the significance of the position occupied by the enemy on the Rangeworthy Heights, and that it might be in reality a screen to hide a trek of the Free Staters back to their own country; and on this supposition, which was founded upon reports that the Siege of Ladysmith had been raised and that some wagons had been seen on trek westwards towards the Drakensberg passes, he applied for reinforcements to enable him to block the way.
Buller sent him Talbot Coke's brigade with some howitzers; and came over to consult with him on January 22. The situation was not satisfactory. Time was being wasted, Warren's "special arrangements" had done little, and now he had a new idea. Buller still advocated an attack on the enemy's right, while Warren wished to persevere with his advance by the Fairview Road; but he pointed out that Spion Kop, which his reading of the "secret instructions" had led him to regard as out of bounds, must first be taken. No definite action seems to have been decided on, and Warren was left to act within certain limits on his own responsibility. Finally, with the approval of the four infantry generals, he resolved to seize Spion Kop that night. The attack, however, was postponed until the following night, to give time for the position to be reconnoitred.
Spion Kop is a ridge of which the chief features are a pair of high peaks joined by a nek to a plateau, from which a spur, ending in a kopje called Conical Hill, juts out at right angles to the nek, which becomes a spur of the plateau at a Little Knoll east of the summit. Its tactical importance was derived from its height, as the summit, though not the peaks, is higher than any of the ground held by the enemy; and from its position, as it was on the obtuse angle formed by the meeting of Botha's line on the Boer right with Schalk Burger's on the centre, and enfiladed each of them. It was accessible from the British front by a slope which rises from the lower ground to another spur running S.W. from the plateau.
On the morning of January 23, Buller saw Warren, and again pressed him to make an attack on the Boer right; but finding that the orders for the assault on Spion Kop had already been issued, he refrained from vetoing it. He threatened, however, that if immediate action in some direction were not taken, Warren's force would be withdrawn to the south of the Tugela.
On the previous day Warren, betraying the Engineer officer unused to handling large bodies of men, and unfamiliar with the military unities, rearranged his command with a straight edge, and distributed it in one way for tactical, and in another for administrative purposes. All the troops lying west of an imaginary line became the left attack under Clery, while those east of it became the right attack. The latter, under Talbot Coke, were ordered to seize the Spion Kop position by night, and entrench it before daybreak, the actual assault being made by Woodgate with two battalions, some mounted infantry on foot, and a few Engineers. At sunset on January 23, the curtain fell upon the first act of the Tragedy of Spion Kop.
On the night of the January 23 Spion Kop was held as an observation post by a party of seventy burghers. When Buller first appeared at Potgieter's Drift, it was on the right of the Boer line, but now it was only the right of the centre under Schalk Burger. Little was known of its features and tactical value, beyond the information obtainable by a telescopic reconnaissance. It was a prominent object in the Boer position, and it seemed to be within the grasp of a night adventure. Woodgate left his rendezvous at 9 p.m., but it is doubtful whether he would have reached the summit before daybreak but for Thorneycroft, who was in command of the mounted infantry which bore his name, and who had before nightfall picked out and noted the recognizable objects on the slope. A staff officer from Head Quarters, who accompanied the column to direct the march, had had no opportunity of making himself acquainted with the way of access to Spion Kop, and Thorneycroft was ordered to act as guide.
The summit, but fortunately little more than the summit, was veiled in mist, and the crest was reached. Bayonets were fixed before the Boer picket was alarmed and opened fire, but the ammunition was spent without effect, as Thorneycroft's men had by order thrown themselves on the ground as soon as they were discovered. A charge into the mist drove back the picket and scared the main body off the summit. Thus before dawn on January 24, Warren was in possession of the hill which was believed to be the key of the Boer position, and the chief obstacle in the way of his advance seemed to be thrust aside: but the mist on Spion Kop was the forecast of the Fog of War which was soon to envelope him.
Woodgate, having the men, the tools and the ground, at once began impulsively to dig, without endeavouring to inform himself of the features of the position he had so easily won. A sort of a trench had been scratched on the summit by the weary men, when the mist rolling away for a little while disclosed the startling topography of the position. The surface of the plateau sloped gently at first, and then abruptly fell away, and the trench was found to be of little use. The enemy could approach on dead ground to within two hundred yards of it. Woodgate, seeing that the real defensible line was not the highest part of the summit, but the edge lower down, where the steep descent began, sent working parties to the front, but they at once came under fire. Soon the mist again enveloped the hill, and having disposed his force, he reported to Warren that he had established himself on Spion Kop.
