4 – Letter to Mary Ann Smith from Frederick Smith, 30 Dec 1899

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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.

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In front of Colenso

30 December 1899

[Salutation Redacted]
[[1]] I am not quite sure whether I have missed a mail, all record of time days & weeks are lost here, but I am under the impression that I wrote a week ago, our mails are very erratic so any irregularity you will excuse.

Here we still are looking at the Boers strongly entrenching themselves & making the place an utter impossibility to attack. we[sic] as usual are doing what the celebrated Duke of York did, marched up one a hill & then down again, or rather we do less for we do nothing. Our Generals are incompetent & have the funks[?] on board, while the “gentleman in Khaki” remains as good as ever. However enough of this incompetency & let me tell you my story of the week which is neither full of interest nor I fear entertaining.

You will remember that we have a battery of

[[2]] naval guns here, which fire daily at Colenso & the Boer entrenchments. Well it appeared that in spite of their fire they did not kill many Boers & they were puzzled to account for it. I helped them solve the problem, I found out from one of our fellows who was out on No 3 picket that from his hill outside our camp he could see into the Boer trenches & with his glass watched them dodge our shells by getting into a donga (viz a small valley) it struck me this was [1 word illeg.] important information & I walked up to the Naval Bgd Camp late that night & told Limpus the team[?] and Officers all about it, further I took Jarvis up who had been on this picket. Limpus at once said this is most valuable information & I shall go in the morning & see the place, he did so, altered his angle of fire & yesterday gave the Boers a “gruelling such as they had not had previously. We saw a Lyddite[1] shell fall into a group of about

[[3]] 150 men & burst. How many souls were sent to eternity – – I do not know[.] Poor devils it is rather on my conscience, but all is fair in war & they dont[sic] study us much. The night I paid him a visit words a special treat for the Boers was arranged viz a bombardment, it had been ob-served for days that a particular house was occupied apparently at night  & it was believed that many slept there.

During the day the guns were carefully laid & it was arranged to shell the place at night. It was a grand sight, the mass of flame, the terrific roar & the howling of the shells through the air. Several shots were fired & in the morning the place was seen shattered. “Left gun ready!” at this word of command I remarked to Jarvis, how many souls are about to be lodged into eternity who at this moment are quite unconscious of their fate?

War is a very dreadful thing but it has its humorous aspects. In the morning a gun goes

[[4]] bang & from all parts of the camp go up a howl of delight, There’s their breakfast says one, & in the evening you hear the remark “now there[sic] going to have supper”. The horrors of war make no impression on the soldier, his language is worse than ever, his demeanour one of utter indifference. It is well it should be so.

We signal to Ladysmith by electric light at night, the blinking powerful beam is concentrated on the darkest sky & they read the message by the flashes. The Boers try to intercept the beam by projecting a stream up of electricity — from their lamp & concentrating it on ours, as we shift they shift & so we play the game of hide & seek. Whether they succeed in masking our messages I do not know.

The rains started yesterday afternoon & it rained straight off for 12 hours, the men were washed out, the rain came through

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[[1]] our tents too freely to be pleasant & our dinner was eaten in the open in a perfect deluge. It was most amusing to see us, no light could be kept going owing to the wind & we had boiled muttton for dinner fat & lean were indiscriminately partaken off[sic], the rain made plenty of gravy on the plates we stood in pools of water, boxes for the tables to sit down was impossible, I got a piece of cake cut with a knife with which sardines had previously been eaten & the mixture was foul in spite of it we remained cheery & to keep up the hearts of the men who were huddled up in their tents (16 in a tent!!!) we sang like Trojans all the popular & unpopular airs we could think of winding up with old Lang Syne[2] & God save the Queen altogether it was a great success & a determination to be happy at any cost[.] My waterproof sheet was invaluable, but all ones clothes have to be dried & aired by forming a pillow of them. You

[[2]] never saw such a collection as that pillow is, it is something like our beloved boy’s pockets on a large scale. I am writing this in bed, it is still raining, horses which have broken loose keep pattering around my tent as if they were walking in pea soup, their feet catch in the tent ropes & you think your mansion is coming down by the rain. Still one is on service & therefore all discomforts are taken in the true spirit of philosophy. I get very little sleep at night & none in the day I wish I slept better. The man living with me sleeps through everything thunder storms[,] guns[,] rain & wind. The other night we had a terrific thunderstorm, the lightning was so blinding that I had to cover my eyes with a handkerchief, a mule was struck & killed, but Wise heard nothing.

