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Account of the action on Spion Kop

Letter from Private John Cosgrove, C Company, 2nd Battalion, King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment.

Letter from the Front

The Fighting on Spion Kop
Described by an Ashton Man

Springfield Camp, South Africa
2nd February 1900.

To the Editor of the Reporter

Dear sir, - Just before I left Ashton my workmate, Mr J Orme, driver, O.A. & H. Electric Tramways Co., gave me a small diary, and requested me to take notes with a view to having some published in the Reporter if God spared me to return home. I accepted the diary, and have taken notes ever since, and I’ll off them for publication when I return.

I daresay you have had a full account of the fight by the Lancashire Brigade at Spion Kop on 24th January, but fearing that some of my friends, to whom I have sent a brief account of the fight, may let you have my brief account, I am sending you a fuller account.

On the evening of the 23rd, as soon as darkness came, six companies of my regiment were marched away from where we had been resting all day, but most of us thought that the whole of the regiment were on parade. We did not know why we were moving, nor where we were moving to. When we had been marching about an hour we came to a along valley, through which we marched with great difficulty for several hours, as there were many holes and stones in it. We had to march as silently as possible, and a dog got strangled for barking. I have been told since that all who interfered with that dog got shot on Spion Kop, but I cannot vouch for the truth of that statement. At length we came to the foot of a large hill, the top of which we could not see, owing to the darkness, and to the mist which always rests on the hills during the night. As soon as we arrived at the hill we were told to climb it. While we were marching through the valley, it was generally believed that we were ‘doing a quiet move towards Ladysmith at which the troops were pleased. Because Sir Archibald Hunter, who is with Sir George White, belongs to my regiment, and knew that we were part of the relief column. In fact, three weeks ago he sent the following message to us through Sir Charles Warren: “With God’s and the King’s Own’s help we cannot fail.” However, while climbing the hill we knew we were going to take possession of it, and we then learned that we had with us two companies of the Lancashire Fusiliers and two companies of the South Lancashire Regiment. There were so many rocks and stones on the hill that we soon got scattered while climbing. We got to the top of one hill and advanced about a hundred yards, and found that we had another to climb, and the men kept expressing their wonder, sometimes in strong language, as to when we should get to the top. After climbing five hills in this manner, and hearing men say we should soon be in heaven if we went much higher, I said to a comrade close beside me, “I wonder if this is the top,” and I had hardly uttered the words when I heard someone in front shout something in a foreign language, and immediately about a dozen bullets went whistling past me. With being tired, and having pains in my knees, I thought I was one of the rear lot, but that little experience told me that I was one of the front lot. So I immediately “bobbed down,” as Tommy says, behind the first rock I could, fixed my bayonet, and prepared to fire. But I soon learned that some men had retired further than I had, and were firing; so, not caring to be fired on by both friends and foes; I retired further, and we were then ordered to fall in and prepare to charge. But before we could do so, we were ordered to stand fast, and very soon the rest of the troops came up. As soon as we were all together, General Woodgate, who was in command, requested us to give three cheers, which we heartily did. The enemy, which only consisted of a small outpost, fled as soon as they had fired on us. After cheering, we advanced through the thick mist to the crest of the hill, and made trenches, one along the edge of the hill, and one in the centre of the hill. The front trench was lined with troops, and the rest remained in the centre trench ready to reinforce when required to. At daybreak the mist began to clear away, and as it did the enemy opened fire on us. As soon as it was quite light the firing commenced in dead earnest, and we soon learned that we were nearly surrounded and that we were fighting against great odds, the enemy being numerically stronger by at least ten to one. The firing had not being going on long when the firing line had to be reinforced, and the centre trench was emptied. The General and his staff stood in the centre of the hill directing operations, and as soon as the enemy knew it they directed a most galling fire towards them. The General got shot in the head, his brigade-major Captain Virtue, got killed, and his “runner,” Captain Carleton, of my regiment, got shot in the army. The colonel of my regiment, Colonel Malby Crofton (6ft 4 in.) and the colonel of the Lancashire Fusiliers were to be seen walking about the hill through a storm of bullets, each with a stick in his hand, directing the troops, what to do. After keeping up the firing for several hours we were very hard pressed, and know that we must have reinforcements, as the Boers were gaining considerably on the right side of the hill. Several signallers attempted, amid a shower of bullets, to erect a signalling station. And I have been told that a soldier of my regiment, named Clements, who was a prisoner in the hands of the Boer on the right side of the hill, pushed the Boer over a cliff and ran through a shower of bullets, for reinforcements. After a while we were reinforced by the rest of the Lancashire Fusiliers, and I believe, the South Lancashire Regiment, and some of the Scottish Rifles. C Company of the Scottish Rifles came to the left of the hill where I was, and under the command of a cool, calm major did some splendid work. One of them, who was close to me and the major, got ripped open with a shall, and a sergeant of my regiment got a hole through his left arm with the same shell. The worse cases were on the right of the hill where the right half of my company were. And when the fray was at its hottest they were reinforced by a company of the Imperial Light Infantry, who, I believe, did splendid work. I am told that the Boers always shoot these men when they capture them. for the next morning some Boers told a wounded corporal of my regiment that they were sorry for him, as he had to fight, but that the men of the ILI were doing it for money; and they showed their sympathy for the corporal in a practical manner by making him as comfortable as possible until the stretcher bearers arrived, and also give him some hot cocoa. We left the hill during the night, and went to our old camping ground. The 24th January 1900, will be ever remembered by many a Lancashire lad. When we got away I called that hill “Butchers Hill” for verily there was butchery on it that day. The dead and wounded were lying about in large numbers, and many a poor fellow had to lie wounded in the trench all day. The Volunteer bearer company did good work that day, but they could not get half the ….. off the hill. Every time they came for a wounded man they had to run through a shower of bullets to say nothing of the shells which the Boers kept firing all day, for our artillery could do but little for us, as we were under heavy cross fire, and they were in danger of hitting us. In fact, some say that our artillery did accidentally shoot some of our men. I might sum up by saying that the day’s fighting was simply horrible, but I have also to say that many of our men merited the Victoria Cross that day. A few days ago General Buller had a parade to thank us for our behaviour and our gallant conduct, and to read to us the Queen’s message of thanks, and this morning Sir Charles Warren, who had been away on the other side of the Tugela since that memorable day, had a parade to thank us for our gallant conduct, but he said he could not find words to adequately express his feelings of gratitude. Both Buller and Warren wish to impress on our minds the fact that we did all that was required of us that day, and that our efforts were not in vain. It is generally believed that we were able to get a convoy through to Ladysmith whilst the fighting was going on. I cannot at present detail all the noble deeds that were done that day, but I’ll mention one as a sample. Joe Bailey, a man of my company (C), was shot in about four places on his legs and when the stretcher bearers came for him he referred them to a man named Miller of my company, saying “Take him, he’s worse than me”. Joe was called up with me from Manchester and is a guard on the London and North Western Railway Company. I have since heard that he is progressing very favourably. He is a humorous fellow, and is liked in the company. The night we were climbing the kop Joe said, when we had climbed about three hills. “Are there any more to climb, and when he was told that there were he said “ I wish I’d banged that postman when he brought me that blue paper!”
We came back here to Springfield two days after the fight, and we don’t know what the next move will be. I have just heard that Tommy Doran, a man of my company, who belonged to Ashton, has died of his wounds. Poor fellow, I often say him when I was driving my car along Katherine Street, and I tender to his parents my heartfelt sympathy. God help and comfort them in their sore bereavement.
I remain sir, your faithfully.
John Cosgrove, Private
C Company, Royal Lancaster Regiment
Field Forces
South Africa

PS I hope you got the South African paper, dated 25th December in which I marked the editorial…..

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