10 – Letter to Mary Ann Smith from Frederick Smith, 10 Feb 1900

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[FS/2/2/4/2/10] (1)


S.S. Braemar Castle off East London S. Africa

10th February 1900

[Salutation Redacted]

[[1]] Had it not been that I spent 32/- on sending you a cable, the heading on this letter might have puzzled you much has happened since I wrote you last Sunday & now for my story[.]

On Sunday night it became pretty generally known that we were to attack the Boers early next morning 5th Febry at Potgieters Drift, I slept in my things [illeg.] being at 3am & we were in position for the battle by 6.0 the first gun being fired at 6.30.

The fight lasted all that day & found us at night very nearly where we began cer-tainly[sic] no nearer Ladysmith. It was dark but the fighting continued right into the night even as late as 10pm.

One hill of the boer[sic] position was on fire & added to the weirdness[?] of the scene.

I got separated from the regt[sic] & the road being blocked by transport I determined to sleep in a neighbouring field for the night. I did so after making an excellent repast off[sic] biscuit & tinned beef & some tea I thank your excellent Mazawattee[2]. A dinner fit for a King & the tail end of which I was able to share with Jarvis as I recognised his voice in the dark calling out to his carts which were blocking the way. He said next day that I had saved his life. I soon turned in on my native heath & slept like a dog, when I awoke it was daylight & found by my head the car of the big balloon which had come up during the darkness, while we were saddling up I localized[?] the Cavalry about 1/4 mile away & while getting ready to rejoin them the Boers opened fire with shell so vigorously that Cavalry & transport were glad to seek a safer haven. Jarvis had a big ‘find’ of shell which fell near him. All this second day was an artillery duel the sound was deafening, the wounded kept coming in but no sign of our advancing[,] night fell & the fight continued throughout the night at intervals. I slept under a bush & the next morning made a sumptuous repast off[sic] biscuit & tea

On this the third day of the fighting — I was relieved of the 13 Hussars by Houston

[[2]] about 2pm & at once got orders to proceed at once to Maritzburg. I left immediately after introducing my successor & I must say that the chorus of regret at my leaving was most satisfactory.

I was a strange scene, at any moment the Regt might have been ordered into action over head the shells flying like hail from the respective artillery, the sound & roar of which we forgot or became so used to that one failed to notice it, here was an individual bidding fond bye to the Regt actively under fire. Well I rode into Spearmans followed by Morton on the mule & got there just in the nick of time[.]

The Camp Commadt had been ordered to Zululand & was starting with a wagon & 12 mules mules in 10 minutes to join the rail at Frere 30 miles away, the very place I wished to get to. We soon settled details he was only too pleased to take my kit & Morton had a waggon[sic] ride the whole way. I rode my horse. Our first stop for the night was at Springfield 10 miles off. Here we found a detach[sic] of the R.I. Fusiliers & they gave us dinner & a tent, leaving next morning at 5.30 I wrote to Frere 17 miles off & got there at 10am found the train was due in ten minutes, being a mail train they could not take horses, these must follow in an hour or so. In short I got off by this train after making desperate efforts to catch it & was soon on my way to P.M’burg[Pietermaritzburg]. At Estcourt I had the first meal of the day it now being 1 O’clock & such a meal. There is an excellent railway restaurant & 2 helpings to everything going soon filled me up. I got to P.Mb. at 5 O’Clock & Rutherford met me he is in charge here & acting DVO [3 lines redacted] he made himself most agreeable, did everything in his power for me was most anxious I should dine with him at the Club & so on, but I knew what a beast I looked coming straight from the battle field & had not been out of my clothes for four whole days.

I got an excellent dinner at the station & in the evening left for Durban en route to Cape Town. I got to Durban early in the morning looking a veritable beast after all my travelling & previous experience. A poor woman

[[3]] in deep mourning came up to me at the station apologised for speaking but could I tell her whether Ladysmith had yet been relieved. I told her I could tell her definitely it had not been. She sighed, clasped her hands, thanked me & went off. Poor creature! her[sic] son or perhaps her husband shut up. I soon found myself at the point of embarkation & arranged with the steward about a bath, it was now Friday morning & ever since Sunday I had neither had a bath or things off. [1 line redacted] & when I changed after tubbing[sic] hid my clothes until I could give them to Morton to wash.

But what an entire transformation seemed in a few hours. I had come from hell to paradise from misery & human suffering to happiness & health from poverty to riches, from war to peace, I saw white women who all looked lovely, white children that I seemed only to have heard of long long ago, tables, beds, curtains, white bed linen! I could scarce believe my eyes at the sudden transformation to fairy land. No wonder that I woke up last night & unable to realise the situation, thought I had been placed in a hut & wounded, I felt the wall of the cabin & finding it wood settled that I had been carried there off the field & placed on a bed through I could not remember either being wounded or carried there.