I have left the doctors tent & now live with Wise the service sub: he is a delightful

[[3]] fellow to live with (at this point I thought I heard my horse break loose, so I had to get out of bed pull on my rubber boots crawl <out> of the tent which we have to keep closed on account of rain & go out in the pouring rain to look for him[.] I found it was my new pony[,] which I picked up to day straying & so commandeered him & he has gone off Goodness knows where. Will have to look for him in the morning as he is for Morton to ride)

Well Wise is a married man[,] a tall very good looking cheery Irishman full of fun & humour & as straight as they are made. He was ADC to Cadogan & knows everyone & everybody. He tells me that the daughter who bolted with that fellow was the last person on earth that he would have suspected of such a thing, further that when she returned she was not the least penitent!! I don’t like to be too curious, but I shall ask him more

[[4]] about it some day. She was tired of her husband. Wise married the sister of Little who commands 9th Lancers in Cape Colony. Wise has no children, in fact has only been married a year, he was on the point of leaving when the war broke out so he withdrew his papers, but he will leave immediately after the war[.]

31st Dec. The last day of the year [2 lines redacted]. We had a very wet night & I was up twice tying up my horses which broke loose. I did not know to day[sic] was Sunday until I heard Church parade. We have not fired at the Boers to day[sic] but I expect they will not be allowed to escape the New Year. Yesterday I met for the first time Larnder A.V.D, I say for the first time as we have been here 3 weeks & he never had the civility to call over. A case of glanders occurring in his charge has brought us together. He is the man who left me the

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[[1]] whole camp to look after, so I dropped a line to Crawford. [1 line redacted]. The Cavalry Bgd here is under the command of The Earl of Dundonald.[3] I knew him as Lord Cochrane 2 Life Guards, he remembered but did not condescend to shake hands. He is a first class idiot & to his care has been committed 2000 Cavalry — He makes as much use of [3 words illeg.] would do if suddenly put in his place. He is a laughing stock  — most incompetent; this is the class of man chosen as Generals in this campaign[.] I hope he may soon be relieved.

We are feeding well, actually get Bread every day[sic] instead of Biscuit . The A.S.C[4] are running this show splendidly not a hitch anywhere.

1 January  A happy new year to you [1 line redacted], such were the first words on my lips as I awoke this morning to the sound of our naval guns shelling Colenso. May the year

[[2]] prove a happy one for all of us [2 lines redacted]. I could fancy I saw you take the children to my portrait & wish me every happiness. I am sure you will never let them forget me, but I left them at such an early age that I fear I will be a mere mist in their childish recollection & the thought of this pains me beyond description [2 lines redacted].

The news today is that we remain here another three weeks, but there may be no truth in the report. As a matter of fact we know far less what is going on than you, all our information even from London is a week old & we get very little of it. There is some idea that [2 words illeg.] will be made from three distinct points in S. Africa simultaneously. We have heard of the concern & amazement of[?] in London of Buller’s defeat & the determination to carry

[[3]] on the war at all risk. This is as it shall be, in the long run we will win but our losses will be very heavy. You will remember how I predict[ed] this would be a big business.

To night[sic] we received a telegram from the Queen wishing us a Happy New Year & concluding with ‘God Bless you all’ the men cheered heartily.

We have also heard that she is sending a box of chocolate to every officer & man with a special seal or impression on it. This will be very valuable in 20 years time — I will send my box back to you to be kept in memory of the campaign.

No mail in yet, how I look forward to your letters, [3 lines redacted].

Plenty of picture papers come to the mess, all the views of the campaign are very faithful, but you cannot see the appearance of the men, some with beards, all in filthy dirty clothes, for they have slept in them ever since we left Durban[.]
[[4]] Think of that, & water at a premium. Every drop I wash in Morton has over two miles to walk for!! imagine what it is for the men. But they all work well & in camp you would think it was simply peace manoeuvres [.] Games going on for those not on outpost duty & it is only the roar of the naval guns & howling of their shells which remind us of the sterner duties we are on.

When the Record contains anything of importance send it on to me. [2 lines redacted]. The following veterinary officers were present at the Battle of Colenso on 15 Dec last viz V-Major Gladstone, F. Smith, V Captain Larnder & V. Lieut Houston. The casualties among the horses was very heavy from mauser bullets & shell fire. The Artillery suffered heavily ” [2 lines redacted] This campaign will last some time & I am already

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[[1]] 2nd January. My news to day[sic] is that the English mail arrives to morro[w]. I am like a child at Xmas time & hardly know how to wait for to morrow[sic] to come [2 lines redacted]. Our stay in this camp have one advantage for me & that is I can write regularly to you, later on when we move north again they will I fear be somewhat irregular[.]

I got a note from Holt to day[sic] which has been travelling about for nearly a month saying that had recd my travelling money from the Paymaster. Tell them please at once when they address me to put on the envelope attch 13 Hussars, that will always find me.  I told you in the early part of this letter what a rotter Dundonald was, here is an example. He organised a show[?] night attack on the Boers a night or two ago[.] Some troops were to fire on our left & then the centre would advance & to give the Boers an idea of how careless the British

[[2]] soldier was he was to appear as if smoking to simulate this he was to go along striking fuses which Dundonald provided, the Boer would then rush out & our Naval guns were to polish them off — did you ever hear anything so childish? The Boer position is 41/2 miles from us, & at that distance they were to see half a dozen fuses & mistake them for lighted pipes!! God help us, this is the class of General we have. I need not say the Boers were not drawn out & the naval gunners retired disgusted.

