1899 - 1902



Anglo Boer War
Home Reasons/Intro Build Up Battles / Sieges Deaths VC's Photographs


The story of famine is an insidious story, a creeping horror that, scarcely visible, yet slowly and very gradually saps first the spirits, then the energies,  then the blood, and finally all the little sparks of being that serve to divide us from the dead. The seal of hunger was set on every action, though there was no complaint. The cramped-up Tommy in his sangar was scarcely as  conscious of his risk of danger from shot and shell as of the aching void that assured him how much nature abhorred a vacuum. When he marched, he marched now with the step of one who husbands his resources; when he whistled as  of old, he ceased abrupt, the lung power being scant and short-lived. His eyes, plucky and Britishly dogged ,grew large and wistfull as though looking for something that never came. Dysentery and fever caught him and left him,  but left him still in charge of famine, which held him in leading-strings, allowing him his freedom to crawl so far and no farther. Yet daily routine went on as of yore. The shadow of the man went on picket or fatigue duty and  met his fellow-shadows as often as not with a jest. In ordinary life you don't look upon cheek-bones as the features of a face. You take stock of eyes, nose, mouth, possibly ears. In Ladysmith a man's character betrayed itself  in his cheek-bones and in the anaemic tone of the tanned parchment that was stretched across them. You could read of patience and heroism in the hard, distinct outlines, and comprehend the magnificent endurance of one who,  expecting to fight like a devil, was condemned to feed like an anchorite.

The men were very near the barbaric brink of starvation. On one occasion a shell plumped into the mule lines and killed a mule. There was a general  rush. Shells followed on the first, crashing all around, but the famished racing throng heeded them not; their one desire was to get at the slain beast, to capture the wherewithal to stay their grievous cravings. Quickly with  their clasp-knives they possessed themselves of great chunks of the flesh, and then, with death hurtling around them and over their heads, they proceeded to carry their prize to safer quarters. Here they determined to have a  good "tuck-in." Fires were kindled, and the flesh was toasted and swallowed with lightning rapidity.

For some weeks the inhabitants had been reduced to an essence of horse politely termed Chevril, which was declared  to be both palatable and nourishing The horses, with their ribs shining in painful high lights along their skins, dropped day after day from sheer famine, and were boiled down to meet the pressing demand. Their bones  were.gelatinous, however wizened their poor flesh.

The horses that were used for food, like those that yet crawled, were mere skeletons. Where the General, in view of making another sortie, inquired how many there were in  camp that could still carry their rider for six miles, he was informed that there were only twelve equal to the task.

The lack of fat and milk and vegetables was irremediable, but dainties, so called, were provided in curious  ways. Blancmange was manufactured from ladies' violet-powder which had been "commandeered" for service in the kitchen, and biscuits were fried by the men in the axle-grease provided for the carts, in hope to make the  task of biting them less like crunching ashes.

The place itself appeared to be becoming the Abomination of Desolation. Many of the dwellings were unoccupied; the low bungalow-shaped villas were closed and barricaded ; here  and there were buildings cracked and seamed by shot and shell, with great gaps in their faces, reminding one of human beings without eyes and teeth. Melancholy and depression reigned everywhere-on the tangled, desolated  gardens, as on the silent, listless men, who had almost ceased to converse, for there was nothing left to converse about. Buller's coming had been discussed threadbare; the prospect of the food holding out had been examined in  all its hideous emptiness. Lassitude and weariness was the universal expression on the visages of the hollow-eyed spectres that were the remains of the dashing heroes of Glencoe and Elandslaagte. The land and river-beds  presented the appearance of a series of grottoes, shelters of wood, stone, and wire, the dens of wild animals, the caves of primitive man. Between the burrows and caves were sentry-paths and paths to the water-tanks, worn with  the incessant traffic of weary feet.

