Death on Spion Kop

The public school spirit, when at its best, produces friendships amongst boys, which lasts into adult life and is broken only by death. The group from whom such friends are made is a small one, given that other houses are regarded as rivals, and the difference of even a year in age produces a further barrier which is difficult to cross.

Winston Churchill, however, when he was at Harrow, was able to forge friendships outside of his house and year.(1) He describes his greatest friend at the school as being Jack Milbank, (2) a boy some two years his senior. Another boy with whom he was friendly was Hugh McCorquodale, a year younger and in a different house. Churchill left Harrow in 1892, and was not to meet Hugh again until one day in January 1900 at a river crossing in Natal.

Hugh Steward McCorquodale was born on 18th August 1875 at Minnigaff, Kirkcudbright in the Scottish border country. His mother Emily was the daughter of the Rev Thomas Sanderson, whilst his father George was an industrialist with extensive interests in printing and paper manufacture. Although his parents had been married for only three years, he was part of a large family with five brothres and seven sisters.(3) The reason for this was that it was George McCorquodale's second marriage, and he was fifty eight years old at the time of Hugh's birth.

Life was very pelasant for young Hugh with plenty of older members of the family to ake a fuss of him and numerous servants to attend to his needs. His father, however, had planned for him to follow two of his brothers to Harrow, with the result that the day came when he left home, in order to attend a preparatory school at Dunchurch Hall, near Rugby.

He arrived at Harrow in the Autumn of 1889, at a time when the Head Master was J.E. Welldon of whom Churchill to speak so warmly(4) Hugh was academically above average, being particularly strong in natural sciences and mathematics, winning prizes for the latter in 1890 and 1893. His sporting activities were equally as successful and whatever game he played the 'Harrovian' gave him a good report. He was in the school football team in 1893, and was described as having "played well throughout the season." (5) He left Harrow in 1894.

After leaving school he became an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge. Whilst there his father died at the age of seventy-eight years. Hugh was an enthusiastic sportsan and played polo for Trinity during his last year at Cambridge. He graduated with a BA in 1897. Such was the age spread of his family that only three years after this his nephew Edmund commenced at Trinity.

Hugh worked and played hard over the next two years, as befitted a wealthy and talented young man. When he made his will in 1898 his London address was one of the most prestigious in the capital - Park Place in St James. He became Lieutenant in the 6th Volunteer Battalion (King's) Liverpool Regiment under the command of Colonel J.L. Wood, at Newton le Willows in Lancashire. He also had a house in Leicestershire, primarily to enable him to hunt in the county. These activities, together with regular visits to his widowed mother in Anglesey, meant his involvement in the family's business affairs was as great as that of his brothers.

With the outbreak of war in South Africa early in Octoer 1899, Hugh sought a position which would enable him to get out to the fight against the Boers. Eventually he obtained agreement from the 'Liverpool Daily Post' to act as their war correspondent in South Africa. He and a companion left for South Africa late in November 1899.

After spending several weeks in Durban, trying to obtain a more exciting job than that as a war correspondent, Hugh and his companion decided to go up to the front line. Here an army, some 30,000 strong under General Sir Redvers Buller, was attempting to relieve Ladysmith, which lay twenty miles beyond the British lines. They found the 5th Division, under the command of Sir Charles Warren, before the Tugela River. British troops had already crossed the river, and attacked the enemy lines at Tabanyama on 20th and 21st January 1900.

Here, on 23rd January 1900, they met Lieutenant Colonel Alex Thornycroft, who had formed his own irregular unit, Thornycroft's Mounted Infantry. This numbered some five hundred men, mostly British refugees from the goldfields - the uitlanders.(6)

Thornycroft had joined the Royal Scots Fusiliers from the militia in 1879, and had seen active service against the Zulus in 1879, and against the Boers in the war of 1881. He was forty years old and, at twenty stone and six foot two inches, an imposing figure. Thornycroft accepted the two men at once, and they became Lieutenants in his unit. He knew that they would be needed, for that very evening he was to lead his men into battle.

