Map of theatres of war in Natal
In a letter home, which was printed in several Swedish newspapers, Christenson described his experience of the siege of Ladysmith. “It is unusually interesting to be involved in this war,” he wrote, “right in the middle of the burning issue of the day and be able to see it and judge for yourself”. He asserted “it is completely impossible that Englishmen will ever be masters of the Transvaal”. The letter was also full of a young man’s overconfident feeling of immortality: “The first time one is under fire is of course a little unpleasant”, as he described it, but “one gets used to it quickly [that people are killed] and doesn’t actually think about the bullets the second time”.
On 15 December 1899, General Redvers Buller made a first attempt to relieve the besieged city of Ladysmith, but his attempt to cross the Tugela River at Colenso ended in a fiasco. In a second letter home, Christenson reported on the “brilliant victory” and that he, although he did not take part at Colenso, “could […] hear the cannons’ thunder and rifle salvoes the whole day”. However, Buller did not give up so easily, and in January he decided try to cross the river again farther west. The place he decided on for the attempted crossing was mountainous, and in the middle of the Boers’ line was the highest mountain on the battlefield: Spion Kop.
Spion Kop’s strategic importance was not to be underestimated. As the highest of the mountains on the Boer side, it dominated the battlefield and if the British could take its summit and place artillery there, the Boer lines would collapse and the path would be open to Ladysmith. On the night of 23 January 1900, the British – commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Thorneycroft – attacked Spion Kop under cover of darkness and fog, drove out the Boer’s outposts with unexpected ease, and then began to dig trenches and prepare for the next day.
When the sun rose on 24 January, the British realised they had made a fatal mistake. They had not got all the way to the highest point of Spion Kop, but had instead dug in further down the mountain. Their shallow trenches now sustained devastating rifle and artillery fire from higher ground around them and, to cap it all, the Boers launched a ferocious counter attack. The battle raged the whole day back and forth on Spion Kop, until the Boers, exhausted by the day’s combat, retreated. Thorneycroft didn’t know if the enemy had retreated and made the same judgment as the Boers, with the result being that he drew back from Spion Kop towards the evening of 24 January. The top of the mountain was subsequently retaken by the Boers without any resistance.