Though affairs were arriving at a sorry pass, there were still some wonderful recoveries. For instance, Captain Paley (Rifle Brigade), who was wounded in both hips, was getting on  amazingly. Though the leg was badly shattered near the joint of the hip, there was every reason to hope that it might be saved. Captain Mills, too, was mending. To have a bullet pass through the lung and pierce the spinal  column is not a common experience, and one that few recover from; yet the doctors gave hopeful reports. They had scarcely thought that Major Hoare would outlive a fractured skull-completely riddled they said it was-yet the  Major was expected to be himself again shortly. These were marvellous cases, and probably the wounded owed their curious recovery to the nature of the weapon of offence. Missiles have peculiar characteristics, and differ in  their capacity for deadliness. For instance, bullets of the most harmless kind are those having a high velocity, those that hit apex-first and do not "keyhole," and those possessing a hard, smooth sheath with a  smooth, rounded surface. After these come missiles of more death-dealing or mutilating nature-the Dum-Dum bullets, with the nickel sheaths around the apex removed in order to expose the lead nucleus, Remington lead or brass  bullets, shrapnel bullets, and fragments of shell. Each and all of these things had been endured by one or other of our gallant men during the course of the campaign, and the surgeons were able to make a profound study of  causes and effects. One of the heroes of Ladysmith who went near to testing the efficacy of that most deadly thing, the shell, Was Archdeacon Barker. With the utmost presence of mind, he picked up a shell in the act of  exploding and plumped it into a tub of water, thus saving many lives. Numbers of officers who had been hit by Mausers or Lee-Mitfords were now pronounced out of danger, among them Colonel C. E. Beckett (Staff), Major F.  Haminersley (Staff), Captain W. B. Silver, Captain M. J. kV. Pike, Major

H. Mullaly, Lieutenants Crichton, S. C. Maitland, W. W. MacGregor (of the Gordons), and A. A. G. Bond. Captain Lowndes, who was wounded dangerously on  Surprise Hill, was picking up wonderfully. Lieutenant Campbell, of the Imperial Light Horse, whose case at first seemed serious, was rapidly gaining ground.

Very capricious sometimes was the action of bullets. Some of the  injured would have as many as four or five wounds, all "outers," to use their musketry phrase, while others would suffer strange and wonderful things in consequence of the vagaries of a single shot. A strange chapter  of accidents befell one officer He was hit under the left eye, the bullet passing out of his cheek into his left shoulder, and then into his upper arm, which it broke. Not content with doing this damage, the shock of the blow  knocked him down, and in falling the unfortunate man broke the other arm! On the other hand, there were some, reported doing well, and expecting to be fit for duty shortly, who were veritably perforated with bullets-" a  perfect sieve" one man called himself, with a touch of excusable pride.

The bravery of these men! The bravery of these women Outside we knew only of the husk of-their suffering; but the kernel of it, the bitter sickening  taste of it, the taste that lived with them, that was there when they woke, and remained after they had closed their eyes in sleep-that, none but themselves could ever know. Boredom and flies, they jestingly said it was! Rather  was it a slow petrifaction of the soul. Death to them had lost its sting, as life had lost its fire. Ladysmith was the grave of corpses that were not dead, forms in the cerements of burial now too weak to knock themselves  against the coffin-lid and cry, "Save us! our last breath is not yet spent; we are living, loving men!" Yes, they were too weak. They made no sound, no cry. They who had so long resisted could resist no longer; they,  who with their last effort on that fatal 6th of January had been a terror to their enemies, were now only a terror to themselves. Could they bear it longer? Was it possible? Might they not in some fit of madness, some  palpitating moment of lust for dear life, begin to spell the letters of the unframable word, begin just to think how it might be spelt ?-S-u-r-r- No! They could not get to the end of it! It choked them. They could stand the  fetid water, the foul air with its loathsome whispers, its hideous suggestions, which at eventide grew strong as phantoms from the nether world; they could face the sight of virulent disease and gaunt famine stalking up and  down as the hyena slinks round and about his prey; they could gasp under the fierce heat; they could tune their ears to the racking, rending tortuous explosions of death-dealing shells-they could do WI this, but they could not  get beyond. The first syllable of the crushing word could never pass their lips!