I have had such feeds on board, excellent diet. Bread after not seeing it for weeks[,] butter[,] everything. I stuff stuff stuff & need it, for I have lost flesh though in the best of health & you could count every rib. I was surprised when I saw myself in a glass, my face is still peeling but I am in clean clothes, clean everything & having an excellent time of it. There is a baby & a little boy much younger than either of our beauties on board & it is a pleasure & delight to see them & play with them. I keep fancying this may be a dream & dread it ending — We have 40 wounded on board for Cape Town & home. The only other officer is a Captn RHA Headlam[?] who gets off at Port Elizabeth to morrow[sic] for Modder River. I go to Cape Town for orders & then to De Aar.

[[4]] 11th Feb Sunday — We have just left Port Elizabeth & Headlam[?] has gone. We get to Cape Town on Tuesday so this letter will be in time for the English mail which leaves the next day. I hope before I close this letter to give you an account of my interview with Rayment & what he requires me for — I told you that Buller would not get through to the Relief of Ladysmith & news has come on board this morning that he has retired, if so perhaps I am lucky getting away, as the interest in the fighting will now be transferred to the Cape Colony side & further any honourss for the campaign are now more likely to fall to the Cape Colony side than to the defeated troops under Buller. I am sure the latter never sufficiently realized the difficulties of the position — he could only have taken it with 100 000 men & the loss of 10,000 lives.

There was a very fat woman of 50 on board for Durban, she left us this morning [3 lines redacted] we had a most interesting conversation, she is Dutch but married an Englishman, she hated the Dutch & her daughters (who came to see her off & of whose beauty she never tired of dwelling on) were well educated & all married Englishmen. She could not speak English until 12 years of age but had she not told me the fact I could not have detected she was a foreigner. She has had 19 children & was very proud of it she hoped I should have the same number but I told her that I was ignorant of South Africa & its peculiarities but that certainly in England & other countries with which I was acquainted it was the women & not the men who bore the children. She laughed so heartily that I feared impending apoplexy.

Her width of [illeg.] surpasses all description she was wonderfully made & her arms were much bigger than my legs. The two children I mentioned yesterday have not their mother with them the parents & children had to leave Dundee at an hour’s notice & get in the train to escape the Boers, They left in what they stood up in. The father is consumptive & has gone to Las Palmas to die accompanied by his young wife. The two children are on board under the care of a companion lady’s help & a nurse. The latter has a husband (an art master) shut up in Ladysmith now a naval volunteer, she is about 40 years of age

[No Valediction]

(Please note that work on this transcript is ongoing. Users are advised to study the electronic images of this document where possible)


[1] Annotated by Smith with ‘Keep’

[2] The Mazawattee Tea Company, founded in 1887 was one of the most important and most advertised tea firms in England during the late 19th century.

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11 – Letter to Mary Ann Smith from Frederick Smith, 23 Feb 1900

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The copyright of this material belongs to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. It is available for reuse under a Creative Commons, Attribution, Non-commercial license.



23 Feb 1900

[Salutation Redacted]

[[1]] I have just arrived here, the other side of Cape Colony (just above East London) after travelling incessantly since I last wrote to you viz 19 Feb — I had intended to fully describe my journey, but the fact that the [1 word struck through, illeg.] mail goes to morrow[sic] & I only have a short time to night[sic] to write it [1 word struck through, illeg.] precludes all notion of giving you a detailed account of all my adventures – I just did a long train journey through the heart of south africa[sic] & a God forsaken place it is. Nothing but desert nothing but stones, & hills, after Natal it was positively [illeg.] dreadful & reminded one more of the Soudan[Sudan] than anything sl else. Where they have water [1 word struck through, illeg.] town & veritable oasis is constructed & here everything is green fruit abundant & a perfect garden of Eden, but the line of demarcation between  that & the desert is as absolute as anything can be for two nights & a day & a quarter did I do this scenery further towards Craddock, which was my objective, matters improved a little & here ostrich farming help[s] to relieve the monotony of the view, those dear children would have liked to see those beautiful birds running about wild, lovely plumage I must try & buy some for you, but they are very expensive.

