These letters were written by Smith to his wife, Mary Ann, during the early days of his service in South Africa during the Second Anglo-Boer War. Smith describes his daily life, including details of his living conditions, diet, kit, the manouevres of the British forces, and the loss of human life he witnesses. Key events of the War are described first hand, including the Battle of Colenso, the Battle of Spion Kop, the Battle of Vaal Krantz and the Battle of Johannesburg. Later letters are written whilst Smith is stationed in Kroonstad, the site of British concentration camps to accommodate Boer women and children. Smith describes the destruction of farms and home wrought by both British and Boer forces, and is critical of the decisions made by Generals and leaders of both sides of the conflict.

These letters appear to have been kept as they cover the period of time before Smith started his official war diary. In the letters, Smith requests that Mary Ann keep the letters as historical record. At some point, either Smith or his wife has redacted sections of the text with black ink. It is assumed that these sections included discussion of personal matters, or comment that Smith did not want read after the fact. There are also whole pages, and whole letters missing.

Content warning: A number of items in this archive contain derogatory language and/or imagery regarding ethnicity and other characteristics, which has been preserved in the transcript of the item. A warning is present on the relevant pages. Some content is highly offensive, but it is preserved in this archive for the purposes of historical study and reflection.

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

Content warning:

Please note, this archive item contains racist language and/or imagery, as written by the document’s author. This has also been preserved in the transcript of the item. Some content is highly offensive, but it is preserved here for the purposes of historical study and reflection.

Terms of Use
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.

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

‘At Sea Off Natal’

‘4 Dec 1899’

[Salutation Redacted]

My last letter to you was sent ashore at Cape Town to be posted. You would have judged from the hurried concluding lines that our change of destination was unexpected, we got orders to go to Durban which is a sea journey of about 1000 miles & we reach there to morrow[sic] morning. All being well this should be our last day on board ship & I am very glad of it. I take it we are intended for the relief of Ladysmith & we know a big battle is impending which will be fought & over long before you get this. For all we know it may be over before our arrival which would be crushing luck. Of our future movements we know we nothing, not even of our immediate ones, but before I close this

[[2]] letter to morrow[sic] you will know the latter & after that the information from me will be I fear most irregular. I need hardly say I have not had a letter from you yet, so you can imagine how I am looking forward to one. I have been very careful on the voyaje [sic] [5 lines Redacted] I sent you a cablegram by a man I do not know but I hope it reached you safely. I calculated it would be at the Croft on Sunday morning, it left the ship 5p.m. Saturday. I could imagine the excitement of getting news from me is in such a short time [.] What would I give to have news from you, [3 Lines Redacted]
[[3]] To day [sic] we are busy arranging our kits 30lbs for me means the valise[?] without mattress & 1 small waterproof sheet instead of my big one 1 blanket  1 shirt 1 drawers, 1 jacket, 1pair [?] boots [1 word illeg.]. not a very extensive wardrobe[.] oh I forgot towel & soap. (While I am writing this there is a constant jabber going on behind me, about what fellows are taking with them & leaving behind — it is a perfect Babel & I cannot collect my thoughts) I think my plan is to leave everything behind at Natal Durban & then send for them as I require them, but I shall not see much of it until the campaign is over. It would astound you to see the kit carried by some men, beds with brass rods, mosquito curtains [,] long arm chairs Etnas [?], Coffee urns and Lord knows what. I fear my kit is very meagre in comparison, but it is carried much very easily & that is more than can be said for theirs. The talking has become so incessant, some men sitting down & talking to one even when I am writing that I must give this letter up as hopeless for the present [.]

I gave it up &have just tackled it again after dinner [9 lines redacted]

I have put my kit together [.] I cannot take my writing case or your [1 word redacted] F.S. ink bottle & lots of other things besides. It will come to 40lbs weight which is more than we are entitled to so I will probably have to throw my Kettle away.

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

[[1]] We have had a great afternoon getting ready for to morrow[sic], you cannot imagine the kits some fellows have, they are incredible enough to stock a shop. In order to get near my weight I have had to throw out my mattrass[sic] (I cannot spell it) pillow, waterproof sheet, Canteen no bag, but I have taken my rubber boots & waterproof. I have not taken my Khaki serje[sic] (I have now put it in) but will leave behind me a bag containing shirt, socks, pair[?] boots, Khaki serje[sic].

The band at special request has had to play the Belle of New York again & just outside my Cabin the yellow hearts[?] of the Regt are dancing up & down the deck over ones kit & rotting[?] generally,  I can remember being once like them, but I suppose it is dispensation of  Providence that one gets quieter as they get older.

On the whole we have had a good

[[2]] passage, though for you she would have rolled too much, there is a big sea on now but it is behind us so it rather helps us on & we do not feel it. I shall be glad to land to get the anxiety of these horses[?] off my mind. I find we have done much better in the way of horses than some other Regts [.] The Royals lost 38, the 10th about 30 & other Regts in proportion. our loss to date is 21troop horses & 1 charjer[sic].

As soon as I land I must look for a horse. I hope I may not have much trouble in this respect — I presume the cheque of the Standard Bank of S.Africa can be negotiated in Cape To[wn] Natal.

I have not mentioned money affairs to you as I know you are provided for in this respect & I am sure you will be careful [2 lines redacted]
[[3]] [3 lines redacted]. It will all be very heavy but with your assistance it will all be met. I am writing [to] the Calcutta Fund to say I am here so there will be an extra charge for this for war risks. I have just written [16 lines redacted]

Your sole letter, the one I got at Liverpool before leaving [words redacted]. I hardly expect to get another for some time [words redacted], but I will write to you (in pencil) at any & every opportunity.