Our water has been jolly bad for the last day or two & now stinks of rotten eggs. fancy tubbing[sic] in this mixture! My mess bill for Dec’ has come in it is £4-10- & a donation of £10 to the mess gives me a bill of £14-10 for this month — the £10 donation has to be repeated every three months – pleasant prospect!!

This is a pretty country like Devonshire but where there is no grass there are rocks, some of the places we ride over are positively frightful

[[3]] nothing but big boulders. One strange feature is that there are no trees, there is not a place one can get under as shelter from the sun & there are in consequence no birds except vultures. The absence of trees strikes one as very remarkable.

The natives prefer a bit of skin hanging over their posteriors & a few strips of leather in front[.] The majority dress in Europe clothes viz a wide ombre[?] hat, a long feather or quill stuck bang through the ear & a coat made out of a sack with arm holes. The native servants dress in masters[?] clothes but even these have a fashion peculiar to themselves[,] a long strip of black cloth on the inside of both legs or a pair of light coloured legs with a long crescent shaped patch on the seat of the same are common objects, they all love the large hat. A soldiers tunic, gaiters no boots & bare legs are also very fashionable. They are fine men & very black.

A cavalry patrol to day[sic] bagged five

[[4]] Boers which avenges the men we recently lost.

There is a man here with a camera for taking living pictures of the troops & the fighting[.] I spoke to him this morning & he told me they were taken for the ‘Empire’ where they will be exhibited — You must try & see them. He got some views of the battle of Colenso which will be of especial interest to you. Your brother can easily find out where they are on.

The rain has left off the last two days have been very fine — Place still full of scorpions, Morton had one on his shirt yesterday but fortunately was not stung — They make a hole in the ground into this we insert a piece of grass & say “are you there” the scorpion indicates his presence by laying hold of the grass in his claws & we then dig him out. There are thousands, how we escape being stung I do not know.

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[[1]] 3 Jany. Is it not sickening the mail due at 8am to day[sic] has not yet turned up though it is now 5.30pm. [2 lines redacted]. It is now raining & the water is dripping on to my bed, I shall go down to the post office tent & make enquiries. We sent out & looted the farm of a disloyal farmer to day[sic] all his crops were brought for consumption, the men killed his pigs, the irregular cavalry closed on the grand piano, Jarvis got a spring mattress & stool, the former we magnified[?] into a beautiful brass bound double bed. [1 line redacted]. The Colonel got a Kaffir[6] dress of beads & strings in front & strings & beads with tails for behind, they were hanging up in the home & are evidently very good specimens[.]

I must try to get you one this is the first I have seen here but if we ever take Colenso we will do a good deal of looting on our journey through Natal[,] all the disloyal farmers will be looted. Crawford was here this morning for a short time my puggaree[?]  having

[[2]] bleached nearly white with the sun. I have had to leave it off as it rendered me too conspicuous & I might have found a mauser bullet through it, I was asking Crawford to get me a Khaki one at Maritzburg. I have drawn no money yet. I have sent to the branch bank of the Standard at Maritzburg & though some days ago have not recd any reply. I wrote to know whether the Standard Bank of Cape Town had notified to them that a balance of £100 existed in their books to my credit. No reply up to date & that was a fortnight ago. The fact is that everything is paralysed through the war & the country is being rapidly ruined. Men of wealth are serving in the ranks of the local regts men of substance as business men in the Transvaal are serving as conductors in the Transport.  I fancy there is very little real business going on.

As to our future movement I know nothing more than when I last wrote. I know we want more men, many more & we need Generals, however, we shall see. I wish I had a chance of doing something.

[[3]] Here is rather a good story[.] A man lost his rifle at the Battle of Colenso & a Court of Enquiry is held[,] the man gives his evidence as follows “Beg your pardon Sir! it happened that at that there last Field Day we had at Colenso” se se. This shows you what Tommy thinks, when he describes one of the most severe battles of the Century as a Field Day!! The fact is that he is a ripper & after what I saw on that day I’d make everybody take off his hat to him as he passed. I have always been very fond of him & it has not been misplaced. Don’t[sic] forget what Kipling says Its Tommy this & Tommy that etc but its “Thankyou[sic] Mr Atkins when the guns begin to play”.[7]

I have written so much to you during the last three weeks that I have nearly run out of all the paper I brought with me for the whole campaign. There seems to be great difficulty in getting paper, so some of your letters in future may be written on some funny scraps.

[5 lines redacted]

[[4]] What ever[sic] you send me through the post mind you register Tobacco or anything else, remember things are this is a country for “jumping” otherwise known as stealing. (By the bye my commandeered ponies were claimed today). Anything I sent you I will register if possible. Perhaps you sent me a plum pudding for Xmas or a Xmas Card, if so neither have come to hand yet, though of course they may be in the belated mail.

