Friday, September 28, 2012

Boer War: Intombi Camp, Siege of Ladysmith

Intombi, sometimes referred to as Ndomba (the Zulu word for a small stream), was a neutral camp established four miles to the south-east of Ladysmith, after negotiations between the British and the Boers. The Ladysmith Town Hall, which had been converted into a hospital and contained numerous casualties, was unsafe as exposed to enemy fire - a shell had landed on the clock tower of the Town Hall.

An armistice was granted until midnight on 5 November 1899 for sick and wounded, as well as some non-combatants, women and children, to be transferred to Intombi. Hospital tents were erected and the Boers gave permission for a daily ration train to run from Ladysmith to Intombi, by night.

Early on the morning of 5 November 'a long, long train made up of trucks, carriages etc, filled with patients and townsfolk, the sick and wounded lying on stretchers, in trucks, and in beds in the luggage van', left Ladysmith station for Intombi ... A few tents were up and more were being put up. After much difficulty and trouble we got the beds right and the wounded fixed up in tents ... It was late at night before this was finished and very dark.'

There were less than 30 qualified doctors, 120 trained medical personnel and 56 Indian bearers at any one time in Intombi camp. They had a total of 300 beds to start with. The 'vast sea of tentage' comprised No. 12 Field Hospital under Major Love, RAMC, No 1 Stationary Hospital of the Natal Field Force and No 1 Natal Volunteer Field Force Hospital, commanded by Captain Currie of the Natal Carbineers. From Convent Hill, Mother Marie des Anges took her nuns out to Intombi: 'after the initial shock at the crudities of tent life, where six of them shared three mattresses - sometimes with nightly visitations from scorpions, snakes and frogs - the nuns joined in with the nursing until, one by one, they too fell sick'.

By January, the death-toll from diseases such as enteric fever (typhoid) and dysentery at Intombi reached a rate of 10 to 20 per day. A Natal volunteer reported: 'They sent me into a tent in the field hospital where there were 40 soldiers and nearly killed me outright. The hospital had been intended for 300 at first and there were 1400 in it when I was there and 15 nurses to look after them. Food and medicine were both very short and the sun came through the tent like a ball of fire. The place was a perfect hell on earth ... What it must be like now [15 January] with 2 000 out there I dread to think.'

During January and February the typhoid epidemic raged, doing the Boers' work for them. Every day, the hospital trains carrying white flags steamed out of the town with new carriage-loads of victims and steamed back empty. All typhoid patients were supposed to be sent to Intombi but many sick men elected to stay in one of the hospitals within the town - though conditions were little better there.

'We just lie here', said one of the starving patients at Intombi, 'and think of all the good tuck ahead' - but many of them would not survive to enjoy better times.

Nurse Kate Driver wrote: 'Yesterday a Gordon Highlander who had seemed almost out of danger, gave a kind of long sigh against too great odds. "I've nothing to gie ye, Nurse. Will ye tak a bit o' ma kilt? The bit wi' the bullet holes - for ye nursed me better o' that wound - if it hadna been for the fever ...." I thought of his kilt now - that would never swing again, that so jauntily had swung over the kopjes and under the scream of shells. I thought of how it had been when it was new and his mother looked at him with pride and love. And now I thought of her, so far away, still - weeks in the future - to be numbed by the news of his death ... I ached for all mothers and wives and sisters and sweethearts of men dying because of war, and for all the sad eyes of dying men.'

Intombi Camp Graveyard after the Siege

Further reading:
Experience of a Siege: A Nurse looks back on Ladysmith by Nurse Kate Driver
(published by Ladysmith Historical Society 1978, No 6 in series 'Diary of the Siege of Ladysmith)

A Diary of the Siege of Ladysmith by Bella Craw
(first published 1970, No 2 in Ladysmith Historical Society's series 'Diary of the Siege of Ladysmith')

Ladysmith by Ruari Chisholm (published 1979, Osprey Publishing Ltd, London)

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