Friday, December 13, 2013

Christmas in Ladysmith: Boer War 1899 4

Boers in entrenched position near Ladysmith


During the four months of the siege, Ladysmith became a world in microcosm, a stage where everyday events were played out against the stark backdrop of war. Caught in the spotlight were the ordinary men and women who had suddenly had greatness thrust upon them. Their response to the situation as they endeavoured to maintain some semblance of normality while dealing with abnormal, often tragic, circumstances, brought forth flashes of individual heroism and an underlying stoicism that was remarkable.

Not everyone was a hero, of course. Some shop-owners concealed their goods hoping for higher prices as the siege continued, but the offenders were rooted out and punished. A trooper in a colonial unit was caught signalling the enemy and immediately executed. A civilian was court-martialled and given twelve months hard labour for attempting to create despondency amongst the troops. Three privates were shot for disobedience and one hanged for sleeping while on guard.

Life went on. Children were born: the first siege baby, a Mrs Moore’s, made its entrance on 12 November. There was an addition to the family of Ladysmith’s ex-Mayor G W Willis, a son, born on 6 December and christened Harry Buller Siege. Ladysmith resident Bella Craw notes in her diary that Mrs Coventry’s baby had a ‘short, sad little existence’, born in a cellar during the first week of the bombardment and dying on 21 February.

Royal Hotel Ladysmith damaged

Death was ever-present in the shape of shell or sniper-fire. Dr Stark was killed instantly on 18 November at the doorway of the Royal Hotel when this building was hit for the third time. A railway worker named Mason died when a shell struck the station on 16 November; he was buried wrapped in the Union Jack, coffins being in short supply. On 17 December, a shell killed six members of the Natal Carbineers and fourteen of their mounts; another exploded in the same regiment’s lines the following day, killing four troopers. Thirteen men died and twenty-one were wounded when the Gloucesters’ and Devons’ camps were hit on 22 December. As the siege dragged on, familiarity with the shelling bred contempt, and people went about their daily business scarcely aware of impending danger. Considering the fact that the besieged residents were sitting ducks for the enemy guns, it’s amazing that casualties weren’t more numerous.

Ladysmith Town Hall damaged during Siege

Each week brought accounts of narrow shaves. Saddler Sergeant Lyle was seated on a box inside a tent when a shrapnel fragment flew between his legs, leaving him and a man asleep nearby unscathed, but destroying a stack of rifles. Civilians weren’t safe at home: Bert Anderson was taking a bath in his back yard when a shell struck, fortunately inflicting no injuries.

Gen White's house struck by shell

There were some random accidents: an African drowned in the Klip which was swollen after heavy rains, when he attempted to swim across the river for a 5/- bet. A young Natal Carbineer drowned after walking into the river in a delirious state.

Worst of all, though, were the slow and lingering deaths from disease as enteric fever (typhoid) and dysentery began to take their toll.


Boredom was an enemy of a different kind. To keep up their spirits the beleaguered inhabitants turned to various forms of recreation: football and cricket matches were held in defiance of falling shells and the cavalry played polo (while they still had horses). There were musical concerts and the Gordon Highlanders were much in demand with their bagpipes. Two siege newspapers, The Ladysmith Lyre and The Ladysmith Bombshell, provided light-hearted information and amusement, something to read at increasingly meagre mealtimes and to help lessen the tension.

With the meat ration reduced and beer and tobacco supplies running out, it can’t have been easy to retain a sense of humour, yet diaries and letters written during the siege aren’t all doom and gloom. Some reported events may not have been funny at the time, such as the first train to Intombi hospital camp being derailed because it hit a cow. However, no doubt there were some smiles at Colonel Ward’s response to the complaint that soldiers bathing in the river were upsetting the town’s female population: he suggested that the ladies need not look.  

All Saints' Church Ladysmith damaged

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