Sunday, December 15, 2013

Christmas in Ladysmith: Boer War 1899 6

'He is out on active service,
Wiping something off a slate ...': Kipling's Soldier

Kipling, in his poem entitled South Africa, wrote: ‘So she filled their mouths with dust, And their bones with fever ...’ He could have been speaking of Ladysmith. 

Siege diarists and letter-writers complained about the dust, but in rainy weather the ground became a quagmire and it was hard to know which was worse, especially for the soldiers under canvas. There was a lack of fresh drinking water. The only supply for troops posted on the outlying areas was the murky water of the Klip River

W A Poulton of the 5th Lancers recalled that when making tea, the liquid had to stand for a while to allow the mud to settle at the bottom of the container.  The flies were awful and it was no wonder that diseases spread quickly. 

Although several hospitals were situated within the town, with the permission of the Boers a tented camp at Intombi Spruit had been established in the first week of November and to this facility many sick and wounded were sent. By Christmas over 700 patients with enteric were accommodated there. This number had more than doubled by January. Bella Craw wrote: ‘It is time we were relieved … for the sickness is most distressing. We are hearing every day of the death of someone we sent out to Indombi (sic) … men are dying for want of attention and proper food …’

The exhausted medical staff were fighting a losing battle, and themselves often falling victim to illness. Disinfectants and other medical necessities were scarce, the water supply erratic and rations were decreasing daily. Army biscuits were pulped for the sick. When the inevitable slaughter of horses for food began, a meat extract known as Chevril was made. It may have been nutritious but people found it difficult to stomach. 

The Horse Memorial, Port Elizabeth, commemorates 300 000 horses
lost during the Anglo-Boer War

Nurse Kate Driver’s diary reveals the hell that was Intombi in the final weeks of the siege: ‘The moans and groans that came to one from these wards through the hours of darkness, and often rain, were more dismal and ghastly than I have words to describe’.


Eighteen nursing sisters served with the Natal Volunteer Medical Corps during the siege. Some were mentioned in White’s dispatch of 2 December: Lucy Yeatman (in charge at Intombi), S Otto, Ethel Early, Margaret Nicolson, Chrissie Thompson, Kate Driver, Kate Champion (who nursed the dying William Dixon Smith, Lieutenant Quarter-Master of the Border Mounted Rifles, and wrote a compassionate letter to his widow), R Davies, Santje Ruiter and Elaine Bromilow. Another, Constance Addison, was the sister of a Durban doctor. 

Dr Oswald Currie and family
The Natal Mounted Rifles later presented the nurses with silver shield brooches in recognition of their services and Royal Red Cross nursing decorations were also awarded. The doctors were equally dedicated, among them Dr Oswald J Currie who came from India to South Africa to work on the prevention of malaria. At the start of the war he joined the Natal Carbineers as Surgeon Captain and proved indispensable at Intombi.

Let's not forget the courageous stretcher bearers under the leadership of a young man named Mohandas Gandhi who was later to be very famous indeed; and the nameless African runners who risked life and limb carrying letters through enemy lines. 

They were heroes all, as were the weary troops, ‘hungry and gaunt as ghosts’, who continued with their duties while wondering where Buller was and if they were to be left to their fate. 

Stretcher bearers of the Indian Ambulance Corps: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
 5th from left 2nd row


Buller was on his way but progress was ponderously slow; he seemed to go one step forward and two back. His troops suffered a disastrous defeat at Spion Kop on 24 January and the final month of the siege had yet to be endured – the darkest hour before dawn. It was the hottest time of year in Natal and the frequent rains, while filling the water tanks, made the weather steamy. There was mud underfoot and cloud-cover prevented the use of the heliograph so the besieged felt completely cut off, with no cheering news. 

Gordon Highlanders
Rations were down to the bare minimum and nerves were frayed. Watkins-Pitchford found a big Gordon Highlander sitting at the side of the footpath, crying like an infant: 

‘He had gone all round the town and various camps begging for food, and finding none had given way in this manner … for ½ lb of horseflesh and ½ lb of hard biscuit is little short of starvation’.

By 21 February 1900 the Relief Force was again advancing across the Tugela towards Ladysmith. Boer resistance was fierce and there were several engagements with heavy losses on both sides, culminating in a decisive victory for the British at Pieters Hill on 27 February. The Boers withdrew and the way to Ladysmith lay open. 

On 28 February riders could be seen approaching the town and it became apparent that they were not the enemy, but British cavalry. The Natal volunteers, most of whose horses had so far escaped slaughter, rode towards them, ‘yelling and howling like packs of wild dogs. Caps and helmets were waved, guns frantically brandished … and in a moment the two columns were merged into a struggling mass of horsemen, besieged and deliverers mixed inextricably in one disorderly mass of cheering, gesticulating, hand-shaking, back-slapping men. Tattered and lean and brown, the one side with privation and exposure and long anxiety, and the other with hard fighting and desperate derring-do’. 

Relief had come.



Mole, I am curious about the historical term 'enteric'. From a medical point of view and taking into consideration contaminated water supplies and deteriorating hygiene measures, I would think that the term covers such diseases as cholera, typhoid, dysentery (shigella and E Coli). Do you have anything more specific on this? Andrew

Mole said...

Enteric was a collective term
referring to severe typhoid and paratyphoid. At the time of the Siege William Dixon Smith is recorded as dying of enteric fever while his stepson Alick Anderson's cause of death was given as dysentery. Contaminated water was the root of the problem - and not only in Ladysmith.


thanks Mole