[FS/2/2/4/2/1] (3)

[[1]] You ought soon to be making Enquiries about that house in St Johns’ Park so as to secure the refusal. In fact go to Dyer & Hilton at once & see them about it but do not commit your-self until you see how matters go but secure the refusal, this is important to you. We know very little at present of the war excepting that the Guards got a hammering at the Modder River.

I have said all along that the campaign would be a big business & not a walk over as some thought. I feel for you in your anxiety, but remember you are not the only one so placed, there is a comfort in that, there are hundreds of wives & mothers situated as you are [word redacted]. You must be proud that England is so anxious for us all. It is I who am anxious [2 lines redacted]
[[2]] 5 Dec. We are in Durban but not yet landed we disembark this evening afternoon & go by rail to Maritzburg & from there it is said to Escourt. Buller[1] is at Maritz’bg[sic] & the big fight comes off in 10 days time. The result of it you will know long before this letter reaches you [,] one cannot forecast events [.]

You will have the satisfaction of knowing that Buller will be in command, for we hear rumours of a great demoralization among the Generals or at any rate some of them. They do not appear to know their own minds.

You will have heard of the loss of the Ismore[2] with the 10th Hussars on board. Very bad luck. a battery of RA also appears to be on board. Altogether we do not appear to have had much luck up to date, but our luck will turn. We were glad to hear the fight at Modder River was more of a British success than some of the other victories. All this is fresh news to us though very stale to you I fear.

[[3]] The fighting in Natal has not been conspicuous for its success, but we can last longer than the Dutchman. In my next I will give you an account of my journey up to Pietermaritzbourg[sic] & the preperations for our advance. You will it best to work out all the movements on the map.

We are at present lying in Durban outside the harbour [.] we cannot enter until high tide at 3pm[.] the sea here is always rough, we rolled most uncomfortably this morning after dropping anchor & fancy “fiddles”[?] being on the table of a ship at anchor? I will leave the remainder of this paper to close up with after reaching the shore. By the bye Javis knows the Mackenzies well & has often stayed with them. Mrs is much older than him & was the daughter of a big furniture man, the Maple of some years ago he did tell me the name but I have forgotten it


We are now in & disembarking. Horses go off to night[sic] while we all leave by train to morrow[sic] for Mooi River to a place called Weston 50 miles only from Ladysmith & from here Buller will advance & a battle will take place between Weston & Ladysmith for the relief of the latter place. I shall therefore be right up at the front this time. One cannot predict the result of the fight or whether I shall come out of it safely, but [13 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. (

[1] General Sir Redvers Henry Buller (1839-1908), Commander-in-Chief of British forces in South Africa during the early months of the Second Boer War and subsequently commanded the army in Natal until his return to England in November 1900

[2] S.S. Ismore a British ship

2 – Letter to Mary Ann Smith from Frederick Smith, 18 Dec 1899

Terms of Use
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.

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


Cheveley Camp Close to & South of Colenso

18 Dec. – 1899

[Salutation Redacted]

[[1]] The events leading up to the Battle of Colenso must form the subject of a future letter, in this I will give you an account of the Battle itself which occurred on Friday 16th Dec —

We arrived at Cheveley early the previous day from Frere, as we got in to camp the

Bombarding of the Enemy’s Earth works was going on & lasted all day. I wrote to you that night

[[2]] as soon as I learned that it was decided to fight next day. We bivouacked that night sleeping ready dressed & moved off at 3am. [2 lines redacted] Knew nothing of what was in store for us. I handed all my money over to Morton & wished him good bye[sic] for he was remaining with the baggage. On we went with the first early streak of light, getting off as far as possible to the right under the cover of a hill so as to avoid drawing the enemy’s fire. The arrangement of the ground was simple[,] we were on a long exposed plain[sic], they were in

[[3]] rifle pits backed up by heavy batteries in hills opposite to us between the two positions was the River Tugela, the bridge over which was the object of the attack.

Now everyone knew that a direct attack of the enemy’s front was a hopeless business owing to the extraordinary strength of their position & that the only attack which could succeed would be one from the flank. We were placed opposite to the enemy’s left flank they holding a big hill full of rifle pits & the Kopje[2] (pronounced Koppies) or ditches surrounding it. The general idea of the battle you will have learned from the papers[.] I will tell you what occurred in our

[[4]] part of the Field & any incidents of importance or noteworthy facts in connection with the general engagement.

We had stolen into our position just as the sun was rising, it was a glorious sun rise & I turned to our Adjutant & remarked the words of Napoleon “it is the sun of Austerlitz” but unfortunately it was not, but of that hereafter. Our force consisted of the Cavalry Bgd. under the Earl of Dundonald consisting probably of 1200 horses of which the 13th were their only regulars as we had with us one battery RA. & an immense hill full of the enemy stood to our front towards which we advanced.

The name of the hill is Hlambalma[?].

Taking advantage of a dip in the ground the whole Bgd halted & the order was given to load carbines & ten rounds were put

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

[[1]] put in & revolvers also loaded.  A few words of advice were given to the men about shooting steadily & only using the point of the sword & we advanced up the rise in the ground into position on the ridge[.] at[sic] that moment the first gun was fired & I looked at my watch it was 5.30 am & I thought of you & the children being fast asleep (2.30am) & unconscious of the game about to be pladed played.

The guns belonging to us soon came into action & in a few minutes the Artillery duel began in earnest we pounded the earth works of the hill in front of us with shell after shell, they all burst beautifully heavy firing against our centre was

[[2]] going on the guns bounding vomiting forth an incessant shower of shell the latter making a peculiar shreak[sic] as they appeared of the most alarming character, then they fall, up goes the earth to the height of 10 feet or more, & bang goes the shell dealing death all around as pieces of iron a pound or two in weight are hurled through the air. One shell exploded quite close to where a group of us were standing & a fragment the size of a racquet ball came buzzing along the ground in a straight line for me, but its velocity had been destroyed. I should have picked it up & sent it home to you but was frightened that another shell would fall at the same place.

