This particular story in the Turn-of-the-Century Toughs cycle is set in an alternative version of Washington County in western Maryland, at the close of the nineteenth century.
Stone Quarry Ridge actually exists in Washington County, as do all the other locations mentioned in this story (although I have renamed Indian Springs as Ammippian Springs, and the Magisterial Turnpike is known in our world as the National Turnpike or National Road). Spy Hill, however, has another name in our world: Spion Kop.
That name reverberates for many people, for Spion Kop ("Spy Hill" in Dutch) is the location of one of the deadliest attacks in military history.
In 1899, negotiations broke down between the British and the Dutch settlers in South Africa, who were at that time called Boers. (The British claimed they wished to defend the rights of British citizens living in Boer territories; the Boers claimed the British wanted the gold being mined there.) As a result, Britain sent the might of its imperial army to subdue the Boers – an easy task, the British thought, for the Boers were mere farmers and shopkeepers, with no standing army.
When part of the British army became trapped and besieged in the fortified town of Ladysmith, another British force was sent to the rescue. On the summer evening of January 23rd, 1900, British soldiers scaled the southern slope of Spion Kop, chased away a small number of Boers from what they thought was the northern crest of the summit, dug a series of shallow trenches, and waited for the night to end and the fog to lift. Then came the awful truth.
"There cannot have been many battlefields where there was such an accumulation of horrors within so small a compass," commented Deneys Reitz, a young Boer soldier who fought at Spion Kop and who viewed the British dead afterwards. Against incredible odds, the Boers managed, in a single day, to wound or kill hundreds of British soldiers within a small area of ground – "an acre of massacre," as one war correspondent put it. The Boers would continue to hold out against the imperial might for many months, until finally surrendering to the British in 1902, bringing to an end the South African War, also called the Boer War or Anglo-Boer War.
A few notes on my sources, and on the alterations I've made to the original tale:
As should be clear from what I've written above, I've transplanted a South African battle to a Maryland setting (though retaining roughly the same time period). I've altered details of the battle, and of the fighting immediately before it, in order to fit the geography of and around Stone Quarry Ridge. (For example, at Spion Kop, the most deadly gunfire was endured by the right flank, rather than by the left flank.) However, the general outline of the battle remains as I've described it.
Very little information is available on Washington County, Maryland, at the end of the nineteenth century. I've drawn most of my information from historical maps and from a visit to the area (though I've never climbed to the top of Stone Quarry Ridge). My best guess is that most of Stone Quarry Ridge was forested at the end of the nineteenth century (as it is now), but the historical maps leave this matter uncertain, so I've considered myself at liberty to imagine the hill as denuded of vegetation.
A few homes did exist at the southern tip of the ridge. During the nineteenth century, two of the owners of these homes were named Tice and Roman. Tax records show that, in 1803, "Stone Quarry" in Washington County was owned by Richard Rook.
Fairview is the name of the mountain to the northeast of Stone Quarry Ridge. It is also the name of a mountain near Spion Kop. In order to travel on a road that passed that mountain, on the way to relieve the besieged soldiers, the British army decided to make an attack upon Spion Kop.
Spearman's was the name of a British encampment near Spion Kop. Most of the other Landsteader names in my story come from streets in Baltimore (i.e. "Balmer," the local pronunciation for that harbor city in Maryland).
Because this story is historical speculative fiction rather than a history book, I've tried to capture the essential flavor of the Battle of Spion Kop, which has meant simplifying a complicated set of historical events and minimizing a lengthy cast of characters.
All of the characters in my story are invented. Most of the incidents I mention in my story (such as the smashing of the heliograph at the very moment that the cry for help was being transmitted, the discovery of the paralyzed soldier with the reflecting water bottle, the plea by the head-wounded man to know whether the battle was won, and yes, the white spaniel) actually occurred at Spion Kop, though not always in the order or exact manner shown in my story. In cases where certain incidents are linked to historical figures, I've parcelled out those incidents in an indiscriminate fashion among my characters. Thus the Commander-in-Chief, Pentheusson, Tice, Fairview, and Rook take on the roles played by a variety of British officers. For example, my story has three colonels: one who led the charge on Spion Kop, one who held the hill during the middle of the day, and one who surrendered the hill. In historical fact, all of these actions were undertaken by a single man.
The accidental burning of wounded men occurred four days before the Battle of Spion Kop, on January 20, according to eyewitness Maurice Harold Grant. (In that case, the wounded men were Boers, who were immolated in a fire unintentionally set by British guns.) Shell-fire is reported to have singed some of the grass at Spion Kop, but no wounded men were burnt there . . . so far as we know. One thing that comes through quite clearly in the accounts of Spion Kop is how chaotic the battle was, and how easy it was for important incidents to occur in one part of the battlefield, while soldiers fighting in another part of the battlefield were quite unaware of those incidents. So few accounts exist of the battle that it's likely we will never know of many major events that took place there. At any rate, I inserted that episode into my story because I wanted to focus attention on a group of men who receive very little screen time in the British officers' reports on the battle: the wounded.
In one of those Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction moments, three of the men who took part in the Battle of Spion Kop were the future South African prime minister Louis Botha, the future British prime minister Winston Churchill, and Mahatma Gandhi. Botha was there as a Boer general, Churchill was serving as a British war correspondent and soldier, and Gandhi was head of the British forces' Natal Indian Ambulance Corps, which was charged with bringing the wounded down from Spion Kop. (The removal of the wounded from the battlefield itself was undertaken by the all-white Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps, but it's clear from one of the eyewitness accounts that the Indians underwent casualties as well, so for the sake of simplification, I have centered my own tale on the actions of the Indian corps.) Gandhi actually sympathized with the Boer cause, a fact I've lightly alluded to in my story.
