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Account of the action on Spion Kop

The museum contains an interesting letter from Corporal Walter Herbert of the 2nd Battalion.  The letter is reproduced in full below:

No 2252  Corporal Walter Herbert
B  Company
The King's Own Royal Lancaster Regt.
Field Forces
South Africa


The white flag
dodge was played again
so there is no doubt about it.

Nr. Springfield   29th Jan'y 1900

Dear Mr Peacock,

I am going to describe a fight, or at least I am going to attempt to do so, though to do justice to the theme would take a far abler pen than mine.  (Mr Stevens of the D.M. for instance).  I suppose you have read long before this of the defence of Spueyn's Hill by the Lancashire Brigade.  Well I was there & how I happen to be here now is a mystery to your humble, as according to the amm'n expended on us by our "Brother Boers" the whole Brigade should have been killed several times over.  Just picture to yourself lying for sixteen solid hours under a perfect hail of shell & rifle bullets without a second's intermission, & in saying that I am not exagerating in the very least.  However, I will try & spin the yarn from the beginning.

On 17th Inst. we rushed the Tugela some distance west of Colenso (our fellows leading) with the loss of only one man.  Enemy retired as we pushed forward, & entrenched themselves on some formidable hills about three miles from River.  The next couple of days were spent by us in manoeuvring for position.  On Saturday the game started, our fellows, as usual, 'kicking off'.  We were kept at it all Saturday, Saturday night & Sunday morning, rushing this hill, holding that kopje, or escorting a battery here and there till we were fairly done-up.  We rested a bit (on our arms) on Sunday afternoon  and were into it again on early Monday morning  Then for some then unaccountable reason, though we were soon to know why, we were withdrawn from under fire and took cover for all Tuesday.. 

Then at 8 pm Tuesday we were marched-off in the dark (literally and metaphorically) to we knew not where.  At about 12 midnight we reached the foot of a tremendous-looking hill, but looking not half so tremendous as it really was, as after climbing one spur we found another awaiting for us, and then another.  Something this shape  (SKETCH)  (An uncomfortable feeling took possession of me, as I remembered it was the Anniversary of Majuba.)  After five hours climbing we were nearing the top when, without a moment's warning, we got a volley planked fairly into us from a short distance.  It was pitch dark, so you can understand that there was near being a panic, but after a moment the boys recovered themselves and, fixing bayonets, made a dash and the hill was ours. 

You must understand that, at this time, all the hills round Spueyns were held by the Boers, so we at once set to work entrenching ourselves before it became too bright, as at present we were amongst the clouds.  Before we had done much trench-digging our 'brethren' began sniping, and with explosive bullets to boot, as we could hear them snapping over our heads.  We laughed at that and continued digging, little dreaming of what was to come.

As the clouds lifted the sniping, intermittent up to this, became a general rifle-fire and presently, about 6 am, we were under the hottest fire, from about 8000 rifles, that I ever hope to be under.  But even that was not the worst; shortly their Nordenfeldt started barking.  T.A. says it says: 'buck up! buck up!' and really it is not unlike it; except that it makes one buck down pretty sharp when he hears it.  And then they started shelling us from both sides, and for the next 16 hours our noses were buried in the ground except when we were firing.  Shells are a terrible thing to have whizzing over one, but a confounded sight worse to have bursting close to one's head - as dozens did that day.  One man within a few feet behind me was blown in pieces by one, and the trenches were soon filled with dead and wounded.

The mystery is how any of us escaped, and what was it all for?  None of us know, though probably you in England know from the papers.  All they have told us is that the Lancashire Brigade fought gallantly, but what we were doing up on that hill is a mystery to us all.  We had over 200 casualties in our Regt. alone, and over 1000 in the Brigade.  All our nerves are shook, so that the sudden crack of a Kaffir's whip makes us jump, and we all retired back on this side of the Tugela. 

Half our officers are dead, wounded or missing, & the same with our N.C.O.s, so I am afraid it will be some time before we can get at them again.  Gen. Woodgate was severely wounded too, but I don't believe any of us are funking it. Yet I know I, for one, am anxious to push on to Ladysmith & I hope, by the time you get this, we shall be there.  Please remember me to all, and have you anybody in my place yet?  Tell Mr Keegan I did not get a chance to see Pat.

Yours sincerely,


Did you get my postcard?

Accession Number: KO1383/01

For more information about the South African (Boer) War we recommend The King's Own The Story of a Royal Regiment Volume 2 1814-1914 by Colonel Lionel I Cowper - the best history of the King's Own.  On a CD-rom, viewable through a computer.  Price including UK postage 12.75

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