[[3]] So with commendable discretion got under cover & lost my shell. Where we were fighting it was all dismounted[?] rifle fire, the bullets came in like hail on our men who all belonged to a local volunteer corps. The 13th being kept under the cover of a hill. This local corps lost 25 men killed in a very short time & I do not know how many wounded. They were about 400 yards in front of us & yet so accurate was the Boer fire that none of their bullets intended for them reached us. One came over with a peculiar whistle just over our heads but immediately in front of us death & destruction was being most liberally dealt out. At last a battery was sent for & the hill shelled[.] This had very little effect on the fire & we had to retire gradually after being in this position for about 3 or 4 hours!

Now the fact that we lost no men gave

[[4]] considerable confidence & one exposed themselves unnecessarily [4 lines redacted]. As a matter of fact the hill & ground in front of us was positively alive with Boers & they could have shot any of us over & over again who stood up to examine the position. I declared there was not a Boer on the hill, I could not see one through my glass (borrowed) no more could anyone else but they were there[,] as the men below us found to their cost, but so perfectly concealed that nothing whatever could be seen of them not even a hat or rifle and as smoke-less powder was used it was impossible to locate a single spot from which their fire proceeded.

While all this was going on the centre & left of our force advanced under fire of our artillery then commenced

[FS/2/2/4/2/2] (3)

[[1]] musketing[?] fire over our devoted artillery & infantry. It was one incessant rattle & roar, above all could be heard the pounding of the big machine guns used by the enemy as shell after shell & a hail of bullets fell among the infantry. In spite of it all you might have thought the men were on parade so steadily & without excitement did they advance. A shell would fall in a battery, (a sickening sight) down would go the gun team & men, loose horses would trot away mangled, the horses were cut loose & the guns taken on. Oh that magnificent man Tommy Atkins[3], I could have taken off my helmet to him, he never budged

[[2]] while passing through this hell fire but followed his officers & went where he was told. He is a splendid magnificent fellow, he was well hammered that day but I never heard one complaint.

Hunt’s division of Artillery got too far forward & were all shot down men & horses & the guns captured — From my hill I could see all this in the valley bellow & saw gun teams galloping about followed by shell the fall of horses & men on its explosion & the subsequent retirement

[[3]] Fellows volunteered to recover the guns but were nearly all shot[,] one man took  17 horses men with him to drag them back he returned with seven. Young Roberts volunteered for the task & got six bullets in him, he was buried close to where I am writing, this last night[.]

The battle began at 5.30 by about 2.30 the firing discontinued[?] & we all returned crest fallen to hear the sad news of the loss of the guns & of the devoted men. Hunt was badly shot & taken prisoner & dozens were killed[.]

There were lots of plucky acts & one man Buller on his own account gave the V.C before he died. I saw some very curious wounds & the Ambulance

[[4]] was a sight no man complained many smoked & were utterly indifferent.

We came back & on the road got some water at the station[,] what a sight! Oh if some painter had only been there to copy the expressions on the men’s faces. It was a fearfully hot day & no water what we got at the station had to be brought by rail we swarmed around the tanks like flies, but there was no shoving or pushing all willing to take our turn while thirst was printed on the face of men & horses. The men’s faces shewed no sign of defeat all were as unconcerned as if it were the end of a field day instead of a severe battle. Oh he’s a grand man!! Our camp was only a mile or two from the battlefield

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

[[1]] & you can imagine the eagerness with which the whole question was discussed & how for the first time we learned of our heavy losses & what had occurred in other parts of the field. Bear in mind the field of battle was nearly 10 miles in length this will give you a notion of the difficulty of describing the fight. On the extreme left of our force (you will remember we were on the extreme right) the infantry tried to cross the river. The ford was filled with barbed wire, crow’s feet (which are large three legged spikes) & every form of fiendish ingenuity for rendering a passage difficult.

[[2]] here several men were lost by drowning & the others driven back or killed by rifle fire. However we got back having been repulsed & the next morning an armistice until midnight was pro-claimed[sic] to enable the dead & wounded to be collected in the mean time the Boers had removed our ten guns from the Field. During the Armistice I rode towards the fated artillery field to have a nearer look at it accompanied by Jarvis. When about a mile or so beyond our outposts I spied three Boers mounted carrying a white flag.

[[3]] I said to Jarvis we must face this by riding straight up, we have no right here spying about but we can say we have been looking for wounded fortunately we had a name of a man to enquire after. We approached the group three little men riding ponies one with a stick & white handkerchief tied on it. I at once saluted the group & wished them good day which was replied to in perfect English & perfect accent.

The leader of the pack was a Transvaller the two other belonged to the Free State, they were dressed in ordinary civilian clothes & wore a rosette in the hat or button hole. I tacked myself on to the Transvaal Boer who turned out to be the Secretary of General

[[4] Botha commandynding the Boer army at Colenso his name was Steniberg & was most civil & interesting. He had been living in Holland & leaving his wife & children there[,] had come back to the Transval[sic] for the war. In Holland he was Secretary to Reitz or whatever his name is the European representation of the Transval[sic] State. He was most enthusiastic over Kruger[,] described him as a grand old man & that in spite of his years he would rule the Transval[sic] for another 10 years at least.

I avoided discussing any subject which might sound unpleasant, but I sometimes saw a puzzled look pass over his face at some of my questions at which I remarked at once that I should not feel offended if he were unable to give any answer to my question.