Burberry’s address (the maker of waterproof cloth or rather canvas) is 30 Haymarket, just above the C. S Stores. Of course I do not want that coat yet. [5 words redacted] It must be of stout canvas & on the dark side of Khaki — open like a plain file coat at the neck to give plenty of air but otherwise just like the pattern I brought out with me. If the campaign comes to a sudden conclusion I will not want it, my present one will last me at least six to eight months, but the warm coat I must have soon[,] mind you register it, also insure it to its full value in case of loss. My face is raw, my ears cracked, I am still pealing[sic] like a potato my skin appears to get no tougher.


[No valediction]

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

[1] Lyddite or Picric Acid. First generation of modern “highly explosive” shells used by British forces, that began use in 1896

[2] Auld Lang Syne, poem written by Robert Burns in 1788 later set to a popular tune, song often used for its connotations of farewell and ending

[3] Lieutenant General Douglas Mackinnon Baillie Hamilton Cochrane, 12th Earl of Dundonald, KCB, KCVO (29 October 1852 – 12 April 1935), styled Lord Cochrane between 1860 and 1885, was a Scottish representative peer and a British Army general.

[4] Army Services Corp

[5] Annotated as page 5.

[6] South African dialect, used as an insulting term for a Black African

[7] 1890 Poem by Rudyard Kipling. Reprinted in his 1892 Barrack-Room Ballads, a series of songs and poems surrounding the late-Victorian British Army. Tommy Atkins was a slang term used as a name for ‘common’ British Soldiers.

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5 – Letter to Mary Ann Smith from Frederick Smith, 7-9 Jan 1900

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Before Colenso

7 January 1900

[Salutation Redacted]

[[1]] I am starting this letter (on new paper) as I think it quite possible we may not be “before Colenso” much longer at least I hope not, & the moment we move from here we will be so occupied that it is likely I may not for a little time be able to write you more than a few lines instead of the wordy epistles I have sent you for the last week or two. My news is not much, yesterday morning about 2 O’clock I was awoke by the sound of heavy firing in the direction of Ladysmith it continued until 2pm & it was evident a devil of a fight was going on, about 1 O’clock came the news of an assault on the garrison with repulse of the with Boers heavy loss, the latter is still uncon-firmed[sic] at any rate we were turned out & pushed on to our old battle field to make a demonstration against Colenso which we did in our usually rotten manner, we shelled the place & the rifle pits around it & the infantry advanced but not near enough to do anything & the farce which will be known in history as the “reconnaissance of the 6′ January” & which you will be reading of in your Monday paper to-morrow[sic] as a most successful proceeding lasted until dark when we returned, we did nothing to the accompaniment of a thunderstorm & some rain. In passing over our old camping ground there was still every sign of our hasty departure of which I told you, here was a group of 7 dead horses destroyed after the battle from wounds, there was a shovel & picketing gear & even a purse (with nothing in it) a sock & other rubbish hastily dropped in our early morning retirement. Still I shall put this reconnaissance in my war services all arms being engaged & Buller present.

We have no news of any kind, the best we get comes from the Morning post of a month old [3 words redacted] which papers are in great requisition in spite of all which come out here.

[[2]] You manage to select just the very information we want & already the copies dealing with the battle of Colenso are bespoke in anticipation. I do hope you will have sent them all. We know the sensation which the defeat must have produced, but we await the papers with the greatest interest.

I received a letter from poor Lucy by last mail, it was written in very good spirits, but with what you told me I read between the lines. Still I see no reason why she should not recover.

The Record you sent was an interesting number — Our daily life does not vary much, we fight & then have a cricket or football match & some have even attempted polo such are the inconsistencies of active service. All are in good spirits & anxious to meet the enemy, we have no fear but that our luck will turn. There is a General Hart here (you may have seen his picture in the papers) at the battle of Colenso he took his Brigade in columns (viz in [1 word struck through, illeg.] masses) to the attack instead of extended order viz opened out with a good interval between the men the result was they were butchered & a man after the battle called him a murderer. For this he was made a prisoner some say he got a year for it, others that when asked what evidence he had to prove his charge said “The Whole Brigade Sir” whereupon he was let off. The fact is true but how he was dealt with I do not know.

It would seem strange to you to think of men smoking under fire, yet we all smoked on the day of the fight excepting on our return when we were two tired & down cast.

Morton is doing admirably & getting quite the old campaigner. He is able now to look after himself which he could not do at first. This evening I saw he was playing quoits, for this purpose the men use horse shoes! He tells me that his mother is allowed 5/- a week while he is away, from some local funds. This is wonderfully good. He is very pleased at it.

[[3]] I got a Xmas card to day[sic] from Dewar of Edinburgh,  very thoughtful of him. One like’s to think they are not quite forgotten outside their own family. Excuse this writing but I am in bed.

