Saturday, January 24, 2015

Souvenir Saturday: letter from Ladysmith 1900

One of the best sources of information about an ancestor is original correspondence written by him, or, failing that, by his contemporaries. Sometimes more is gleaned from the people who knew him than from the ancestor's own letters, in which he may have been reticent about the details later to be of special interest to his descendants.

Fortunately for the Smith family, a number of letters written during the siege of Ladysmith by William Dixon Smith, Lieut Quartermaster of the Border Mounted Rifles, survived and were preserved. Among them was one of which Smith was not the author. This was written by Captain W Arnott of the BMR to his wife Betsy and took the form of a long essay to which he continued to add pages for the duration of the siege, as there was no way of sending any mail out of the beleaguered town.  

From Arnott's letter, we learn more about William Dixon Smith's final few days before he died at Intombi hospital camp on 13 January 1900.

Poor Smith of Umzinto died of fever last week. His was a very peculiar case. He felt poorly for a few days and was quite indignant when the Dr sent him to hospital. They kept him there for a fortnight and as [he] got neither better nor worse they sent him out to the Neutral camp at Ntombi spruit thinking that the change of air might improve him. It wasn't to be, poor fellow.

In fact, it's likely that the change of air, far  from doing William any good, may have worsened his condition as by that stage enteric and dysentery were rife at Intombi and men were dying like flies.

Ironically, William's own last communication with his family, who were awaiting  news anxiously in Umzinto, was a telegram sent by heliograph, intending to reassure his wife with the optimistic message 'All Well'.

For a group photo of the BMR officers, including Smith and Arnott, see

and of William Dixon Smith in his BMR uniform


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