The Boer outpost which had been driven from the summit belonged to Schalk Burger's command. With Botha's co-operation a storming force was soon brought together, and almost every point from which Spion Kop could be brought under fire was seized, even the Little Knoll near the summit, which enfiladed the main trench. Joubert telegraphed from Ladysmith that the position must be re-captured, and Kruger at Pretoria asked what was being done to win it back.
Little did Woodgate's force realize what the morning mist was hiding. Soon after 8 a.m. the sun dissolved the veil, and the storm burst. From the right the men in the trench and lower crest were enfiladed by the Little Knoll and the Twin Peaks; on their front and left they were rained on by bullet and shrapnel from Conical Hill, Green Hill, and beyond; with such effect that the lower crest had to be temporarily abandoned. Woodgate was soon mortally wounded and the command devolved upon Crofton. Spion Kop was the first position of great tactical importance won by the British Army on the Tugela, and the Boers were determined to recover it.
The naval guns posted on Mount Alice and at Potgieter's Drift opened fire not only on the Little Knoll near the Spion Kop plateau and on the Twin Peaks, but were also pitching their shells over the summit on to the Boer positions supposed to be in line with it, and a field battery on Three Tree Hill shelled the open ground on which the enemy was advancing.
Heliograms and flag messages from Spion Kop, orally handed in and incorrectly transmitted by scared signallers, bewildered the recipients and increased the density of the Fog of War upon the Tugela. To Lyttelton was flashed an appeal for help without a signature. A message sent by Crofton soon after he assumed command, in which he reported Woodgate's death and said that reinforcements were urgently required, was transmuted into a despairing cry which made Warren think that he had lost his head, and which led to his supersession. Warren replied that there must be no surrender, and that Coke was on his way up with reinforcements.
Warren and Lyttelton, as well as the Umpire in Chief, Buller, were too far away to be able to appreciate the situation on Spion Kop, or to know how much or how little of the ridge was in possession of the British troops. Lyttelton's naval guns, playing upon the Little Knoll, were twice silenced by a message from Warren, who was under the impression that the whole of the ridge from the Twin Peaks to the main position on Spion Kop was held. A demonstration made earlier in the day by Lyttelton towards Brakfontein was checked by Buller, who was unwilling to engage the enemy in that direction.
The Boers, a small party of whom before Woodgate's death had climbed the dead ground, and had come within fifty yards of the main trench, again attained the outer crest, and a counter attack led by Thorneycroft in person partially failed, and although the verge was not wholly abandoned, only the main trench filled with dead, wounded, and unwounded men parched with thirst, remained for effective resistance. Woodgate had already paid the penalty for the hasty and fatal act of squatting down in an indefensible position, and lay among the other victims strewn upon the plateau; but the British soldier is not easily discouraged by the errors of his leaders. The cry "nous sommes trahis" is never heard from his lips, and when called upon on active service,
To live laborious days and shun delights,
he rarely fails to do his duty.
At mid-day the situation on Spion Kop was hazardous but not hopeless. Reinforcements had arrived and were quickly absorbed in the works which they quickened with patches of new vigour, but the terrible hail of bullet and shrapnel was not abated. No definite orders had been given to Clery, who was on the southern crest of the Rangeworthy Heights, except that he was to "use his discretion about opening fire against the enemy to his front, with a view to creating a diversion," a discretion which he exercised by doing nothing.
Shortly before noon a step was taken by Buller, who was four miles away on Mount Alice, which enlarged the area of the Fog of War and brought Spion Kop within its chilling grasp. Thorneycroft was ordered to take command on the summit with the local rank of Brigadier-General, although there were several officers present senior to him: but many hours elapsed before the appointment was made known to all of those whom it most concerned. Coke, who was now on the S.W. spur, was unaware of it, and without communicating with Thorneycroft, sent at 12.50 p.m. to Warren a message which was not delivered till 2.20 p.m., that as the summit was crowded and the defence was maintaining itself, he had stopped further reinforcements.