8 Jan. Gladstone rode over from Frere to day[sic] to see me, he had no news. Frere is 5 miles South of this place. I never told you how grandly these Khaki scarves worked that you made for me (I dont[sic] mean the silk ones). They are perfect & have done me great service. I have not had my Khaki washed yet & what with [1 word redacted] sweat, dirt & general filth it is rather a sight. The fact is that being waterproofed I have hesitated to wash it in case I wash the waterproof out of it. I asked Samuel Bros[2]: the question whether it would wash, but they did not deign a reply. I fear however that very shortly Mr Dobie Morton must take a turn at it.

I was disappointed last week in not seeing my Gazette with permission to wear the new decoration, but I hope it may appear next week & then up go three ribbons [1 line redacted]!!

No news from Ladysmith to day[sic] & no firing — though we are within 15 miles of the place, I am sure that you know more what is going on there than we do, it does seem absurd considering you are 6000 miles away. Here we know nothing not even what is going on on the other side of the Colony. I wish I had the running of this show. They talk of us not knowing our profession & blundering etc etc but God forgive us if we do not know more in our little fingers then they contain in the whole of their heads & bodies.

Morton is putting in his usual afternoon sleep, he has quite a good time of it[,] sleeps outside my tent under a tarpaulin on some hay in order to keep out of the tents into which they have crowded 15 men! They are very full when they hold 12 — the same size of tent never has more than 3 officers!!

This will give you an idea of the overcrowding. They have nothing but a cloak, waterproof sheet & blanket between two. They sleep in their clothes & have done so for the past month. I noticed the infantry this morning with their shirts inside out & stripped to the waist doing something to them. I dont[sic] think they were mending them

[[4]] but picking out the charming little insect known to the soldier as a ‘grey back’. Such are the pleasure & possibilities of war. Thank God we are free up to date. My face is still sore & peeling, Lanolin borrowed from Larnder has given me relief but my ears bleed at the crack when washed so you can imagine the pleasures of shaving!!

Shall I grow a beard & then send you a photo?

Flies are a plague[,] they are in myriads & the tent black with them.

I have plenty of work to do & do it, time does not hang & the day is over before I know it. This is an excellent thing, but how the time will hang when the campaign is ended. [2 lines redacted]

I hope you are having a mild winter, it is very difficult in this grilling tent to believe that with you it is cold & fog. [5 lines redacted].

I hope these pencil letters are not too difficult to read[.] I have no pen so borrow Morton’s & even then the nib dries so quickly & the ink get[s] so thick that writing is a misery.

[14 lines redacted]

I secured some stamps for Babs the other day they are English, but their value is so high that they must be difficult to obtain. I shall enclose them in this, give them to her with my best wishes & kind remembrances.

I am glad your staff is doing so well & give you no trouble, it is a great source of pleasure to me to know you are so comfortable. I can quite imagine you all turning in early, we do the same, though I fear I get no more sleep by it[.]
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[[1]] 9 Jan. It has been raining for the last 12 hours in a perfect water spout & we are washed out I have been sitting on a bag in the drie dried part of the tent reading your excellent Morning Post, my bed is a pool, but my waterproof sheets are on it. My[?] rubber boots are a grand investment & the new waterproof likewise, Every thing[sic] very miserable, we took breakfast literally in a sea of water over ones boot tops, but the sun looks like <it is> coming out soon & we will soon be dry if it does.

There is a notion that we leave here to night[sic] for Spring field[sic] to attack the Boer flank, if so there will be heavy fighting, over long before you get this [3 lines redacted].

The rain may prevent the movement as the river is very swollen & we have to get across it. If we start, with luck Ladysmith shall be relieved by Sunday next; firing was going on there this morning but not very heavy. At dinner last night a wire from Buller was read out corroborating the victory of White over the Boers we applauded loudly & drank <to> his health. If we leave to night[sic] I will have to post this before hand as we

[[2]] go right away from the line of rail & there is no knowing when letters will leave us or reach us. The thought of the latter is distressing — you cannot imagine ones anxiety for home letters.  I devour mine. I wish you could see my tent it is most amusing the floor wet & a big drain dug across it to let out the water which insisted on coming in spite of every pre–caution I in shirt sleeves & gum boots, the bed enveloped in waterproofs, my head wrapped up in this good old red pocket hand’kchief to keep off the flies which exist in millions, outside the squelching of the sodden ground as man & horse goes over it. Morton in a terai hat[3] with cloak & red face washed out of his caboose[?] during the night but still working well the mule standing with his back arched like a camel & grumbling “horrid”. Altogether a scene not calculated to inspire mirth or laughter &yet such goes on. Its[sic] a curious life is a soldiers[sic] & no doubt it is not every man who can take kindly to it. If this were peace instead