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

[[1]] I ought to have told you that after we met he said he had a letter for Gen’ Buller from Gen’ Botha & I offered to escort him to our outpost fearing all the time that I should get snuff[?] for being where I was. It was on our way that our long conversation took place[,] we discussed Transval[sic] politics, the wide and narrow minded Boer, the British soldier, Kruger, Jameson Rail. With regard to the latter I assured him that I did not think one person in England could be found to support it[,] that it was unjustifiable & we severely condemned it. Respecting the British Soldiers I pointed as we approached our outpost to the ‘man in brown’ & said there is

[[2]] the man you affect to despise, are you satisfied that he is no coward? They all three at once interposed most energetically protesting that Tommy A was a brave man & that they had never held any other view. I drew their attention to the way he had advanced under terrific fire the previous day as quietly as on parade[,] they acknowledged it was very fine. I paid a compliment to the Boer Army, he returned it by paying a compliment to our Artillery fire, we paid a compliment to the Boer Rifle fire, Steinberg’s only reply to that was [“]Oh! We always shoot straight![“]

[[3]] He had a pipe of my tobacco & I was quite sorry to leave him as we reached our outpost. Jarvis & I cordially shook them by the hand, & I could see our men looking on in the most curious & intended manner, also the fellows from the naval Brigade Battery which overlooked where we were standing. Handing them over to the officer on outpost duty we left, but Jarvis secured a snap shot of the group & I have promised him the most severe penalties if he does not print and send me one, it will be an interesting feature in the campaign the delivery of Botha’s letter to Buller after the latter’s defeat!! On return to camp the ominous news of a retrograde

[[4]] movement met me. We had ascertained during the day that the Boers had moved two guns to higher hills so as to shell our camp, Buller determined to move the camp back 4 miles & this could not be done until after 12 o’clock we struck camp at 10pm & slept on the ground until 2[.] I got no sleep whatever gradually the whole force with its 8 miles of Transport guns, carts, bullock & mule wagons were placed in motion we were favoured by a lovely moon up to 2am when suddenly a complete eclipse of the moon occurred & we stumbled on in the dark over stones, into holes took the wrong way some went too far others not far enough it was orderly chaos clothed in a dust as dense as a Novbr. fog & in this way we reached our present camp which is 4 miles beyond the one

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

[[1]] for which we fought the battle of Colenso. Now what are we going to do here is the question, some say Buller has gone back to the Cape & will attack them through the old Colony everyone agrees that the Boer position is impregnable to Frontal attack but it might be turned this morning however & this is the 19 Dec. a fellow of the naval Bgd tells us Buller is going to have another shot at them & I think it must be so for this fellow went  up to the Naval Batteries, at the top of our camp which very shortly afterwards opened fire on the Boers & has been firing

[[2]] ever since. I expect he will pound them for a week & then attack. In the early morning we can hear the guns at Ladysmith firing[.] They must have some very heavy guns there to hear the report 20 miles away.

The firing was going on this morning but our own firing at the present moment is so heavy that I cannot tell whether it is still going on.

The weather is hot thirst intense, water bad & scarce — we send two miles for it. Last night we had a sharp thunderstorm & such lightening, Crums!![?] you[sic] would have enjoyed it

[[3]] Evening a great change since the morning the weather is cloudy & very cold[.] They say the rains which are very late are approaching.

Last night brought your [1 word redacted] letter of the 17 Novbr the final I have had from you since leaving Liverpool [4 words redacted]. There was also one you sent to Aldershot with enclosing one from old Clery[?]. He no doubt is out here by this time [.]

This afternoon I was going out some distance from camp to see an ox opened & who should I meet but a solitary horseman who turned out to be Bramhill! Isn’t it strange how one meets[.] I reminded him the order was Cairo, Charlton & Cheveley[.] He desired to be remembered & enquired kindly after you.

[[4]] I know his camp now & will look him up — [6 lines redacted]

I am sorry this letter is in pencil[,] I have written it on my pocket book resting on my knee & it has taken some time but I hope you will keep it as the record of a big though unsuccessful battle. God knows how the campaign will turn out. It looks to me as though Lady smith[sic] would fall, this would be a shocking catastrophe & will cost us South Africa.

This place is very dusty we are like niggers, in addition my face is like raw beef from the sun, lips

[FS/2/2/4/2/2] (7)

[[1]] Cracked, Khaki filthy & altogether very unlike the man you know. I have been on the hard ground for days, but there are so many scorpions & centipedes here that I have borrowed a stretcher & placed them on my medicine chests for to night[sic]. This may save a sting.

I have lost weight – the food is fair but I like more bulk. They have asked me to pay £10 contribution to the mess but I have put it off, it only represents two months keep & this is too high for a non drinker, it is the liquor which is so expensive & I dont[sic] see why I should pay for other fellows[.] However we shall see – I had an egg this morning it cost fourpence[sic]!!

[[2]] The country is all hills & rocks grass but no trees, no place where an atom of shade can be obtained [,] no water but the climate is good & the place will be very nice when the war is over. The people are all unfriendly to us, their sympathies are purely Boer. They wont[sic] sell us bread or give us water if they can help it.

I feel I have rather inflicted you with a long letter, but I have placed on record for our own perusal in the future a very important period in my life & that of the history of the country.

Do you remember a young fellow coming home from Egypt with me who I got into

[[3]] the service Bouston[?] by name. Well he is here with the RA & has done very well, he brought back the day after the battle several dead R A officers & has made himself generally useful he told me he brought two of the guns, but I have not heard it confirmed. At any rate he has identified himself with the corps & is no disgrace.

I met yesterday Parsons an old pal of mine when at Lucknow, he was then a subaltern in my battery, he is now a LtCol he was very pleased to see me & introduced me to several of his officers[.] He is very enthusiastic about my Manual of Saddles & made repeated references to it of a complimentary character.

Now this letter must close. I will post it in the morning as we have a camp post office here & there may not be another forward for some time.

