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A Handbook of the Boer War

Thorneycroft was a junior major in the Army


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.


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