At last Craddock was reached. It is a small town very Dutch & therefore very disloyal I found 2 companies of the Sherwood Foresters[1] here & they made me most comfortable, the Boers were expected the day before I arrived, but had not turned

[[2]] turned[sic] up. They were rather nervous about their appearance as it was impossible to hold the place with a handful of men & nearly everybody in the place was a Boer sympathiser they openly boasted of having 10,000 men ready to rise, but if they could have produced 1000 I should have been surprised. I  remained at Craddock a day & a half & then owing to the Boers being in possession of the northern part of the line I had to drive from Craddock to Queenstown over 90 miles in a Cape Cart. I took Morton & was glad of it but what a shaking up we got for 50 miles

The road was perfect h– it is impossible to describe up & down hill, in ruts over stones, boulders & rocks, through the dry bed of rivers, through streams, down places that made you gasp as you looked at them & this went on from 10 one morning until 2 am next day, by that time we had only done 53 miles, but I am anticipating.

It was a Dutchman who drove us & of course a Boer sympathiser. I had my revolver & Morton Carbine & should have blown out his brains on the spot if he had tried his games on, I was suspicious of him for a long time as he kept looking out right & left for miles, bear in mind we were within 20 miles of the Boers a distance easily covered by them on two horses. As night came on & we got no nearer our destination I still more sus-pected[sic] my man at last it got quite dark the thundereder  rolled & a heavy storm came on, it was so dark that I could not see Morton in front of me not two feet away. We got out tried to find the road on our with our hands but no use. We could hear the noise from a waggon[sic] in front & a friendly flash

[[3]] of lightning showed a bullock waggon[sic] just ahead of us. The driver confessed he could not see the road & asked Morton if he could. Well he & the driver crawled under the waggon[sic] for protection. I rolled up in my waterproof bag on the seat of the two wheeled cart hulled up like a [illeg.], the wind howled, the rain came down in a perfect deluge & this lasted for four hours, a pale moon then rose & we continued on our way & finally reached Tarkastad a very Dutch centre seething with disloyalty. After much difficulty we woke up a man in the hotel & demanded stable & bed. His idea was we would all sleep together so he took us to a three bedded room but I drew the line at that. My first experience was finding seven B flats[?][2] stuck in the candle just after they had been impaled with a pin! I at once scratched myself back & front, made a search of the bed & walls, the latter bore full external evidence of much slaughter, this was enough for Morton he elected to sleep in the cart outside. I lay as I was gingerly on the bed candle burning until daylight & I think this kept the enemy away for I was not troubled during the night.

I found the house was kept by a Polish Jew but all S. African hotels are the same, even the one in Cape Town where I lived. One amusing scene occurred earlier in the day. We stopped at a wayside home for tea, it was a shanty of the first water kept by a Dutchman who tried to appear very loyal[,] tea was amassed & I had previously asked Morton whether he would like some & he replied in the affirmative. [“]This way gentlemen[“] said the landlord leading the way to the tea room.

[[4]] Morton followed at a respectful distance — [“]You can sit here & the other gentleman there[“] said the landlord. Morton not yet hearing got in I said, [“]the other gentleman is my servant, you can put him at the end of the table[“]. Profuse apologies from the landlord, who explained that he did not recognise master & servant & otherwise gave himself away, however he wound up by calling out, [“]Come on Mr. Morton & sit here[“]. Cant’[sic] you imagine the colours of Morton’s face!

In this blessed country every hotel Keeper[sic] his wife, children , etc shake hands with you including also Morton who distinguished appearance gains him great attention.

Well, our second days journey was 42 miles, better going but rained heavily passed through flights of locusts which resembled a huge dust storm, never saw anything like it, saw buck had a shot & nearly got it, equids [1 line redacted] & other beasts of sorts) & finally got to Queens town[sic] at 4 OClock[sic]. The place was in great rejoicing they had the news that Cronje[3] had surrendered & that Ladysmith had been relieved, the loyal inhabitants had hung out flags[,] bicycles with flags & other ornaments invaded the streets & every evidence of rejoicing on the part of the loyal inhabitants but they are few, very few. all[sic] wear a festoon of ribbons on the hat red white & blue, all who dont’[sic] & they are numerous are ached[?].

I made up my mind not to stay in a S.A hotel again if I could help it, so worked there show to live in the station & I am now put in a post office railway van, with a plank up it to walk

[No Valediction]





(Please note that work on this transcript is ongoing. Users are advised to study the electronic images of this document where possible)



[1] Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment of the British Army

[2] B Flats? Could be Bed Bugs?

[3] Pieter Arnoldus Cronjé, (1836 –1911) was a general of the South African Republic’s military forces during the Anglo-Boer wars of 1880-1881 and 1899-1902.

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‘The Veterinarian’ Vol 73 Issue 2 – February 1900

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This material has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighbouring rights, and is being made available under the Creative Commons, Public Domain Mark.

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