12 – Letter to Mary Ann Smith from Frederick Smith,18 Mar 1900

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Norvals Pont

Orange River. SA

18 March 1900


[Salutation Redacted]

[[1]] I am in a fit lest the letter I posted to you yesterday is late for the mail, I quite forgot that the section of this line to Nauport[2] had been damaged by the enemy & that progress is slow in consequence & as you know I brought my Craddock letter with me to post here. I do hope it was in time for you, as I shall like to say I never missed a mail all the time I was away.

Well, I left Craddock the night before last, & though so late in life I really seem to make friends, the fellows appeared to be very sorry at my leaving & the Colonel particularly so as he & I have been on most friendly terms[,] a most cordial farewell at the station occurred, & that night I slept on the floor at Naaupoort station. At 5 am I got into the guards van of a luggage train & after passing Arundel, Reusberg[?] all scenes

[[2]] of recent fighting I got to Colesberg which I intended for my destination, but there were no troops there so I went on to Norvals Pont[sic] where I knew a big force existed. I did not get here until 3 in the afternoon as at most places on the line not more than 5 miles an hour could be done & sometimes we waited for two hours, every bridge & culvert had been blown up, the rails had been bodily torn away & cast on one side, one big iron bridge was lying in the dry bed of the river blown up with dynamite. We crossed in a very dodgy manner. Here is the bridge with the centre spar gone[3] [illustration] How would you have got over. Well they ran the line over the dry bed of the river & up again on the other side to the level of the bridge, but it took two engines to get us up the steep bank. On arrival here I looked out a place to bed down for the night, but the whole place was indescribably filthy the Boers had used the houses to stable their horses in

[[3]] Dung inches in thickness existed on the floors, the whole of the walls were scribbled over with Dutch & English filth, the platform was inches thick in manure & in this mess onions & indian[sic] corn were growing. The whole place was a vast latrine & the filth beyond description. An English store (or shop) had been looted & the shelves & fittings bodily pulled from the wall a billiard table in a bar near the station had the whole of the cloth torn off the rubber cushions torn away & the place full of filth manure & indian[sic] corn. The houses used by the railway people were in the same shocking condition even the kitchen stoves pulled out. The ground was littered with straw[,] filth, sheep skin & entrails, no one can picture the state the place was in. We are now disinfecting & cleaning out the rooms & I am writing this in one of them at present. The filth brings a plague of flies there are myriads where I write this, they get in ones food meat drink everything flies.

There is a beautiful iron bridge over the Orange River

[[4]] At Norvals Pont[sic], they have blown out the two centre spars & we have a railway corps busy day & night repairing it temporarily. It seems such a sin to see two immense spars of this bridge lying in the river, but we have got a pontoon over it & have our troops now in the Free State I crossed by the pontoon this morning it is just under 400 yards long & set foot in the enemy’s territory & then returned.

But the pontoon is 4 miles from here & having no horse I walked the distance in a sun none too cool. I saw Clements the G.O.C this force & had a five minute chat with him. He is a very young man & was originally in the 24th Regt & a friend of Miss Wilkinsons [sic] if I rightly remember.

I have picked up here with a Mr. Gotto who is reporting for the Daily News, he met with an accident on the railway last night & I picked him up & looked after him until a doctor came. He seems a very wise man a gentleman, has lots of good things with him which I do not take, but I have had two cigars

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[[1]] [Beginning of page missing] call on her in order to get to known she calls on him & settles the matter. He told me old Admiral Keppel many years ago was bringing home in his ship Governor of Cape Colony [3 lines redacted]
[[2]] [Beginning of page missing] Morton is busy at present cooking my dinner it is not very elaborate only bread meat put into water & steamed down with neither potatoes onions or anything else, but it is <an> excellent diet for a hungry man. He is doing very well but I think prefers the comforts of Craddock to the flies of Norvals Pont[sic].