[[2]] of war one would be grumbling dreadfully, but you hear nothing. Imagine what it is for the men & officers out the whole night on outpost duty is an absolute deluge & not even a tree to shelter them!! Outposts exist all around the camp cavalry & infantry. The Cavalry outpost can always be seen at a distance owing to the horses, but the infantry can often only be seen when you are on top of them a clay coloured figure sitting or crouching behind a pile of earth or rock of which he is the exact tint reveals nothing to the eye at a distance

On his watchfulness depends our safety — think of him last night without a particle of cover while we were in a comfortable almost palatial mansion in spite of the river [4 words illeg.] Reading of these things over the breakfast table the average Briton can form no conception what it means, a medal at the end of the show is not too handsome a recompense! I have no other news to day[sic] in fact considering we are practically cut off from [3 words illeg.] I think I find a wonderful lot of news for you, but I have no inclination to write to

[[4]] *[4] anyone else [2 lines redacted] My stable companion went out on outpost duty at 3am so I have the tent to myself[,] the poor chap will have a wretched time as they do not return until 7.30pm[,] nice long hours.

The country need subscribe liberally for the men so employed on a campaign of this sort the ‘gentleman in Khaki’ is worth every penny of it.

I hope you let Holmes know how I am getting on, [2 lines redacted]. I will close this letter & post it, if we do not go away to night[sic] I will write you another letter if possible before our mail goes out on Tuesday Thursday so you may perhaps get two in one week. [8 lines redacted]

[No Valediction]

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[1] Annotated in red pencil with ‘January 1900’

[2] Samuel Brothers (St Paul’s) Ltd are traditional bespoke & military specialist tailors, established in 1830.

[3] Slouch hat associated with Gurkha regiments

[4] Annotated with ‘7th Jan 00’ ‘Colenso’ and ‘Jan 00’

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6 – Letter to Mary Ann Smith from Frederick Smith, 10 Jan 1900

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[FS/2/2/4/2/6] (1)

Preterion’s[?] Farm Camp

Tugela River E of Colenso

10 Jan 1900

[Salutation Redacted]

[[1]] I am a man of foresight or you would not have got the last letter I sent you until it was a week late. We left Cheveley Camp where we had been nearly a month & marched here yesterday. It had poured with rain all the previous day & night & when we started it was evident we were for a day of it, the carts sank into the ground up to their axles while simply being loaded so soft was the ground I knew from this we would have a rough time. We started at 8am the retracing our steps towards Frere & when I say us bear in mind not the 13th Hussars only but some 25000 to 30000 men with them 17 miles of Transport. which looked like a huge snake crawling over the hills The day was dry the heat great & after the rain very muggy we were performing one of the most difficult feats in strategy viz a flank march in the presence of the enemy, the miles of waggons not only represented tents & food for horse & men but the naval big guns which had been taken to pieces & into which as many as 40 oxen were placed. The first cart to turn over was one of ours a man being under & the cart on top of him, we expected to find him like a pancake but I am glad to say not a hair was off him. Our road was up hill & down hill in the valleys, between the hills rivulets were yet running & it was owing to these that our transport had such terrible experiences.

To describe it in detail I cannot suffice to say that a waggon would enter the drift as it is called with every available oxen on it [,] it would reach the water but the pull up the other side was impossible the mud reached up to ones knees, the waggon stuck in the most hopeless manner & nothing but emptying them of their contents was of the least use. You can fancy the condition of the various articles after they had been placed in the mud? To urge the animals along the Kaffir drivers use long whips & howl, gesticulate & whistle screams like fiends while they crack their whips like the report of a gun. I thought of that dear boy & how he would have enjoyed the sight especially when the mule waggons entered the water & stuck[,] the mules fell, some were dragged along, the waggon sank deeper & deeper, the whips cracked[.] English & Kaffir swear words were freely used, while I lay with my back to our cart

[[2]] heap surveying the scene while mules for Transport[sic] waggon lay behind waiting their turn. But this drift was childs[sic] play to the next which had a lead out of it placed at one angle of 45° a yard thick in mud & yet we got through guns & all. It is true that though we got through 24 Hours ago miles of transport at the present moment waiting to cross & the same yelling & screaming is still going on. We got to our camp at 7 pm viz after 11 hours marching with not a bite of anything to eat, on arrival we got some bans buns the mess Sergt. had just brought up from ‘Martizburg a piece of cake & bottle for mineral water Bus[?], not a very big dinner after so many hours fatigue, the cart containing the bully beef was miles behind, the one containing my tent was still at the drift. But I had some kit with me & that contained my kettle & tea[.] I made a fire while the horses were being looked after & made some tea for Morton the other servant & myself[,] no milk or sugar, but we all enjoyed it, the wood was wet so was the ground & it took some time to boil that kettle. The tent arrived just as the rain began to fall out when[sic] <went> the fire in I went to the tent[,] got under my waterproof & smoked & thought of you.

