Godalming – Nightingale Cemetery (Godalming Old Cemetery) & the Battle of Spion Kop

A curate’s egg of a post, this one, as I take you from leafy Surrey to the African veldt. 

And a word of warning; there are some graphic images later in this post, because the Battle of Spion Kop was a very graphic affair and needs to be seen, perhaps, to be believed.

The Nightingale Memorial Garden, the 281 wooden sleepers representing the 281 men (named on the information board in the previous picture – click to enlarge) from Godalming who died on active service during the Great War.

A few of those casualties are buried in the cemetery, the first, just visible in the middle distance on the far left in the previous shot,…

…is the grave of Private R. W. Andrews of The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment, who was accidentally killed on 23rd March 1917, aged 30.

The grave of Private Charlie Francis Holden, Royal Sussex Regiment, wounded, clearly seriously, on the opening day of the Battle of Loos on 25th September 1915, and evacuated to Blighty only to die, fifteen days later, of his injuries, aged 25.  Presumably his parents chose this particular headstone to mark his grave at the time, and later rejected the offer of a CWGC headstone, because he was certainly entitled to one should they have wished.

The graves of Second Corporal Tom Morris Stephens, Royal Engineers, who died on 10th December 1916,…

…Corporal Frederick William Atfield Woodnutt, Army Pay Corps, who worked at the Army Pay Office in Woking, and who died on 2nd November 1918 aged 34,…

…and Private A. W. Mills, Herefordshire Regiment, who died on 1st March 1916.

A close look at some of the other headstones…

…reveals this one, which remembers Private William Temperley, Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry, who was killed in action at Spion Kop in South Africa during the Second Boer War on 24th January 1900, aged 27.  And the story of Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Whitelaw Thorneycroft on that day is a tale worth telling.

Thorneycroft (top left), Royal Scots Fusiliers, was one six officers (the others included Robert Baden-Powell & Herbert Plumer) who were sent to South Africa in 1899, in the months prior to the Second Boer War, to raise volunteer units to support troops sent from Britain in the event of war with the Boers.  In the weeks following the outbreak of war in early October 1899, the five hundred men of Thorneycroft′s Mounted Infantry, as they were known, were involved in the ongoing campaign to relieve the besieged city of Ladysmith, which was why they found themselves facing the Boers on Spion Kop in January 1900.  The other shots show Thorneycroft’s men in (top right), and striking (bottom left), camp, and, bottom right, a group of typical Thorneycroft troopers with their officer.

Spion Kop (left), and a modern aerial view (right), looking down on the old British positions, now outlined by white rocks, as they were on 24th January 1900, the British memorial on the far right.  Capturing the summit of Spion Kop, directly in the centre of the Boer lines, would allow British artillery to pour fire on the Boer forces on both sides of the hill, and so, in the early morning of 24th January, it was Thorneycroft who was chosen to lead the initial assault, and at first, all seemed to be going well, the British surprising a small Boer force in the dark and driving them off at bayonet point as they captured what they thought was the summit of the hill (‘kop’ in Afrikaans) and began digging in.  However, as dawn broke to reveal a hill shrouded in a thick mist, Boer riflemen were creeping, silent and unseen, from their own positions which were, unknown to the British, higher up the hill, closer and closer to the British line, and when they attacked, the shallow British trench proved little shelter for the men packed in it.

As the mist lifted and the sun rose in a clear sky, the British were simply slaughtered, the graphic image of the trench on the left showing the carnage; many men were later buried in this same trench where they fell, one or two senior officers’ graves marked by crosses (right).

As the day progressed, all the highest-ranking British officers on the hill were killed or seriously wounded, leaving Thorneycroft as the most senior officer, a British counter-attack failed, and all the while Boer artillery sent shards of red-hot steel & splinters of rock hurting through the British positions, and Boer sharpshooters picked off individuals who raised their heads too high.  The British returned fire as best they could, and Thorneycroft, lacking any orders from Lieutenant General Sir Charles Warren (pictured below at the base of the hill during the battle), made it clear early in the fight that he would not allow any men under his command to surrender.

Thorneycroft was unfortunately unaware of three things.  Firstly, the day had been equally brutal for the Boers, British diversionary attacks and a mounting casualty list – the Boers would lose sixty eight men dead, and a further 267 wounded, by the end of the battle – resulting in many Boers refusing to climb the hill to join the fight, only volunteers making the ascent as the day wore on and the sun continued to blaze down on the men of both sides, and by evening the remaining Boers had retreated from the summit of Spion Kop.  Secondly, Warren had failed to tell him that substantial reinforcements would arrive by evening, and thus when Thorneycroft, low on water & ammunition, and feeling unable to hold on with his dwindling band of men any longer, began to retreat down the hill as darkness fell, he was met by the commanding officer of the newly arrived reinforcements who was adamant that the hill must be held.  Thorneycroft, equally determined that enough was enough, basically pulled rank, and the British left the hill.  And third, and most important, he and his shattered men (by then an amalgam of the remnants of the Lancashire battalions, Middlesex, Scottish Rifles and his own men) had actually won the battle at that point, had they known it.  Had Thorneycroft been informed by his superiors of the Boer retreat, he could have taken the hill once the reinforcements arrived with little difficulty.  As it was, when the sun rose on the battlefield the following morning, it was once more Boer troops who could be seen on the hill’s summit.