The plan now was to attack the hub of the Boer defences, Spion Kop.(7) Neither Buller or Warren were particularly enthusiastic about this move, but there was a feeling that something had to be done. The hill had been subject to action since the 18th, when the eastern face had suffered an artillery bombardment in an attempt to draw out the enemy. Command of the assault lay with Major-General Sir Edward Wodgate, who had 1,00 men under him to make the attack. Woodgate, however, was in bad health, and at fifty five years old his age was against him for leading men on a 1,500 foot climb up a small mountain and then into battle. Indeed, he had to be helped up tha path during the attack. Support companies were available to follow and dig trenches if necessary, and engineers would build a road up to the summit.

Winston Churchill had joined the South African Light Horse, a uitlander unit similar to Thornycroft's, as a lieutenant. This attachment was, however, little more than nominal so did not interfere with his work as a war correspondent for the 'Morning Post'. Churchill was crossing a pontoon bridge over the Tugela, a few hours before the attck began, when he heard someone call his name. He at once recognised Hugh McCorquodale. A brief conversation took place during which Hugh told him that he had just arrived in order "to get a job." (8)
Two thousand men formed up at a point six miles from the summit of Spion Kop. Officers, including General Woodgate, carried rifles like the men, to avoid being picked out by Boer marksmen. Every one carried a water bottle, rations and 150 rounds of ammunition. Hugh recognised a famliar accent in the pitch darkness, for most of the men were from the Lancashire Brigade. The march, with the men four abreast, began at 8.30pm.

The column changed to single file, and began to climb at midnight. Hugh found himself with two hundred of Thornycroft's Mounted Infantry at the head of the column, where they followed the massive figure of their colonel.

Thornycroft got his men to spread out at 3am, whilst they waited for the rest of the column to come up. Darkness began to give way to daylight as Thornycroft's men reached the mist shrouded summit of Spion Kop. Here they were challenged by a Boer picket, who opened fire on them. Thornycroft gave the order to fix bayonets and charge the Boers. The enemy fled, leaving one of their own number dead, but having wounded several of the British soldiers. General Woodgate remarked that "Thornycroft's men had attacked in fine style."

About 4am, Major Massey, a Royal Engineers officer, taped out a three hundred yard curved line which, in the mist, he believed to be the crest of the summit. Some twenty of his men began to dig, but soon struck rock. Even with a pitiful wall of stones, the depth of cover was only eighteen inches. Nevertheless, Thornycroft's men occupied the left of the curving trench. The mist cleared shortly after 8am and revealed that the summit was a plateau about the size of Trafalgar Square, and that the trench was 200 yards short of the real crest of Spion Kop.

The Boers opposing the British at this part of the line, were commanded by General Louis Botha, one of their most competent military leaders. The survivors of the Boer picket had alerted Botha to the arrival of the British on Spion Kop, and he at once put in hand pans for a counter attack. He sent some four hundred men into a frontal attack, and they succeeded in seizing the rim of the summit.
Desperate attempts were made to dig a new trench further forward, and at one point Thornycroft personally led an attack of about forty men to the real crest. He was beaten back, and by noon no one was forward of the main trench. The enemy had seized two small hills, Conical Hill and Aloe Knoll. The first named was 800 yards to the north, and only 100 feet lower. The second was only 400 yards to the east and virtually part of Spion Kop. From here the Boers were able to enfilade the east side of the curving trench. Shells, whose weight ranged from one to ninety four pounds, were arriving on the summit at up to ten a minute.

Woodgate was mortally wounded in the eye, and command passed to the next senior officer, Colonel Malby Crofton of the Royal Lancasters. Buller, however, had little confidence in Crofton. Sometime after midday, Thornycroft received a message that he was in command of all troops on the summit and had the local rank of Brigadier-General. One of his first tasks was to halt the surrender of some Lancashire Fusiliers, something which he accomplished only after the Boers had taken 170 prisoners.

