On Spion Kop

Henry Newbolt

Foremost of all on battle's fiery steep
Here VERTUE fell, and here he sleeps his sleep.
A fairer name no Roman ever gave
To stand sole monument on Valour's grave.

Major N. H. Vertue, of the Buffs, Brigade-Major to General Woodgate, was buried where he fell, on the edge of Spion Kop, in front of the British position.

Spion Kop is a rugged hill overlooking the Tugela River in what is now the South African province of Kwazulu-Natal. In 1900, during the battle of Colenso in the Anglo-Boer war, the hill was the scene of a severe defeat for British forces.

British infantry assaulted the strategically-placed hill as part of their attempt to cross the Tugela and relieve the besieged garrison in the town of Ladysmith. The British attacked in the dark and initially succeeded in pushing the Boers off the hill. The troops then dug in, finding that only a shallow trench was possible in the rocky soil. When daylight came, however, they realised that they had not reached the summit of the hill and Boer forces still overlooked their position.

Their shallow trench provided little protection and 250 British soldiers were killed and 1250 captured or wounded before the survivors withdrew. The battle of Spion Kop not only substantially delayed the relief of Ladysmith, but the trauma of the defeat, and the scale of the losses had a profound impact in Britain - so much that the name of this obscure hill in the African bush, still resonates in Britain to this day.