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A Handbook of the Boer War

The lonely figure of Thorneycroft


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 The guns which had tormented Thorneycroft for so many hours, and which were the chief cause of his retirement, were withdrawn, and Schalk Burger's commandos oozed away towards Ladysmith.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.

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