[[4]] I hope Crawford sent you my telegram from Pietermaritzburg I wired to him almost immediately after the battle to cable to you & I hope he did it. I will send you a wire after the next battle I may be in, but ever should you not hear do not be alarmed as it may not be possible to cable. I will make my next cable cheaper by sending one word viz “Safe” this will come 4/-[4]

[5 lines redacted]

P.S. Morton is fit & well & doing me admir-ably[sic]. I gave him Kajne’s message.

[4 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 –

[1] Annotation ‘Keep 29/5/23 Battle of Colenso’

[2] Kopje – South African Dialect, a small hill in a relatively flat area.

[3] Tommy Atkins is a slang term used for a common British soldier.

[4] Abbreviation for monetary shillings

3 – Letter to Mary Ann Smith from Frederick Smith, 24 Dec 1899

Terms of Use
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.

[FS/2/2/4/2/3] (1)

In front of Colenso

24′ December 1899

[Salutation Redacted]

[[1]] My letter to you this week will describe our journey from Durban to this place, it would have formed the subject of last week’s letter only more important matters cropped up. We landed at Durban at night & for the first time for many days saw the faces of white women who crowded around in spite of the rain to watch proceedings. The place was under martial law <with> no one allowed out at night after 11 O’clock & everything looked very warlike soldiers & sailors alike being armed to the teeth. In the early morning we loaded up & left Durban in seven trains amid the greatest enthusiasm, people crowded around[,] women were there providing the men with writing material & stamps, food & fruit[,] everything in fact done for the soldiers convenience which they heartily appreciated. Every station we stopped

[[2]] at 30 miles from Durban there were women & girls on the platforms, supplying the men with tea, water[,] fruit & food, the enthusiasm was intense the cheering tremendous, one very pretty girl did me the honour of kissing her hand so excit[sic] to me so great was her excitement.

In this way we reached Maritzburg & here again the women pressed forward doing all they could for the men, taking charge of their letters & looking after them like sisters. They were splendid women all done without any expectation of remuneration everything free, all they asked for were the badges the men wore in their helmets with the number of the regiment on. After leaving Maritzburg it soon got dark & we arrived at Mooi River at 3am to learn that 300 Boers were in the vicinity, our camp was 11/2 miles from the station, an armoured train was waiting with steam up & we expected a row, but none came,

[[3]] in the pitch dark night (which thanks to my lamp was no trouble to me) I determined to bed down in the station & wait for daylight. I did so <and> found a corner & bedded down Morton also. He snored & slept soundly, I got a rest but no sleep. Next morning I went up to our Camp where we remained three days. It was at this place the Boers opened fire only the week before, a tin hut on a hill near (strange to say occupied by a colonial V.S[1] & his wife) was a sight, they had evidently cleared out in a hurry, the bed on the floor was made on it was lying a hat without trimming a veil & petticoat, on the wall was a faded ball dress body & skirt & behind the door a cloak. The other room was full of drugs instruments & appliances[,] everything deserted. I wish I had had a camera the place defies description. The Boers were reported all round so we kept piquets out day & night

[[4]] I wish I had Our train experiences as far as Mooi River were very trying the line runs up & down hill there are no tunnels the rail winds round the hills runs at the edge of precipices that make you sick to look on, the carriages shaky & rotten (though I believe they have good ones) the horses fell down some even fell out at every station we had to get one or more up which meant unloading the whole truck & altogether I was very glad when Mooi River was reached[.]

The camp was a good one but Egypt could not beat it for flies, ones tent was black with them myriads. It was here I was able to demonstrate my usefulness as D.V.O!! Glanders had broken out in the Scottish Rifles & the whole of their Transport (57 animals) were isolated & no good to the Rgt. A Colonial V.S was in charge & as Matthews is shut up in Ladysmith with 14 other A.V.O men the work was being done by Crawford. No attempt had been made to Mallein the remainder & at Mooi River

[FS/2/2/4/2/3] (2)

[[1]] they would have remained indefinitely but for me. I wired Crawford, got the Mallein, inoculated half the number found them free from disease & they were sent on & in time for the battle [of] Colenso!! There was an officer of the S. Rifle charge & he was so pleased at being liberated & getting up to the battle that he lent me a mule which I now have & which is going to carry my kit in the future — Crawford finally came up & I saw him just before we marched from Mooi  — I did not know him not having seen him for 22 years. He is a nice quiet fellow, before we parted I gave him the copy of a wire to you to be sent after the fight on hearing from me. I hope you got it.

We marched from Mooi River by easy stages to Esctcourt & thence to here we met the Royals at Frere & with them was Gladstone. I cannot remember having met him before[.] He is very Scotch. The Royals lost more horses coming out then we did.

[[2]] The fight here I gave you a description of last week so I have now brought myself up to date[.]

25th Dec. A merry Xmas to the children, it would be affectation to wish you the same with your husband on Service [2 lines redacted].

It is a boiling hot day. I have to sit in my tent with my helmet on owing to the heat coming through the tent. I got my Xmas box however [words redacted], it was a letter from you [2 words redacted] enclosing the ribbon bar. That reminds me that I have not yet mentioned the decoration to you. I took the news quietly but in my heart of hearts I am most delighted — I at once wrote to Sir E.W.[2] & poured out my thanks. I feel amply recompensed for my labours — You are wrong [2 words redacted] over the ribbon, until you know exactly what the decoration is you cannot

[[3]] determine the colour of the ribbon, it may be a Medjidie or Osmanieh & of these there are five classes each[3]. The ribbon will I expect will be green with red edge or red with green edge — You can get it at Hawkers when you know exactly what to ask for & this you will know from the Gazette, it will be published in the London Gazette — Mind you let Lea[4] know.

