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

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[FS/2/2/4/2/5] (1)


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[.]
[FS/2/2/4/2/5] (2)

[[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]

(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 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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