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] 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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