Shortly after 4pm Churchill and a colleague rode to the foot of Spion Kop. They began to climb up the hill on foot, and encountered a stream of men coming down. Not all were wounded. They did not reach the top, but returned to the base, collected their horses and rode to General Warren's Headquarters where they gave a report. Churchill returned and this time went to the summit, where he delivered a note to Thornycroft from Warren. He found the Colonel "sitting on the ground surrounded by remnants of the regiment he had raised, who had fought for him like lions and followed him like dogs." Churchill was to describe the scene on Spion Kop as the most terrible he had ever witnessed.(9)

Thornycroft read the note, but the die had been cast. He had already called a short council¬of-war of senior officers. Such was the confusion at this time that one officer, Lieutenant Colonel Hill of the Middlesex Regiment, refused to accept that Thornycroft was in command. Despite he decided to withdraw from the summit, and gave orders accordingly. "Better six good battalions safely off the hill tonight than bloody mop-up in the morning." (10)

Accompanied by Churchill, Thornycroft led the rear guard down the hill. He had with him just 72 unwounded men from his own unit, but hugh McCorquodale was not among them. Behind in the darkness were 243 dead, some of whom lay three deep in the curving trench. Amongst the dead was Major Massey,(11) who had taped out the trench. Wounded and prisoners accounted for another 1,000 troops. Thornycroft reported to Warren at 2am, the omnipresent Churchill having woken the sleeping General for him.

The Boers too had abandoned the summit, but were quick to re-occupy it when they realised that the British had gone. Botha was soon there and even spoke with British medical officers as they tended the wounded. Major Massey's curving trench now became a curving grave. Victory for the Boers though had not come cheaply, for they had 335 men killed and many more wounded.

The day after the battle, 25th January, Churchill was told by someone who had just returned from the summit, that one of the British dead appeared to be a war correspondent. He had been found leaning forward on his rifle, killed by a shell. No one knew who he was. Alongside his body lay a pair of field glasses, shattered, resumably, by the same shell that killed their owner. The field glasses bore the name 'McCorquodale'. Chruchill at once put the name and the face together and realised that the man who had been his school friend was dead.

What then of Hugh's companion who accompanied him to South Africa? There is a strong possibility that he shared his friend's fate on Spion Kop, as none of Hugh's obituaries give any account ofhis movements in the weeks preceding the battle, or describe the day of his death. Near Hugh lay the body of Lieutenant Nevill Hill-Trevor, an old Etonian who held a commission in the Shropshire Yeomanry. Reliable accounts, however, state that he joined Thornycroft's Mounted Infantry on the outbreak of war over three months earlier.

A good candidate is Claude Grenfell, an old Harrovian and a graduate of Balliol College, Oxford who as a Lieutenant in Thornycroft's unit also died on 24th January.(13) He would have been an ideal guide for a young man such as Hugh, being about thirteen years older and having had good experience of Southern Africa. He had connections with Cecil Rhodes, and had served in two campaigns against the Matabele. He does not appear in a photograph of Thornycroft and his officers taken before the battle, which suggests that he, like Hugh, joined at the last minute.

Thornycroft was supported in his decision to withdraw by Buller, who chose to put responsibility for the defeat on Warren.(14) The Commander-in-Chief South Africa, Field Marshal Lord Roberts, whilst putting the principal blame on Buller, considered Thornycroft's action "wholly inexcusable." Although some contemporary opinion, including Churchill's, was against Thornycroft, he was generally considered to have mae the right decision in the light of what he knew. He continued on active service throughout th ewar, and ended it as a Companion of the Bath, with both the Queen's and King's South Africa Medals.

News of Hugh's death was received with incredulity by most of his friends and relatives at home. For many this was the first time they knew he had gone to South Africa. Flags were flown at half mast in Newton le Willows, including McCorquodale's works, the Conservative Club and the Volunteer Headquarters.

A small memorial service was held at Llansadwrn on 31st January, which was attended by Mrs McCorquodale and her household. A much larger service was held the following day at St Pete's Church in Newton le Willows. All the leading members of the town attended, including Colonel Wood and the 6th Volunteer Battalion of the King's Liverpool Regiment. The service was conducted by the Vicar, the Rev. J. Ryder, who gave the funeral oration. He concluded his address by urging those present to "Store up loving and grateful remembrance of Hugh's great love for his country." The congregation then sang 'O God of Love, and the service concluded with the organist playing the 'Dead March' from Saul.

Hugh's mother arranged for his grave to be marked with a simple white marble cross, giving his name, rank, unit and date of death, but no religious epithets. His name also appeared on the memorial at Spion Kop to the dead of seven British regiments. Here he was one of seven officers, two captains and five lieutenants, listed on the panel for Thornycroft's Mounted Infantry. His name was also recorded in All Saints Church, Ladysmith.

