Saturday, December 14, 2013

Christmas in Ladysmith: Boer War 1899 5

View of Ladysmith from a sandbagged position


Anniversaries relieved the monotony of the siege and were opportunities for celebration. Despite furious bombardment on the Prince of Wales’s birthday, 9 November, a 21-gun salute was fired and a tot of rum issued. Perhaps the salute was unnecessary additional noise. Herbert Watkins-Pitchford remarks that nearly a thousand Boer shells were directed at the town, ‘and the crash of our answering artillery, and the shatter of bursting shells, together with the incessant crackle of rifle fire, made the day a memorable one’.

With the approach of Christmas everyone pushed aside the depressing reality that they were still under siege and rose to the occasion, collecting whatever could be found to contribute to the festivities.

The Border Mounted Rifles staged a concert on 22 December, using improvised instruments such as a drum made of a flour cask with sheepskin stretched over it; the ensemble’s wind section included several tin whistles. Some officers organized a party for the town’s 200 children, providing toys, cake and ginger pop. There were four decorated Christmas Trees at this gathering, representing South Africa, Britain, Australia and Canada.

The Australia Christmas tree

Members of the Natal Mounted Rifles built a large brick oven to cook chickens bought at exorbitant prices - 5/- to 7/6. Plum cakes were on sale at 30/- and plum puddings at 40/-. The nurses at Intombi hospital weren’t forgotten: White himself sent each one a parcel with port wine, lime juice, currants, cornflour and tinned tongue. Kate Driver wrote that these items were put into a common fund for use throughout the hospital and that ‘later, when our sick nurses were in great need of such things, we wished we had all taken our parcels!’

Siege Menu

On Christmas Eve there were church services and carol-singing. The Boers started Christmas Day off with a bang, shelling beginning at 5 a.m. and continuing for three hours; there were no casualties. One 15 pounder shell didn’t burst and when examined was found to contain not explosive but plum pudding, and a message, ‘With the compliments of the season’.

Natal Carbineer Arthur Crosby attended Communion at All Saints and later reported, ‘Our dinner consisted of soup, stewed goat and baked beef, both very tough, and plum pudding, very elastic’, but there was rum to wash it down. Cecil William Park of the Devons did rather better ‘with tablecloths and real wine-glasses’ and a menu comprising hors d’oeuvres, soup, beef, olives, roast chicken, plum pudding and figs. Park had just been promoted Lieutenant Colonel and, after the loyal toast to the Queen, the men drank his health, with further toasts to sweethearts, wives and absent friends, followed by a singsong and hot rum punch.

The best Christmas present would have been the arrival of Buller’s army, but news of his disastrous defeat at Colenso on 15 December, with the loss of over a thousand men and ten guns, had put paid to that hope.

Saving the guns at Colenso: Freddy Roberts, son of Lord Roberts,
was killed in this action; he was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously.

Captain W Arnott, Adjutant of the Border Mounted Rifles, who had been wounded at End Hill, kept himself occupied during his convalescence by writing a serial letter to his wife mentioning that he’d had a very pleasant Christmas, but a note of foreboding crept in:

‘We got a present of some potatoes from Mrs Tatham and some jam. We managed a very good plum pudding and with a ration of rum instead of brandy or whisky we did very well. We had sports in the afternoon and a concert later in the week. Xmas week and New Year week were extremely wet and uncomfortable and with the wet we got a lot of sickness’. 

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