The blue ribbon you sent is that belonging to the Khedive’s star a totally different concern. Now when you get the proper ribbon measure it against the blue one & if they are the same size you will know the bar I have is alright, but if it is wider than the blue ribbon (& my belief is that it is) you will then kindly have another bar made for me. Oh, I am so delighted about it. [2 lines redacted]


[[4]] [1 line redacted] What years I have wanted for these, & now I get three in about 12 months. The permission of the S. of State is a mere formality. Sir Wood ascertained before hand[sic] that no refusal would be offered.

There are two fellows of the 21st Lancers in the 13 Hussars & they both remarked when I told them of my luck that it was strange & a curious coincidence that the conferring of the decoration should have co–incided[sic] with Blenkinsop’s absence from Egypt. I dont[sic] say much, but I think a lot about it.

[10 lines redacted]

[FS/2/2/4/2/3] (3)

[[1]] Your Xmas day I know will be miserable & if [5 lines redacted]

I shall be glad to know you have secured the refusal of that house or some other equally moderate & convenient. You will not forget that my expenses in this country both during & especially after the war will be very heavy I only get English pay with 1/6 per diem colonial allowance my pay at £1 per diem with the above equals 21/6 per diem or £32-5 a month, out of which I give you £20 leaving me £12/5 a month to live on[,] less than I had the first day I joined the Service, [4 lines redacted].

[[2]] This Regt will prove very expensive they drink a lot of Champagne & propose to divide the cost!! Nice for me — Keep a careful eye on the pence the pounds will take care of themselves.

Now a little about our position here & our prospects. We are 5 miles from the enemy & have been here ever since the day after the battle. We do nothing but sit tight, no one has the slightest confidence in the Generals, they are condemned in the most open manner by everyone. We send out patrols by day & picquets by night. One patrol the other day was fired on & two men killed & 7 horses, there is no doubt the men were lying down asleep at the time, it is difficult to impress them with the idea that they are on service & not in the long valley[5] — One of the men killed was a Reservist, his wife had a baby three days before we sailed, her Xmas will be a sad one[.]

[[3]] One man had two, the other seven bullets in him. The Boers are all around even close up to our camp, they captured two officers yesterday in broad daylight both belonged to a Colonial corps, they are so emboldened by success that they are capable of doing anything — In return we do positively nothing. I have suggested night attacks ambushes etc but everyone in authority seems afraid to move its[sic] positively sickening. The only people anxious for reprisals are the younger element, I would put all young men into the place of our Generals.

You can fancy our position when I tell you we cannot send our horses to water without the men taking carbines & ammunition.

The Boers of course will nor attack us in force, that is not their game, we would be glad if they would, it would draw them out of their rifle pits into the open

[[4]] & there we could deal with them, their plan is to harrass (I cannot spell the word) us & get around our flank & so cut us off like Ladysmith. Still feel no alarm, if we get them in the open we can crush them. We have some good naval guns, they fire on them every day[sic] & you can imagine what they are like when I tell you they hit the mark at five miles. The Boers are very angry with the sailors in consequence & threaten to crucify the first they catch.

Our camp is very dusty & full of scorpions, dozens are killed everyday big black ones. We get plenty to eat & bread not biscuit. The water is bad & very scarce. I have plenty to do go all around is the morning early & then do the Regt. The afternoons are

[FS/2/2/4/2/3] (4)

[[1]] very hot, but we may look for cooler weather in a month or so.

I have a very nice horse from the Remounts nearly an Arab. Col. Stevenson of our Remt Dept was in Durban when we landed & he sent me a horse up[,] he did me well being in the show. I have it on the hire system £10 per annum which is a great pull. Besides this I have the mule & I hope to commandeer a Boer pony if we have any luck in dealing with them.

To day[sic] being Xmas day we let them off a bombardment, ‘peace & good will’ I suppose nor have we heard them bombarding Ladysmith. I do not know what to morrow[sic] will bring forth but I expect they will get their Xmas box from our 47 guns. We have a nice meeting to morrow[sic] & hoped to have invited the Boers over for it, but the latter idea fell through, you see we are both Protestant races. In spite of everything we are perfectly cheery

[[2]] if it were not for the guns & the fact that every–one[sic] is armed to the teeth you might imagine we were on peace manoeuvres.

Every day Boer spies are captured & sent through here south. I saw some Boer prisoners the other morning, only one was white, the others were niggers.

This afternoon a very interesting person turned up young Churchill. You will remember he was captured in the armoured train fight when we were on the high seas. He managed to escape from Pretoria & to day[sic] he told us all about it. It took him 9 days to reach Delagoa Bay, he had no money no food excepting what he stole, hid by day & jumped into the passing train by night.

For 60 hours he remained under some sacks in a railway waggon without food & water he wished himself at the time back in Pretoria, they reached the waggon as they

[[3]] were looking for him, but he was near the bottom & escaped detection!! When he got to Delagoa he went by ship to Durban & is once more on the scene[.] He is a fine plucky fellow, the wound in his head was slight & has healed but he looked very pale. He did not escape in womans[sic] clothes as reported. He says that so certain are the Boers of capturing Ladysmith that they have prepared a camp for the reception of White’s force — Every inch of the coast between Colenso & Ladysmith is difficult & full of rifle pits. There are 7 miles of wire entanglement around Colenso & full of mines. A pleasant prospect. Buller will do well to avoid a direct attack, he ought to cross the Tugela higher up & get around their flank.

I am writing this by night after quite

[[4]] an excellent Xmas dinner including a lovely plum pudding sent [to] the Colonel from home with [1 word illeg.] steak & turkey! from Maritzburg. While I am writing the “Scalliwag” continued as we call the Colonial forces are singing & cheering

themselves horse hoarse — Some of these men are the refuse of the Transvaal  they steal whatever they can find ones horses and kit go in a remarkable manner.