A memorial was erected in the transepts at Harrow School Chapel, "In Memory Of The Soldiers Educated At Harrow Who Died In The South African War 1899-1902" Hugh's name is one of twenty seven listed on the tablet. The McCorquodales set up a scholarship fund in Hugh's name, to enable the sons of Old Harrovians to attend the school. The Governors accepted this late in 1900, the deed was signed in 1902 and the first scholarship awarded in 1904.

The parishioners at his mother's church in Llansadwrn subscribed to have a massive Celtic Cross erected outside St Sadwrn's Church. This recorded Hugh's background and the circumstance of his death. Two quotations from the New Testament were incribed on the base. Within the church Hugh's brothers and sisters had a douuble stained glass window installed in his memory. This was similary in design to another one which had been installed to the memory of Hugh's father. A plaque for Hugh was placed next to one in memory of his father.

A puzzle is the inclusion of Hugh's name on a memorial, to all those from the county of Yorkshire who died fighting the Boers. This is a Gothic style cross, over 40 feet high, standing in the centre of York. His name, rank and unit are all correctly inscribed on one of the panels. The family had little connection with Yorkshire , most of their business interests being in Lancashire.

Alex Thornycroft signed the roll for his officers and men to receive the Queen's South Africa medal, with bar Relief of Ladysmith for those at Spion Kop. He himself received the medal with six bars. Hugh's mother received her son's late in August 1902. Such was the transitory nature of this unit that, even for officers, medals were still being issued late in 1905.

Hugh's will was carefully drafted, to ensure that all his shares in McCorquodale companies went to his brothers and sisters. The company prospered, being particularly known for its expertise in 'security' printing. One of Hugh's nephews, Alexander McCorquodale, married Barbara Cartland, the romantic novelist, in 1927. This marriage was dissolved in 1933, and three years later she married another of his nephews, Hugh McCorquodale.

He had everything - youth, talent, wealth and the friendship of someone who was to become the greatest Englishman of his time. All this Hugh Steward McCorquodale gave up for the love of his country. The memory of that is his true memorial.


1. Churchill, Sir Winston, My Early life - A Roving Commission, (Reprint Society 1944) pages 23-50

2. Lt.Col. Sir John Milbanke

Commissioned 10th Hussars 1892, South Africa VC, QSA 2 bars, MID, severely wounded. KIA with Sherwood Rangers, Gallipoli, 21st August 1915, no known grave.

3. These were the half brothers and sisters, but Hugh appears to have always referred to them as full brothers and sisters.

4. The film 'Young Winston' includes Churchill's time at Harrow, the Headmaster being played by Jack Hawkins. Churchill's capture by, and escape from, the Boers is portrayed, but not his presence at Spion Kop.

5. Information supplied by the Archivist, Harrow School.

6. Afrikaans - alien, literally outsider.

7. Afrikaans - Look Out Hill, literally Spy Hill

8. Churchill describes this incident in a report, dated 25th January 1900, which he sent from Venter''s Spruit to the 'Morning Post'.

9. Churchill, Randolph, 'Winston S. Churchill', Heinemann, 1966, Vol 1, page 510.

The statement was made in a letter, dated 28th January 1900, that he sent from Durban to a lady friend. This mut have had a profound effect on his attitude to military matters, until such scenes became common place in the First World War.

10. 'My Early Life', page 328

11. History has dealt kindly with Major Massey, and the part he played which led to the disaster rarely receives comment. Indeed, he was posthumously mentioned in despatches twice in the 'London Gazette' of 8th February 1900.

12. The family believed that he was wearing civilian clothes. Information supplied by Colin McCorquodale, January 1998

13. Doyle, Sir Aruther Conan, 'The Great Boer War' - Thomas Nelson, final ediation, September 1903, page 1999, gives an account of Grenfell's death very much in the 'Boy's Own Paper' style of heroics.

14. Symons, Julian, 'Buller's Campaign', BCA, 1963, page 241

15. He retired from the army in 1912 with the rank of Major-General, his last appointment being in command of the South Midland Division, Territorial Force. He died in 1931

 Reproduced from 'Soldiers of the Queen', issue 95

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