[[3]] The Free State appears to have had enough of fighting yesterday lots of them gave up their arms & ammunitions from the different farms close by. I think Kruger will fight, but if he does not the game is up.

By the bye it may be interest you to know the Dutch pronounce his name as if it were spelt “Kreer” not as we do. A train yesterday came in from Bloemfontein with Carew[4] & some of his Guardsmen. We hold the country up to that point & captured at Bloemfontein 900 tons of coal & 30 Railway Engines an excellent haul.

There is a rumour to day[sic] that Brabant[5] at Aliwal North about 80 miles to our right has met with a reverse, if this is true there shall be fighting somewhere between here & there & we ought to box them up. I told Clements I wanted to see him fight if it came off, but of course I cannot remain here long doing nothing.
My present idea is to get up to Bloemfontein in three or four days time & get back again.

[[4]] I hope it will come off — good way of seeing the country. I wish you could see this room my belt, bag, valise & Morton’s bundle all flies. on the wall my clock sword revolver & water bottle in the corner his Carbine & ammunition. I sit on a form renewal for the school, my writing table being a three legged iron wash bowl stand with a piece of board on it. He sits outside stoking the fire & making my hash truly a gipsy life.

Did I tell you that Wise of the 13th told me when I was with them that he had written to his wife to have a rockery made in the back garden as the only place he could possibly sleep on in the future! Well I feel rather like this myself comfort demoralizes one!

We had a 9lb Boer gun here captured from them — it is going to Cape Town, there will be a great demonstration I expect

19th March. Last night I spent with my correspondent of the Daily News friend his name is Gotto, he is a man

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[[1]] of great culture & can discuss on any subject. He is also an artist, I hope I may see his pictures. He tells me he is a great friend of Whistler’s & other big art men & entertained me for hours with stories of them & other celebrities. He has a pistol given him as a parting present from Cyril Maude the actor. Among other things he possesses a small yacht & is quite a man of the world. I breakfasted with him this morning on steak & onions he did me well in fact if I chose I could go there to every meal. In his cart this morning I drove out to the camp & appreciated the change from yesterdays walk very much. I have wired to find out whether I should go out to Bloemfontein. I hope they say yes. I shall then be content to return to Craddock for a week or so. As to news I have none to day[sic] excepting that our meat is very tough & our bread mouldy.  We tried to buy some rice but they had none, then sago was asked for but they were not having any so that our diet of Morton’s stew of very tough & tasteless draught ox with some jam will form our dinners plus some soup tablets.

[[2]] I picked up a Boer letter in their camp this morning & will have it translated in case it contains any useful information.

24 March. Here I am again at Craddock the evening of the last day I wrote you I received a wire directing me not to cross the Orange River but to inspect Burghersdorp[sic]. So I packed up & on the 20th placed myself at Norval’s Pont[sic]  station for a train timed to leave at 11am. It left at 4pm during which time we had nothing to eat & moreover could get nothing from the supply depot, they had neither bread nor biscuit a lively prospect! However at 4 the train started & Gotto not feeling well returned with me as far as Colesberg. We got to the latter place when it was dark & I determined to feed. The train waited about 2 hours, but no one knows why, & in the interval Morton managed to get a loaf of bread. I then proceeded to my repast in the coal truck where he was lying with my kit & sitting on the floor of this I managed by the pale light of a bad moon & a flickering candle to

[[3]] to pick out the meat from the fat in a tin of bully, get some cocoa from the Engine & wind up with marmalade Excellent repast. The train moved on later & we got landed in Naaupoort [Noupoort] at 12 midnight. [Continuation of page missing]

[[4]] yelled with delight when our wounded were brought into Colesberg. The effect was electrical between them they arranged to burn & scarify her. They fervently prayed she might lose her train at N’poort (for that meant she would have to

[Continuation of page missing]

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[[1]] It was made at Norval’s Pont[sic] waiting for the train & towards the end was interrupted by some-one[sic] turning up. However you may care for it & I send it by this mail. I think it a good likeness. You can imagine how well he sketches when I tell you this was done in a few minutes & not a simple erasure was made.