Fancy how those sailors must have worked to get these heavy guns over the drift. (Sudden orders just arrived for us to leave at once so I must close this for the present, I expect we go to Spring field[sic])

13′ January (Some say 12th Some say it is Saturday others Sunday no one knows) I left off in a hurry as we had to march off to Spring field[sic], we left in the evening & did a night march there being a faint moon. The road was excellent but dusty & if you could have seen those thousands of figures tramping along smoking but rarely speaking the wind blowing big clouds of dust in our wake which occasionally hid the entire scene from view, or through which might faintly be seen the figure of the man in front of you the same colour as the dust & equally dry.

We got to Spring field[sic] at midnight & had something to eat, our last piece of bread (for we are now on biscuit) & pitched camp with thousands of others our camp was all rock, how we found room to picket our horses is a wonder. The men preferred to sleep in the open being too tired to pitch camp. Morton & my other henchman were very tired & soon fell asleep & the next morning was quite unconscious that it had even rained. The next day we left about 8am & crossed the Little Tugela Bridge

[[3]] & performed the shortest longest march I have ever done in my service we marched 3 miles & it took nearly nine hours, rather a record, the great delay was in crossing a river full of rocks & boulders over every inch of which the transport had to travel. I got in out of temper for the final time with a face burning as if burned with a hot iron up to that time I had not had my clothes off for three days, & I may say have not washed for 24 hours as owing to the state of my face washing was an impossibility, it throbbed & burned but I rubbed it over with some stuff called Hazeline Snow[1] & to day[sic] it is much better, still I think I will grow a beard & whiskers to protect me against a future grilling remember the sun is perfectly vertical so that nothing casts a shadow if you stand upright there is no shadow on the ground ever with this intense sun.

14 Jan I fell asleep after I wrote the above yesterday being rather tired. We spent the day doing nothing & I was glad of the rest & feel to day[sic] as fit as a fiddle the only thing is one does not feel very full I want a big ration of rice to take the place of no bread & there is none. That being so I will go without, Last evening I went down & had a wash in a stream. I found a puddle quite clean the size of a wash hand basin with a minute trickle running into it, by dint of great care I did not disturb the mud at the bottom before I washed my face & head, & then I finished the balance of my body[.] While drying three women about the first I have seen around the donga & stood & looked at my manly proportions & I think admired them for they watched for a long time & then getting on the high bank above me had a prolonged peep. Two were poorly clad but the third wore a scarlet robe with hair done up like this*.[2] I don’t[sic] know how it is done but it is very curious they were jet black & typical negroes extremely repulsive with immense figures in front & by no means deficient behind.

To day[sic] I went over to Buller’s camp which is close to ours & got introduced to Scofield who is his ASC, a gunman, he is a good pal of M’Kenzies[?] (who is at De Aar) & also of Jarvis’s & a friend of Tollman’s — I explained that I wished to let him know a V.O was in camp if one was required it he was very glad as he did not know one was near. I then saw an old patient of mine a pony belonging to Lord Serrand hit in the neck with a piece of shell at Colenso.

[[4]] Gerrard though a Yeoman is on Buller’s staff, he explained that Treeves[3] the celebrated surgeon had operated on the wound at Frere after I had seen the case (it passed from under my care as we remained at Cheveley) & that it was doing well until a few days ago. Like me Treeves could find no shell. I have operated upon it again to day[sic] & I hope to cure it. I am going to stick to Buller’s staff if I can until we get to Ladysmith when of course matters[?] will be liberated. I then went around the camp & looked up all likely to require veterinary attendance & was of some use.

I then examined the Boer position from an immense hill we hold, It is a beautiful sight we occupy the hills on the south of a winding river which looks like a brilliant serpent at our feet, in the distance we can see the mirror at Ladysmith flashing signals to us below at our feet in the drift a passage across the river [1 word illeg.] by our guns & where much blood has yet to be shed[.] The Boer position is behind some hills about 2 miles off & they have dug rifle pits for a mile or two on either side. They have a very strong place & will take a lot of turning out, every day[sic] makes their position stronger they are working like niggers entrenching themselves[,] in the distance can be seen their camp. We are not ready to attack but I can see how the attach shall be made & I should like to make it, not from the front as I fear it may be done but from two flanks. It is not as strong a position as Colenso but still a very difficult one. (I am aware this writing is bad but I am sitting on the ground writing on the back of my looking glass & this does not help one much). There is only 1 squadron of the Regt here, the others are behind about 5 miles & 10 miles respectively, we are Corps Cavalry. I hope we may stick to Bullerino[?] as it may be useful in the future.

I forgot to tell you the comical side of our march here I saw on one waggon a small kid & on another a foal! The first halt the foal was lifted off the cart & its mother nursed it on the side of the road! Fancy this & we making a flank march in the presence of the enemy.