One forse was raised by Byng of the 10th Hussars. He is known by his Regt as “Bungo” & his men are known to us as Bungo’s Burglers[sic]!! another force is Thornycrofts “Thieves” Another useful force are the “Body Snatchers” viz the men who pick up the wounded & dead. Altogether we are not dull nor wanting in spirits all we want is to meet the enemy in the open.

I am now sleeping on a hospital stretcher

[FS/2/2/4/2/3] (5)

[[1]] placed on two medicine chests – quite comfy; on it is my valise, on the top of the valise is my kit & things including kettle tin pot se. I sometimes in the night find something hard under the small of my back, on examination it turns out to be a nail brush, or my knife or kettle or something equally soft, but it all comes in the days work.

My candle would amuse you, they all melted into one mass & they had to be cut apart, they are twisted & flat like tape, but they burn quite well in the neck of a beer bottle, though very drunken & distorted from the perpendicular[.]

Please send me one pound of tobacco a month, difficult to get, here, while on service we pay no duty. I think a pound is what I smoke, but you will know best. I smoke the pipe those beloved children bought me from Earls Court

[[2]] [14 lines redacted]

I am not surprise to hear about Ingram your brother always had a difficulty in getting money out of him. I should not be surprised if your aunt is left a poor woman after all — He may have made away with everything — I am most anxious for further news on this point. It is a very serious matter.

Willoughby House[?] affairs seem in a bad way incompatibility of temper [2 lines redacted]

[[3]] [3 lines redacted]

Jarvis last night said he did not suppose it was much use hanging his stocking up as he would only find a scorpion in it in the morning. Strange to say he found one in his bed so his fore cast was verified.

[14 lines redacted]

[[4]] we know each day we are safe, whereas you have no idea what has happened or is happening. But cheer up old girl all will be well[.]

Morton amuses me, he does nothing but sleep all day & all night, but he is an excellent chap & I am very glad I brought him. He has had no letter from home since he left.

It is a good thing young Hayduff[?] has left home[,] he is very late in joining the service but I hope he may do well. [4 lines redacted]

Tell the former to send me a letter which you can enclose with yours telling me everything about the children & their education & all the news she can think of — I know she is fond of writing — I will now go to bed & write you more to morrow[sic].  

[2 lines redacted]

[FS/2/2/4/2/3] (6)

[[1]] 26 Dec. The Boers got their Xmas Box very early this morning. I was awoke about 5am with the thunder of cannon & 40 Lyddite shells were thrown with their work before 7 am. I went up to the Battery & on the way met Churchill, I was able to introduce him to Commander Limpus[6] of the “Terrible” who is my pal up there. Everyone is anxious to meet Churchill after his exciting adventure. The latter told me Ladysmith cannot hold out after the 15th January, its fate will be settled before you get this letter & being a pessimist I think it will be against us. The Boers in anticipation have prepared near Pretoria a large [1 word illeg.] for the reception of the prisoners!! Further all their trains from Pretoria are labelled Durban! I have this on the authority of Churchill.

[2 lines redacted]

Poor Lucy I am so grieved, do write & give my love & best wishes.

[[2]] I am glad you had a mild november[sic] & hope it will last throughout the season.

The ‘Morning Posts’ you sent me are excellent & although abundant picture papers have come out to the men, your Morning Posts are in great requisition

[1 word illeg.] will be Gazetted in Adams place until the war is over & then it will be [5 lines redacted]

I regret to say I did not remember our 20th wedding day, but that was not due to thoughtless or neglect, dates as you know do not impress me I never thought of it in the midst of my work which you know on the ship was very heavy. — [1 line redacted]

I doubt if you would know me if we met burnt red & brown, dirty clothes ( a plate of soup was spilt down my Khaki jacket

[[3]] & left a lovely grease stain) Everything dirty — I am sure I am not recognisable & that is after 3 weeks what will I be like at the end of 3 months.

I knew Mercer years ago when he was a subaltern. Is Stanford still next door or has he started for S. Africa? [4 lines redacted]

[4 words illeg.] I have now answered all the points in your letters. [4 lines redacted]. Had we won the battle of Colenso you would have had only a bare line for we would have been [2 words struck through, illeg.] day by day — The mail goes on Thursday, but to make sure I will post this to morrow[sic] as our postal arrangements are not of the best & trains break down far too frequently.

[[4]] Dont[sic] believe all the tales you hear of Boer butchery — they treat our prisoners & wounded very well & we do the same to theirs. At the Colenso show they gave our men water etc & some of them gave money to the wounded. Today something is on, some of our troops have gone back to Frere & a flank movement is on the cards. We may be left at Colenso to mark the movement higher up, but cannot say. I will write every week that is possible, but again remember no news is good news

[10 lines redacted]



[Valediction Redacted]



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


[1] V.S – Veterinary Surgeon

[2] Field Marshal Sir Evelyn Wood (1838-1919)

[3] Military decorations of the Ottoman Empire

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

[5] The Long Valley at Aldershot

[6] Admiral Arthur Henry Limpus (7 June 1863 – 3 November 1931) was a Royal Navy officer

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

Content warning:

Please note, this archive item contains racist language and/or imagery, as written by the document’s author. This has also been preserved in the transcript of the item. Some content is highly offensive, but it is preserved here for the purposes of historical study and reflection.

Terms of Use
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.

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

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

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

[[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 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

[FS/2/2/4/2/4] (3)

[[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

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


[[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.

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

[[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.

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

Terms of Use
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.

[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. (

[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’

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

Content warning:

Please note, this archive item contains racist language and/or imagery, as written by the document’s author. This has also been preserved in the transcript of the item. Some content is highly offensive, but it is preserved here for the purposes of historical study and reflection.