Almost simultaneously with the despatch of this not unfavourable report, and long before it was received by Warren, two companies posted in a detached trench on the right threw up their hands, but not before they had lost all their officers. Out of the crest line sprang the Boers, who having made them prisoners, endeavoured to impose the surrender upon the men in the main trench.27 Thorneycroft saw that if these wavered, as they seemed inclined to do, all was lost; and rallying the details within reach, he succeeded in thrusting back the intruders, who, however, had already sent their prisoners below the hill. His prompt action stayed the wave of doubt which threatened to flood the position, and compelled it to break before it could do much harm.
At 3.50 p.m. Coke, who was still on the S.W. spur, and therefore not in direct touch with Thorneycroft, informed Warren that the enemy was being gradually cleared from the summit, and that he had been reinforced with the Scottish Rifles from Potgieter's Drift by Lyttelton, whom Warren, after receiving Crofton's mis-transmitted message, had ordered to co-operate. He had already forwarded a letter written at 2.30 p.m. by Thorneycroft, stating that the force on Spion Kop was being badly punished by artillery, was in want of water, and was insufficient to hold the position. To this letter he had added a note of his own which showed that he did not attach much importance to it, saying that he had ordered more troops on to the plateau, where "we appear to be holding our own." This letter, with Coke's covering note, did not reach Warren until after he had received Coke's message sent nearly an hour later, and he assumed that the latter indicated the existing hopeful situation with which he had to deal. Of the physical features of the Spion Kop position he knew little more than what his telescope told him, and he read optimistically the meagre, inconsistent, and misleading reports which reached him occasionally from the summit. He hoped during the night to place some naval guns on the plateau: he was informed that an accessible spring of water had been discovered: reinforcements were at hand: there was nothing more to be done.
Lyttelton, when ordered to "assist from his side," acted with intelligence and discernment. Noticing that Spion Kop, whither he had already dispatched the Scottish Rifles, was full of men, he sent the King's Royal Rifles towards the flanking position on the Twin Peaks, and the battalion supported by the naval guns, and ignoring messages of recall prompted by Buller, who was watching the advance with anxiety, worked its way up and expelled a Transvaal contingent and a small body commanded by an Irish renegade, all of whom were hurled by the impact into a flight of eight miles. The position was at once entrenched and at 5 p.m. the right flank of Spion Kop was secured, but only for a time. Again, as after Lord Dundonald's movement on Acton Holmes, a promising enterprise was thrown away. Buller had from the first disapproved of Lyttelton's action, which still more widely distributed his already scattered command. He was too far away to see its bearing upon the situation, and now ordered him to recall the King's Royal Rifles, who after sunset were withdrawn from the position, which they had so gallantly captured in spite of warnings signalled from Spion Kop that it was strongly held by the enemy.
On Spion Kop the Fog of War hung more densely than ever. Coke, who was lame and unable to move freely about the position, believed that Hill, who had come up with a reinforcement soon after noon, and who was next in seniority to Crofton, was in command on the summit. He thought that Crofton had been wounded, and neither saw Thorneycroft nor knew until the following day that Warren had given him the local rank of Brigadier-General at Buller's suggestion. Thorneycroft was a junior major in the Army, having the local rank of Lieutenant-Colonel: and with two colonels senior to him present as well as a major-general, he was doubtful as to his status. No instructions reached him from Coke; he was unaware that the Twin Peaks had been taken by one of Lyttelton's battalions, and he was without means of signalling to Warren. He had no information of the measures which were being taken, such as the dispatch of guns, to make the retention of Spion Kop possible.
The men on the summit were utterly exhausted by fatigue, hunger, thirst, want of sleep, and exposure to the summer sun beating down upon the rocky surface, and their ammunition was running short. At 5.50 p.m. Coke reported "that the situation is extremely critical" and that the men "would not stand another day's shelling," but it was two hours before the message reached Warren. He ordered Coke to come down to consult him. Coke endeavoured to obtain permission by flash signal to stay where he was, but no oil could be obtained for the lamp, so regarding the order as imperative, he quitted Spion Kop at 9.30 p.m., leaving, as he thought, Hill in command. For four hours he strayed in the Fog of War before he found Warren's Head Quarters, which had come under shell fire, and which, unknown to him, had been moved from their original position.