Yesterday we bought some fowls & had a feast[?] one escaped & the whole camp chased it, I roared with laughter the hen ran towards a tent & over the tent ropes tripped the men in chase & we laughed till some sides were sore. After dinner being moonlight we saw two goats near the

[FS/2/2/4/2/6] (2)

[[1]] camp, they were chased & after a ripping run secured amid applause, the mother goat gave us milk for breakfast this morning. While the fun attended to their  captive amused us for some time. Yesterday your [5 lines redacted].


Tell them how much I liked the cards & that when I see Kruger[4] I will let him have a look at them.

Your little thought on the day you wrote your letter the calamity which was befalling our force, it was well you did not for your anxiety must be very great though personally is pleases my vanity to hear it. Strange you do not mention in your letter having received one from me sent from Durban, then I wrote a few days later from Mooi River, then from Frere & the day before the battle from before Colenso[.]

I hope all these came safely to hand, they are a record of my feelings at the time & if I dont[sic] return (which I will) will be a comfort to you in the future. I am writing this in bed on the looking glass again, as I hear the post goes out in the morning viz Monday instead of Thursday as it did at Cheveley. What a good thing I write pieces of my letter every day, or this mail would have been very scrappy[?]. [5 lines redacted] very pretty place very wild but cooler than our previous camps & water more convenient. I went to bathe with Jarvis this evening & more ladies turned up & admired him, I will get him to take a photo of the scene as he has a camera.

All the natives are tracking trecking[sic] away from here on accord of the coming battle there are not many but they carried off children goods & chattels all on their heads.

I believe we open fire to morrow[sic], the sooner the better as the rifle pits ought to be destroyed & the work stopped before we attack. Now I wish I had a hand camera, I would have had some ripping views.

In your letter you make no mention of your Aunts’ lawyer, this is good, matters much must be better than I thought — Poor old Lea[5] I am sorry for him I will write as soon as I can find time, when I can harden my heart to the task I must write

[[2]] to Lucy, M’Fadyean, & Lea. [8 lines redacted].

By the bye Elandslaagte[6] is pronounced E-Lands-lag-ter. The next battle may be known as that of Potchkeifer Sprint the sprint is a shallow part of the bed of the river & it is said to be the only part where we can cross. Right across the front of it on the Lady Smith[sic] road is a rifle trench & many a man will not reach as far as that on the Road to Ladysmith. Buller has written an inspiring order saying we are going to relieve our comrades in Ladysmith & warning all against the use of the white flag by the Boers, we are to pay no attention to it unless they lay down their arms & hold up their hands nor are we to notice bugle sounds they have copied ours and sound ‘cease fire’ when it suits them. At this moment my tent companion Wise has been aroused from his slumbers to turn out on out-post duty 4 miles off to be there by dawn & watch for Boers digging pits with orders to fire on them. He knows no more of the country than I do & has to find his way there by night fortunately he has the moon until 3am but after that he will have to blunder along as best he can. We now have maps of the country, but will you believe it that so little did the authorities suspect trouble south of Ladysmith that the country was never surveyed from a military standpoint & all the maps south of Ladysmith are locked up there!!

I am still looking anxiously for my decoration Gazette it cannot now be far off — the decoration itself may not arrive for a year, but no matter what happens mind you apply to the War Office for them if they do not turn up in good season as my son must have them [3 lines redacted].

When I return home I should be so used to the life of a gipsy that I will have to live in a tent in the back garden

[[3]] sleep on the ground & never know the use of sheets or pillows. Morton continues to do well, his backbone is improving, he marches on foot every day & though he looks tired at the end, he sticks to his work when he gets in & my other servant is a fraud & practicably useless.

The candle is going out. I will finish this epistle in the morning [2 lines redacted].

15 January. A month ago since the battle & we are now preparing for another. This letter must go this morning if I could delay it a day or two I might be able to give you an account of our second battle, for I rather think matters will open to day[sic] in which case one should be at Ladysmith before the end of the week.

Remember me to all enquiring friends my [6 lines redacted] you think fit, in fact as I have said before I was should like the letter’s kept as a record of the campaign, as I keep no diary. [4 lines redacted].

Am very glad Hayleriggs[?] asked them. Remember me to them I hope they [1 word illeg.] pleasant neighbours.

[17 lines redacted]

[[4]] I am amazed to think I cannot fill up this page for you but the letter must go to the post.

No scorpions in this camp thank goodness[.]

[No Valediction]  

(Please note that work on this transcript is ongoing. Users are advised to study the electronic images of this document where possible – http://www.rcvsve

[1]  Skin Cream created by Burroughs Wellcome & Co. Ltd, a pharmaceutical company established in London in 1880

[2] Illustration of  a Female head in side profile.

[3] Sir Frederick Treves, 1st Baronet, GCVO, CH, CB (15 February 1853 – 7 December 1923) was a prominent British surgeon of the Victorian and Edwardian eras

[4] Paul Kruger (1825-1904), President of the South African Republic 1883-1900

[5] Arthur Sheridan Lea (1853-1915), physiologist

[6] Battle of Elandslaagate

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