To resume my narrative — [1 word struck through, illeg.] Naaupoort [Noupoort]  being reached at midnight & my train not leaving until 8 am next morning & with no place to sleep I rolled my valise open on the platform & got inside. There was a very heavy dew but I kept dry & slept well excepting when men in the dark fell over my feet, for other trains conveying troops & stores were pouring in all night & there was very little standing let alone sleeping room on the platform. It was bitterly cold so cold Morton could not sleep & had to walk up & down all night. In due course (6 hours late) the train arrived which was to take me to Burghersdorp[sic]. This is the centre of Dutch disaffection & passes through

[[2]] many miles of country belonging to us from which the Boers have only just cleared out. The railway bore evidence of their presence every bridge, every culvert was destroyed, they are now temporarily repaired & traffic is slowly carried on. It is most interesting to see how they temporarily build up the piles of a bridge by means of sleepers or rails arranged on one another in a square & piled up to the required height. In this way the train is carried over. [6] [Illustration]

The iron girders of all the bridges are torn into fantastic shapes like so much paper & lying all over the place. It is a shameful waste of property. Well I travelled the whole of this day the (21st March) & in the evening arrived at Stormberg the scene of Gatacre’s disaster –from here I went by train to Burgersdorp where I arrived at 7pm. The whole of this place was up to a day or two ago occupied by Boers. In contrast to Norval’s Pont[sic] there was not the slightest destruction of property

[[3]] effected the station was clear & altho[sic] the telegraph wires were cut there was no damage of importance

I slept in the station that night Morton not far off how he snored! but[sic] then he always does.

The reason why Burgehersdorp[sic] station was not destroyed was because the whole place is Dutch & full of Boer sympathisers. In fact not a telegraph form or label in English could be got in this place. The Free State had taken the place over & had left behind them all Free State material. I send you with my photo one of their labels & telegraph forms a very simple bit of loot. At 3am on the 22nd we proceeded to Bethulie on the Banks of the Orange River, only a Guards van was obtainable & several of us were packed in there with the mails. We got to Bethulie Camp just south of the river by 9am progress very slow wit owing to the bridges being all blown up, even the signal posts had been shot at part of their arms being cut off which the lamps & coloured glasses were smashed by bullets[.]
[[4]] At Bethulie Camp there is no station I tumbled not in the direction of the tents & soon found a man who directed me to the Transport offices, here I found [word redacted] A.V.O who gave me some breakfast which I greatly appreciated & after I had done my work I went & saw Bethulie Railway Bridge which the Boers had just destroyed. It is a sad sight, a fine iron bridge with five of its spars blown out some lying in the water others drooping like a faded flower. Two miles away is the iron waggon[sic] bridge connected Cape Colony with the Free State, they tried to blow this up but failed. [1 word redacted] in the course of conversation dwelt so incessantly on the hard work that he had performed that I was compelled to remind him that I had heard differently of him at Cape Town where he was in bad odour, for not putting his shoulder to the wheel & ‘bucking’ up a bit. I fear I gave him rather a shock, but I dont’[sic] suppose it will do him any good. [Words redacted]

[No Valediction]

(Please note that work on this transcript is ongoing. Users are advised to study the electronic images of this document where possible. (https://vethistory.rcvsknowledge.org//archive-collection/fs-working-papers/)

[1] Annotated by Smith with ‘Keep but re read’

[2] Noupoort, South Africa

[3] Illustration by Smith of broken bridge.

[4] Lieutenant-General Sir Reginald Pole-Carew, KCB, CVO (1849 –1924) was a British Army officer who became General Officer Commanding 8th Division.

[5] Major-General Sir Edward Brabant, commanding the Colonial Division

[6] Illustration by Smith of the railway repair technique

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