Between 8 and 9, Warren received a letter written at 6.30 p.m. by Thorneycroft, who reported that the enemy's shell fire rendered the permanent occupation of Spion Kop impossible, and asked for instructions.
Coke's departure left the position without a clearly recognized commander, although he had done little more than attend to and distribute the supports and reinforcements on the S.W. spur. After the dispatch of Thorneycroft's letter at 6.30 p.m., the situation grew more hopeless every minute. The enemy's artillery was out of reach, the nature of the ground and the want of tools made it impossible to cut properly designed trenches, rations and water were exhausted, and nothing was known of assistance to be brought up during the night except that a mountain battery, which would be of little use against the enemy's guns, was at the foot of the slope.
For these reasons Thorneycroft justified in his official report his decision to retire from Spion Kop. With the acquiescence of all the senior officers, except Hill, who could not be found, he ordered a withdrawal at 10 p.m. The alternative seemed to be a Majuba surrender next morning. At 10.30 p.m. as the troops were beginning to move off the hill, he received a letter from Warren, asking for his views on the situation, and as to the measures to be adopted. It was now unnecessary to give these, and he sent a brief reply that he was obliged to abandon Spion Kop as the position was untenable.
The retirement was not made without protests from Hill and from Coke's staff officer who was still on the plateau. The former, eleven hours after Thorneycroft's appointment as Brigadier-General, believed, as he had every right to do, that he was in command, and halted the men; the latter sent round a memorandum to the commanding officers, asserting that there was no authority for the withdrawal. But the force of Thorneycroft's local rank prevailed, and the retreat was not stayed. Near the foot of the slope he found the mountain battery, and met a fatigue party on its way to prepare emplacements for two naval guns which were coming up, and received a message from Warren urging him to hold on to the position. It was too late. Ordering back the party and the battery, he went on to report himself to Warren, and arrived at Head Quarters almost simultaneously with Coke.
The Boers meanwhile were greatly discouraged by their expulsion from the Twin Peaks, and their failure to occupy the main position on Spion Kop. The guns which had tormented Thorneycroft for so many hours, and which were the chief cause of his retirement, were withdrawn, and Schalk Burger's commandos oozed away towards Ladysmith. But there was, however, a stalwart and not inconsiderable remnant of burghers who responded to Botha's expostulations, and stood fast as a forlorn hope determined to win back Spion Kop and the Twin Peaks. Their constancy was rewarded, and when at sunrise on January 25 they once more climbed the hill, they found to their astonishment and relief that it was still held—by more than 300 bodies of their fallen foes.
Such in brief is the tale of Spion Kop so far as it can be disentangled from the accumulation of messages, orders, reports, dispatches, and personal accounts, which obscure the subject. Many of these are inconsistent, not a few contradictory, and sufficient evidence might be found to support plausibly half a dozen conflicting theories of the cause of the disaster, and as many variants of the narrative.
At 2 a.m. Warren heard from Thorneycroft's lips—the latter's written message sent off at 10.30 p.m. on the previous evening not having reached him—of the evacuation of Spion Kop. At sunrise he was joined by Buller, who viewed the situation in a spirit of philosophic detachment. He had never cordially approved of the Spion Kop adventure, and was not surprised to hear that it had failed. Warren was inclined to persevere, but Buller decided to retire south of the Tugela and assumed the direct command of the Army, which on January 27 was once more drawn up on the right bank after an absence of ten days; with most of its superior officers discredited, with Ladysmith unrelieved, and the nation at home aghast at the disaster.
The lonely figure of Thorneycroft, the only man of action on the summit energizing and quickening the defence, stands out prominently in the confusion, gloom, and half lights of Spion Kop. Buller's impulsive intervention made him responsible for the position, and he tried to do his best. If the final act was an error of judgment, there is little doubt that but for Thorneycroft, the Boers would have rushed the plateau on the afternoon of January 24. He received no effective support from Clery and little from Warren, and was out of touch with Coke and the Colonels. His uncertainty as to his authority caused him to refrain from exercising it fully until the last moment. For the pain which the decision to withdraw must have given him, he deserves much sympathy. But although it was approved of by Buller, who probably felt bound to support his nominee, it was at least premature. He might reasonably have expected that an effort would be made during the night to relieve him, and might have postponed it for a few hours. It is unjust to judge a man in the light of eventualities which he could not reasonably be expected to foresee, but subsequent accounts from the Boer side show that the attack would not have been renewed the next morning if the enemy had found the Twin Peaks, for the evacuation of which Buller and not Thorneycroft was responsible, and Spion Kop still occupied.