Food now was only interesting because of its mystery; it was beginning to have merely an ornamental value in the programme. Various  "confections" made of violet-powder that had been impounded, strange brawns of mule-heel and suspicious "savouries" were the subject of speculation and awe. People pretended to be pleased and to put a good  face on matters, and indeed they had every reason to be thankful; for, owing to the ingenuity of Lieutenant M'Nalty, A.S.C., under whose auspices potted meats, jellies, soups, were manufactured, the imagination if not the  appetite was appeased with what, when not too closely investigated, appeared to be quite delectable fare.

The following prices were realised at an auction on February 21

-Fourteen lbs. of oatmeal, £2, 19s. 6d. ; a tin of  condensed milk, 10s. ; 1 lb. of fat beef, 11s. ; a 1-lb. tin of coffee, 17s. ; a 2-lb. tin of tongue, £1, 6s. ; a sucking-pig, £1, 17s. ; eggs, £2, 5s. per dozen; a fowl, 18s. ; four small cucumbers, 15s. ; green mealies, 3s.  8d. each; a small quantity of grapes, £1 5s. ; a plate of tomatoes, 18s. one marrow, £1, Ss. ; a plate of potatoes, 19s. ; two small bunches of carrots, 9s. ; a glass of jelly, 18s. ; a 1-lb. bottle of jam, £1, 11s. a 1lb. tin  of marmalade, £1, Is. ; a dozen matches, 13s. 6d.; a packet of cigarettes, £1, 5s. ; 50 cigars, £9, 5s. ; a 4-lb. cake of tobacco, £2, 5s. ; ½ lb. of tobacco, £3, 5s.

A doctor, writing home about this time, said  :-"Things are getting very trying here now. For two or three

weeks we have had only half a pound of horseflesh and a quarter a pound of very bad mealie-meal bread, with one ounce of sugar, Sometimes a little mealie  porridge is added or a little more bread. This is precious low fare, I can tell you, especially as the bread is so bad we can hardly eat it, and it makes us ill. Of course, drinks gave out after the first month, and tobacco  followed suit some time ago, but, fortunately, they discovered a little Kaffir tobacco recently, which, vile as it is, we smoke eagerly. Alas! mine won't last long now. It is impossible to get proper food for patients, and not  much of improper. Consequently men are beginning to die fast of scurvy, enteric, and dysentery. We have reduced the number of sick from two thousand to seventeen hundred. here, of which I have about a hundred severe cases, and  am allowed about two to three wineglasses of stimulants a day for the lot; so you can imagine what a farce that is. Drugs, too, are almost finished, and firewood for cooking is an endless difficulty; so you can imagine I am  pretty tired of the daily duty in these terrible fever-tents. About half of our doctors and half the nurses are sick, and there were always few enough. One doctor has already died and a nurse.'

Among the severe cases alluded  to was one especially to be deplored. Colonel Royston, whose name is intimately connected with Volunteering in Natal, was hopelessly ill. In spite of his iron constitution, he succumbed to the ravages of enteric fever, and was  in reality marked by the finger of death at the very time when the relief force was pressing to deliver the town from the awful doom that hung like a miasma over the whole place. The gallant Colonel had done splendid service,  and for two decades had worked energetically to promote the welfare of the Colony and stimulate interest in the Volunteer movement. As trumpeter in the Carabineers in 1872, the youth was found engaging in operations against  Langalibalele, including the flying column in the Double Mountains and the capture of the chief; and in 1879, in command of a troop of Carabineers, he distinguished himself in the Zulu campaign. Later he accompanied Sir Bartle  Frere to the Transvaal in command of the High Commissioner's escort. From 1881 to 1889 he commanded the regiment, and was appointed Commandant of Volunteers in 1898. When the call to arms came, the brave Volunteers of Natal  were ready to. a man, fully equipped to go to the front-a practical proof of the splendid ability and foresight of there chief All agreed in deploring his illness, and declared that an officer more fitted to lead the gallant  regiment, more trusted and more beloved, it would be hard to find.