Friday 15 March 2024

Spion Kop - who was on the hill?

This aim of this article is to enable medal collectors to make an informed choice when purchasing a medal to one who was there.

Ask “the man in the street” to name a battle or word associated with the Second Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902 and they will probably answer ‘Spion Kop’ or ‘the Kop’. The battle of Spion Kop (24th January, 1900) holds similar familiarity amongst medal collectors. The reason why Spion Kop is so well known is because it was a very bloody battle for the British, it dominated the news of the day and the word ‘kop’ passed into the British language to describe a steeply banked terrace at football grounds – most notably at Anfield the home of Liverpool FC. The word ‘kop’ survives today in its footballing context and the battle continues to attract attention as one of those defeats the British Army finds itself saddled with.

Spion Kop has been the subject of a number of books and articles written in the last 110 years. The most recent published in October 2023 (right).  Generally the authors concentrate on two aspects; the casualties, from a high level number to detailed lists for a unit, and descriptions of what took place in that “acre of massacre”. The battle of Spion kop has not been researched from the point of view of the medal collector. An important fact the medal collector needs to know is if the ‘man behind the medal’ was actually present at a certain battle. The chance to buy a medal to a man taking part in a famous battle of the British Army is a must for most (if not all) medal collectors. Unlike many famous battles Spion Kop does not have a medal or clasp dedicated to it.

Spion Kop is covered by the 'Relief of Ladysmith' clasp that covers 14 weeks of fighting across a wide geographical area: "
All troops in Natal north of and including Estcourt between 15th December, 1899, and 28th February, 1900, both dates inclusive.". Contemporary accounts and the casualty rolls also refer to "Spion Kop" not just as a battle but a series of battles that culminated in the battle on Spion Kop on January 24th, 1900. The Natal Field Force casualty roll uses Spion Kop for some casualties of the preceeding battles of Tabanyama (20th January),  Venter's Spruit (23rd January) and a gunner  on Three Tree Hill (20th January). This information can be used uncritically by dealers and collectors giving the false impression the soldier was on that "acre of massacre".

The table shows shows those troops actually enagaged on the summit of Spion Kop with their estimated strength, percentage of a complete unit involved and percentage casualties suffered. The exact number of troops involved is difficult to state. Davidson states there were 1,700 men in the first wave (p.160) and a further 1,900 reinforcements (p.201) making a total of 3,600 on the hill. This differs from my figure below of 4,248, highlighting the diffiuclty of this exercise. Apart from Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry contemporary sources simply state numbers of companies of a unit that were involved. On campaign company strength varied due to deaths, sickness and sending men to be signallers or servants and grooms to Staff officers. Company strength is assumed to be 100 men. The percentage attempts to show how much of a unit was involved in the battle.

Numbers of companies sent into battle with approximate strength

Casualty %age

Army Medical Corps, Royal





Engineers, Royal, 17th company

half company




Imperial Light Infantry

8 companies




Lancashire Fusiliers, 2nd bn

8 companies




Lancaster Regiment, Royal, 2nd bn

6 companies




Middlesex Regiment

8 companies




Scottish Rifles

8 companies




South Lancashire Regiment, 1st bn

2 companies




Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry










It is apparent most infantry regiments sent up a complete battalion. However, there is one piece of data that is missing so far; how many from each regiment earned the clasp 'Relief of Ladysmith', does the number approximate those on the hill or exceed it? Some regiments may have had access to reinforcements who still qualified for the 'Relief of Ladysmith' clasp. This will be a project for The Register as I compile the QSA medal rolls on a database.

Not every man on Spion Kop was there on 24th January. Early on the 25th Briton and Boer reconvened on the hill early in the morning to remove the wounded and bury the dead, the Boers took many of their dead away for burial in Pretoria. One British soldier was made a POW despite being a strecther bearer.

Pte 3541 H Adcock, 1st bn Leicestershire Rgt, was a stretcher bearer. The 1st bn Leicestershires were shut up in Ladysmith, re-called from the reserves Adcock was sent out and tagged onto an unknown unit. On his release from POW camp at Waterval on 6th June, 1900 he wrote to his worried parents as he had been posted as killed in a newspaper, "Just before daybreak on the 25th we were sent up the hill". They found a wounded man, placed him on stretcher, "when we heard a lot of shouting behind us. We looked round and saw lot of Boers. They made us put up our hands, and go to them." Having explained they were stretcher bearers the Boers "told us that they did not want us and told us to look after our wounded.". Tending to another wounded man, "...a Boer came up to me..."Where is your red cross?" I looked at my arm and, found I had lost it. I told him I had lost it, but he said; 'You will have to go with us'". (Leicester Chronicle 28 July 1900) Adcock was sent to Waterval Camp near Pretoria where he remained for over 5 months.