Not only the inconvenience, but also the danger of suddenly conferred local rank were illustrated on January 24. Buller, hastily concluding from a garbled message that Crofton was incompetent, asked Warren to put Thorneycroft in charge. Thorneycroft heard of his appointment orally through an officer who had chanced to be at the signalling station, and the written message which never reached him was, it is said, picked up next day by a Boer! If the exigencies of war should ever require the sudden promotion of a junior officer to a position of great responsibility, it should not take effect until all concerned are notified. The defence of Spion Kop was, during the greater part of the day, conducted by a syndicate of officers acting severally.
The curtain had fallen, the drama was over, and the critics took up their pens. With Thorneycroft's report on the retirement from Spion Kop began a controversy which lasted for more than two years. Warren enclosed it in his own report to Buller, with the suggestion that a Court of Enquiry should be held to investigate the circumstances of the unauthorized withdrawal, and in succession each grade of the military hierarchy passed censure on the grades below. In Buller's covering despatch of January 31 with which he forwarded to the War Office, through Lord Roberts, Warren's Spion Kop report, he commented very unfavourably on Warren's arrangements and disposition of troops; and said that Thorneycroft had "exercised a wise discretion, and that no investigation was necessary": while to Warren's general report on the whole operations of January 17-27, he attached a memorandum to the Secretary of State for War, "not necessarily for publication," in which he not only blamed himself for not having taken command on the 19th, when he saw "that things were not going well," but also said that he could "never employ Warren again in an independent command"; as his slowness had allowed the enemy to concentrate and to increase the force opposed to him more than twenty-fold.
With this accumulation of censure Lord Roberts dealt in his despatch to Lord Lansdowne of February 13, written at a drift on the Riet River during the advance on Kimberley. The Commander-in-Chief confirmed all the censures passed by his subordinates and added some of his own. Buller was rebuked for not having intervened when he saw that a most important enterprise was not being "conducted in the manner which in his opinion would lead to the attainment of the object in view with the least possible loss of life on our side"; Warren was reproved because he did not visit Spion Kop during the crisis, and had instead ordered Coke to come to him; and while Thorneycroft's gallantry and exertions, without which the troops would probably have been driven off the hill during the day, were acknowledged, his action in ordering the retirement without endeavouring to communicate with Coke or Warren was pronounced to be a "wholly inexcusable assumption of responsibility and authority."
Never before had such an inconvenient batch of despatches been laid upon the desks of Pall Mall. To publish them and to proclaim to the world that the Natal Generals, when they were beaten by the enemy, had began to fight among themselves, was impossible. If they were withheld from publication, many awkward questions would be asked. The War Office temporized, and endeavoured to steer a middle course. Would Buller kindly substitute a simple narrative for his despatch? This Buller refused to do, and in April, 1900, the War Office published the despatches, imperfectly sterilized. As they now appeared, they were neither a simple narrative, nor a full revelation. Lord Roberts' criticisms on Buller were cut out. The memorandum, "not necessarily for publication," in which Buller reflected severely on Warren's incapacity was withheld. Only the censure passed upon Thorneycroft was allowed to appear. The junior officer was made the scapegoat of his superiors' mistakes. Of all the officers concerned, he alone had failed. The War Office had taken a politic but not straightforward course. The blame must be laid upon some one, and if it were laid upon Thorneycroft alone it would affect public opinion less mischievously.
It soon became suspected, however, that certain things were being kept back, and the controversy dragged on for two years; Buller to the end maintaining that as he was not present at, nor in command of, the Spion Kop operations, it was not incumbent on him to write a simple narrative of them; and that his duty was to write a critical account of the affair, such as would be sent in by an Umpire in Chief during peace manoeuvres.
Not until April, 1902, did the Epilogue of the Tragedy of Errors appear. The despatches, with the memorandum "not necessarily for publication," were published in full, as well as the "Secret Orders" given to Warren at Springfield, which were its Prologue.
A detachment numbering about 600 only was sent.
In the Fog of War some of the British soldiers thought that the Boers were coming up to surrender themselves, and acted in this belief for a brief period.