Pop concerts and bush telegraphs: a new telling of the Battle of Spioenkop
Having recently returned from a visit to one of the KwaZulu-Natal battlefields, David Alston went through some family papers and found there is another side to this oft-told story
After an exhaustive (and exhausting) perusal of some newspaper cuttings found in possession of my late great-grandfather Scoop Schoombie, the then editor of the now defunct Bergville Bugle, the real reason why General Redvers Buller failed to send support to Alexander Thorneycroft at the height of the Battle of Spioenkop can now be revealed (Thomas Packenham seems to suggest it was actually Charles Warren who was the villain of the piece, but why let facts get in the way of a good story.)
In documenting the history of the battle, that well-known historian Anon (who managed to reduce the story to about four pages in both the official languages of the time), has this to say op cit, et seq, and possibly even ad lib: “At this crucial moment Buller, for some obscure reason ordered the King’s Royal Rifles to withdraw.” This decision, which was crucial to the outcome of the battle, can now be explained in context.
What is not generally known is that among his other talents (dodgy though they were), Buller had aspirations of becoming a pop musician, and at the close of the first Boer War had already secretly formed a group called — with singular inappropriateness having regard to the changing times — Redvers Buller and the Redcoats. (In fact, as a closet entertainer, the only reason why he was involved in the war at all was because a talent scout had spotted him doing impressions of generals in a music hall in Britain, and he’d been whisked off to SA having been mistaken for the real thing).
What Buller finally got, after a long series of whispered repeats, was not “Send reinforcements, we are going to advance”, but the extraordinary request: “Send three and fourpence, we are going to a dance.”
Thinking that Thorneycroft had got wind of the Ladysmith jol, and that his big moment had come, Buller and the Redcoats immediately decamped for Ladysmith, wiggled through the Boer pickets, and got to the town hall just in time to follow another aspirant pop group, Warren and the Rabbits, onto the stage and bring the first half of the concert to a triumphant close.
And this is the real reason forThorneycroft eventually withdrawing from the mountain.
After hanging about vainly for a few hours, he muttered a considerably stronger version of “Stuff this for a lark”, and headed off with his men, little realising that the Boers were about to do the same.
The papers in my possession unfortunately do not record what passed between Thorneycroft and Buller when they finally met in Ladysmith, but rumour has it that most of the Redcoats’ instruments were irreparably damaged, and the group never appeared in public again.
History is indeed, constantly being rewritten.