The Second Boer War saw the British Empire fight against the Afrikaans-speaking Dutch settlers of the South African Republic and the Orange Free State. The early months of the war saw the Boers inflict successive defeats on the British. After they began a crippling siege against the British at Ladysmith, a plan was made to attack the Boers and relieve the garrison.
The Boers had established a defensive line along the Tugela River approximately 20 miles outside Ladysmith. The centre of their line was overlooked by a 430 metre high hill known as Spion Kop, which roughly translates as ‘Spy Hill’. The British planned to seize the hill under cover of darkness, and establish a commanding position over the Boer line and the route to Ladysmith.
General Sir Charles Warren selected Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Thorneycroft to lead the assault, which took place late on 23 January in thick mist. The British overwhelmed a small group of Boers on the hill and began to dig trenches on what they believed was the summit, though the rocky terrain on the hilltop meant they were very shallow and offered little protection.
When the mist began to lift the next morning the British were dismayed to find that they had only seized a plateau. They were surrounded on three sides by the Boers on higher terrain, and they began to bombard the British with ten shells every minute. Vicious fighting continued for the whole day but, shortly after nightfall, the Boers abandoned their positions on the summit. Thorneycroft was unaware that victory was in his grasp and ordered his own retreat. The Boers reoccupied the hilltop the following morning.