Boys served in both armies during the Boer War, but as far as I know, the British army did not usually employ them as messengers.
The characters' beliefs on politics, religion, society, and sexuality are not meant to correspond in any exact manner to the situation in our world at the end of the nineteenth century. Those beliefs grow instead out of my premise – from the Turn-of-the-Century Toughs cycle as a whole – that the continent we know as North America was settled by the inhabitants of other continents in ancient times, and therefore certain ancient and medieval customs became important on this continent.
On the other hand, the quotations at the beginning of each section of my story, as well as a few lines of dialogue, are taken from words that were actually spoken or written during or after the Battle of Spion Kop. Occasionally, I have altered punctuation or spelling or have abridged the texts, and of course I replaced any references to our own world, but otherwise I made no alterations to these striking words.
The original speakers or writers were as follows:
". . . we won't all be coming back." —Commandant Hendrik Prinsloo of the Boers' Carolina Commando, to his soldiers. Prinsloo captured Aloe Knoll and Conical Hill, two key assault points next to Spion Kop. Over half his men died during the battle.
"The unquestioning subordination of the private judgment . . ." —Bron Herbert, as edited by L. S. Amery, in Volume 3 of The Times History of the War in South Africa (published in 1905), referring to the decision to retreat from Spion Kop.
"It has got to stay there." —General Sir Redvers Buller to Lieutenant-Colonel Charles à Court Repington, upon being asked what he wished the British attack party to do, once it had taken Spion Kop. Repington then suggested that it would be helpful if guns were sent up the hill. (Repington later wrote, "There was no plan except that we were to take the hill and stay there. Some 1700 men were to assault a hill 1740 feet high in the centre of the Boer position, and the rest of Buller's 20,000 men were to look on and do nothing.")
"The operation will be conducted . . ." —Attack orders issued on 23 January 1900 by General J. Talbot Coke, after he had received orders from General Charles Warren to occupy Spion Kop. General Warren, who was subordinate to General Buller, was in charge of the overall operations at Spion Kop.
"They went up recruits . . ." —General Buller to the Royal Commission on the War in South Africa.
"Let us struggle and die together." —General Louis Botha to General Schalk Burger. The two generals led the Boer attack on Spion Kop.
"We got up about four o'clock . . ." —General Edward Woodgate, initially in charge of the British occupation of Spion Kop.
"Am exposed to terrible cross-fire . . ." —General Woodgate, shortly before he was mortally wounded at Spion Kop.
"Reinforce at once or all is lost. . . ." —Colonel Malby Crofton, who took over command of the British forces at Spion Kop when Woodgate and three more senior officers all fell in battle within a short time of one another. Colonel Crofton later claimed that a signalman rephrased his calmer request for assistance.
"Streams of wounded obstructed the path. . . ." —Winston Churchill. He was twenty-five years old at the time.
"The sun became hotter and hotter, and we had neither food nor water." —Deneys Reitz, who participated in the Boer firing line that was located directly in front of the British forces. He was seventeen years old at the time.
"I am sending two battalions . . ." —General Warren. He was responding to Colonel Crofton's message, not realizing that Crofton had already been wounded out of the battle.
"ordered to move again as fast as possible in single rank . . ." —Private Walter Putland, a member of the British reinforcements sent to Spion Kop.
"I command on this hill and allow no surrender . . ." —Colonel Alexander Thorneycroft, whose mounted infantry led the British attack, and who was given command of the British forces at Spion Kop in the late morning, upon the recommendation of General Buller. Several variations of this speech were recorded by witnesses.
"What reinforcements can you send to hold the hill tonight?" —Colonel Thorneycroft to General Warren.
". . . ammunition is running short." —Colonel Thorneycroft to General Warren.
"I have withdrawn the troops . . ." —Colonel Thorneycroft to General Warren. Thorneycroft had received no messages from Warren all day, other than the news that he was placed in charge of the British forces at Spion Kop.
"We had awful luck . . ." —General Buller in a letter that was later made public.
"I have done all I can . . ." —Colonel Thorneycroft to Colonel G. H. Sim, who was ordered by General Warren to bring arms to Spion Kop. Colonel Sim reached Thorneycroft as the evacuation of the hill was in progress.
". . . a bloody mop-up in the morning." —Colonel Thorneycroft to Winston Churchill.
"Preparations for the second day's defense should have been organized during the day . . ." —General Buller in a public comment on Colonel Thorneycroft's conduct.
A list of all my sources can be found in the bibliography section of my Turn-of-the-Century Toughs website:
For reasons that are apparent from the source quotations I have used, the wisdom of the British officers was questioned after the Battle of Spion Kop. The courage of the British soldiers was not. Even the Boers were impressed by the bravery of their opponents, who underwent heavy casualties under intense fire, yet continued to hold the summit through the entire day of January 24th, 1900.
Perhaps the best summary of the Battle of Spion Kop came from General Tobias Smuts of the Boers, who surveyed the British dead on the hill's summit after the battle was over. "I wished," he said, "that I had the power of transporting a dozen of these poor, brave, mangled fellows lying there with headless bodies and shattered limbs, to a certain bedroom in Birmingham or in Government House, Cape Town, so that the two chief authors of this unnatural war should see some of the results of their policy on waking from sleep in their safe and luxurious homes. It might induce them to bring this dreadful conflict to a close."