Boers and men of the newly formed Royal Army Medical Corps sort the dead from the living under a flag of truce (left), and one of the Boer sharpshooters, dead at his post (right).  Although the Battle of Spion Kop was a disaster for the British – 243 British soldiers died on the hill, and between 1,250 & 1,500 were either wounded or captured – they were nonetheless able to relieve Ladysmith just a few weeks later, at the end of February 1900.

Thorneycroft served throughout the rest of the conflict in South Africa, Lord Kitchener, Commander-in-Chief during the latter part of the war, describing him, in his final despatch from South Africa in June 1902, as ‘an absolutely reliable officer of great experience, common-sense and force of character.’  British memorial (left) & Boer memorial (right) on Spion Kop.

The panels on the British memorial list the names of the dead of The Kings Own Royal Lancaster Regiment, Lancashire Fusiliers, Scottish Rifles, and the Middlesex Regiment, as well as Thorneycroft’s own casualties, as seen on the right above; the penultimate name on the right is Private Temperley, even though J. Cain, the Durban firm who made the panels, seemingly mistook the initial ‘W’ (for William) for an ‘H’.

Checking through the list of Thorneycroft Mounted Infantry casualties at Spion Kop, you will find William Temperley’s name among the missing (above), before he is later confirmed as killed (below).

Back in the churchyard, and another memorial, as opposed to a grave,…

…this time for very obvious reasons.

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6 Responses to Godalming – Nightingale Cemetery (Godalming Old Cemetery) & the Battle of Spion Kop

  1. sendergreen says:

    Into an era where the only familiar battle to me was Isandlwana, and Rourke’s Drift.

    • Magicfingers says:

      1879, those particular engagements. My historical knowledge is roughly as follows. Pre-1846 English history, okay, same as the next bloke of my generation with some kind of interest, I doubt if I’d get all the Kings & Queens of England in the right order but I’d do okay, but don’t ask me specific questions on William the Conqueror or the English Civil War (apart from the very minor battle at Cropredy Bridge) or Bannockburn or the Wars of the Roses or the Napoleonic era, because I doubt I’ll know the answer. 1846 was probably the beginning of war photography – the earliest military photos I have seen being the USA Mexico conflict in 1846 – and that’s really where my better knowledge begins, so I could chat about the US Civil War and the Crimea or the Boer War and probably the Zulus too, as you mentined Rourke’s Drift. But I wouldn’t dare start a website on any of them. And then we get to the 20th Century and I’m probably decent enough from WWI to Vietnam.
      Canadian history: James Wolfe, Trudeau’s missus & Mick Jagger, Neil & Joni & Robbie, Ben Johnson, and a curious belief by half the country that they’re French. How’s that?

  2. nicholas Kilner says:

    great post, really interesting and some great documents and photographs. As with most readers I suspect, my knowledge of the Boer war is all but none existent. I do sometimes wonder if thats a generational thing, with the war having passed out of living memory.
    Interesting to see the memorial to John George Phillips too. As I may have mentioned previously, theres the grave of a lady in Calstock churchyard with ‘survivor of the Titanic’ noted on her headstone. I must go back and photograph it one day.

    • Magicfingers says:

      If I may make so bold, I think some understanding of the Boer War (and to be fair the Colonial ‘wars’ of the late 19th Century, North West Frontier of India stuff) is quite crucial from a Great War point 0f view because a sizeable number of men who served in the Great War had seen action in South Africa (and in India), and thus their view of war was very much coloured by their experiences which, Spion Kop notwithstanding, were generally unlike what they were to find in France.
      I checked and you did mention Harry & Shadrach Gale once before who are remembered at Calstock – what is more on checking I found our chat a few years ago about the National Explosives Factory, and the Ruins of Bickfords fuse factory, which I had forgotten about, and guess where I have returned from today after two weeks away………..

      • Nick Kilner says:

        There’s always next time. Hope you had an enjoyable couple of weeks, it’s been far to long since I last went to cornwall.
        And yes, I think you’re quite right re the connection with the Boer and First World War, I doubt learning curves get much steeper

        • Magicfingers says:

          Yes, it was an excellent two weeks, thanks, and frankly I did bugger all most of the time, and thoroughly enyoyed it! And I have printed out our 2018 chat re explosives places and it is in the hard copy Cornwall folder – next time, as you say.

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