Hill of Squandered Valour. The Battle of Spion Kop, 1900
Casemate Publishers, Newbury & Philadelphia 2011
Spion Kop is a well known battle of the Second Anglo-Boer War because of its intense and bloody nature – over 1300 British casualties in a day on “an acre of massacre”. The battle was one of Buller's attempt to relieve the besieged town of Ladysmith. Spion Kop has been the subject of numerous books and battle field guides – as recently in 2010 and two titles in 2011 alone.
Ron Lock is well known for his work on the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and this is his first foray into the Second Anglo-Boer War. The catchy title and cover art work (collecting the wounded after the battle) are reminiscent of his AZW work. The similarities do not end there; in 1996 two reviewers of Lock's Blood on the Painted Mountain about the battles of Hlobane and Khambula criticised Lock for an over long preamble and a lack of research, (see SOTQ March 1996 Issue 84, review article by Huw M Jones and book review by Ian Knight).
In Squandered Valour the Table of Contents reveal an inconsistency with the outward appearance and sales blurb on the book. Of the 13 chapters just one is about Spion Kop - 44 pages. Exactly why 11 chapters are required to get the reader to Spion Kop is a mystery. It would appear Lock had not enough material on Spion Kop itself. The other chapters cover the invasion of Natal and Buller's battles to relieve Ladysmith. However, this book is not the complete story of the Relief of Ladysmith, the key battles of Tugela Heights which were fought over a period of a fortnight are covered in just a couple of pages as the reader is rushed to the final page.
What of the chapter on Spion Kop? This, unfortunately is no tour de force, no concise elucidation of the facts, Lock brings nothing new in research, sources, facts or argument to the story of Spion Kop. His bibliography is painfully thin on Spion Kop sources. Strangely the official British Government record, the Spion Kop Despatches, which has been published numerous times since 1902 is listed under “Unpublished Sources and Private Information”. Lock has has not sought out a history for each unit involved; for instance the South Lancashire Regiment was covered in the excellent Red Roses on the Veldt Lancashire Regiments in the Boer War 1899-1902 (J Downham, Carnegie Publishing, Lancaster 2000). Nothing for the King's Own (Royal Lancaster), Middlesex Regiment or Scottish Rifles. The history of the Imperial Light Infantry (ILI) is admittedly very scarce, but the National Library of South Africa has a copy – Lock lives in Kwazulu-Natal. Even closer to home The Natal Archives contain a number of accounts from survivors of Spion Kop. The personal papers of Colonel A Thorneycroft, one of the key commanders at Spion Kop, have not been consulted, his surname is misspelt throughout as well.
The jacket blurb promises “vivid and complete detail...valuable to both historians and strategists”, errors and omissions seriously undermine this claim. The “several companies” of the South Lancashire Regiment that attacked Spion Kop were in fact just two ('C' and 'D' companies). Their regimental commander Lt-Colonel MacCarthy O'Leary “survived the battle”, there is no evidence he was present on Spion Kop at all. A new regiment, “the Royal South Lancs” appears on Spion Kop, it may be a confusion between the South Lancashire and King's Own (Royal Lancaster) Regiments. Thorneycrofts MI had 18 officers not “eight” on Spion Kop, in fact the TMI suffered 10 officer casualties on Spion Kop. The complete story of the ILI is missing; two companies were told off to provide an escort to a howitzer that arrived too late, they were sent up Spion Kop ahead of the rest of the regiment). In the confusion on to whether to retreat or reinforce the Somerset Light Infantry were readied to go up and build gun emplacements.
The supplied casualty figures are woefully inadequate and they cover the period 17-24 January, no figures are given for the day of the battle, or even a breakdown by unit. There is no mention at all of any gallantry decorations or Mentions in Despatches for the officers and soldiers who fought on Spion Kop. This book is intensely disappointing.