Terms of Use
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.

[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

7 – Letter to Mary Ann Smith from Frederick Smith, 19 Jan 1900

Content warning:

Please note, this archive item contains racist language and/or imagery, as written by the document’s author. This has also been preserved in the transcript of the item. Some content is highly offensive, but it is preserved here for the purposes of historical study and reflection.

Terms of Use
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.


Camp name unknown N of the Tugela & clod close to Acton Holmes.

(Ventner’s Sprint Camp River Tugela)

Just found out the name of camp 24.1.00

[Words Redacted] of 19 January 1900

[Line Redacted]



I fear you may have some difficulty in reading certain parts of this letter

[Salutation Redacted]

We left the camp of Spearman Hill when on the day I last wrote to you, at night & made a night march to some point about 6 miles due East. It was not quite dark but the road in places was awful impossible to describe up & down hill through stormy weather how the transport got over is a miracle. not[sic] a word was spoken nor a pipe allowed as we were making a flank march to cross the Tugela above the position occupied by the enemy[,] about 11 pm we halted & down came the rain, fortunately it did not last long, but I had my waterproof & well gummed boots on, for hours we stood on the side of the road in a field of long grass which was soaking wet & at daylight we expected to cross the river by pontoon, but the operation was delayed all day the enemy was in occupation of the ford & had to be driven out ours was a very strong position & about 2pm we advanced advanced to the river

We had nothing but biscuit & broth all day & water from the nearest ditch, we waded in water like soup & drank the same[.]

The delay in crossing was considerable, miles of transport, during the pontoon operation a man was killed by a long shot through the neck, the cavalry forded a river & here a chapter of accidents occurred, some men were carried away Tremayne our Adjutant jumped in & tried to save him & Wise my tent fellow jumped into to save another, he got his man out but Tremayne’s man was drowned & Tremayne was only got out with difficulty though both expert swimmers. Tremayne was unconscious but has recovered the river is most dangerous & awful currents.

I crossed by the pontoon but I thought my little horse was lost, he nearly fell over through fright here also two mules we lost by drowning. We bivouacked again that night & of course it again rained though not heavily. Though our kits were kept down to 20lbs I carried on my mule all I wanted my [illeg], valise & w’proof sheet. I was thankful a saddle for my head, or a tin of bully beef or waterbottle[sic], all equally soft to lie on did not keep one awake, others were so cold at 3am they could not sleep & had to walk about. Breakfast was light but I have since found the way of tackling biscuit which renders it palatable & quite easy to bite.

[[2]] Before leaving this camp I got a wire to say Crawford was dead, he died at Maritzburg the previous night — Poor fellow I am very sorry I only saw him a fortnight before & he then said he was better than he had been for years. His poor wife & children have my heartfelt sorrow[.]

Gladstone being close with the Royals I went over & showed him the wire. He is the next Senior, until we get to Ladysmith & relieve Matthews. This day being later the 18th we moved off to the left towards the Orange Free State to cut off the retreating Boers should the attack which is being made at three different points on the river succeed. The fight we expected would take place on the 18th but it did not we had so much transport to get over, we continued advancing slowly to our left to get round the Boers & our advance party came in with some of them killing & wounding 30 including a Free State General killed & taking 20 prisoners. We lost a few men (not of the 13th) but on the whole the day though slow was useful. You cannot imagine the country we crossed streams with rapid current (another horse drowned) hills at an angle of 45° up which every waggon[sic] had to be drawn by hand & places which one would have said it was impossible for wheel transport to get over. We got to the camp at dusk the 13 being left behind on a Kopje[2] a mile or so to the rear.

Got an excellent dinner of bully biscuit & marmalade & again bivouacked there was a very heavy dew soaked everything but my waterproof saved me & I got up from the grass quite dry. All this time I have not shaved & my face is so sore I can only sponge it lightly[.] You might recognise me but I doubt it with nearly a weeks[sic] growth on my face. I ought to have said I left Morton behind & my other servant at the old camp opposite Potgieters drift but I have the [2 words illeg.]. I left them behind as they have to march & I knew we were going to Ladysmith by a circuitous route. Close to this camp is a kraal[3] [1 line redacted], there I found a woman stark naked sitting on the ground, she was about 16 years of age & took no notice of us [2 lines redacted] she & a decrepit old woman were the sole occupants[.] The young woman I think was an imbecile

[[3]] I got Jarvis to take 2 photos of her [1 line redacted] & hope to show it to you some day. She was an absolute animal. Before we left Spearmans Hill I got Jarvis also to photo Morton asleep his usual occupation. To day[sic] we expect a fight if the other attacks along the river can be pushed home. Imagine the extent of our operation when I tell you our front is not less than 10 miles in length & probably much more. Firing has been going on more or less all night & again this morning but not in our vicinity. This brings me up to date[,] more later as events occur.

24 Jan. What events have occurred since I last wrote we moved on the evening of the day I made my last entry to a place called Acton Holmes not far from here. The place is one mass of rocks & boulders & these we had to move on one side before we could find a place for the horses. As for ourselves we dug out & removed all the rocks & stones we could but many went so far into the ground that their removal was impossible. We passed a pleasant night & as I looked up at the stars over my head I wondered whether that the same could be seen from the Croft.[4] It was the last sleep many had for in the morning the battle began, the first indication we had of it was a shell which exploded in a kraal to our front we had no conception where it came from probably fired 5 miles away & with smokeless powder. One of the most terrifying features of modern warfare is the destruction wrought by a foe who cannot be located, he may be near or far, but he continues to pump in his iron & lead while escape from it is impossible in asmuch[sic] as one has no idea which direction is a safe one

Well this the first day of the battle lasted from about 7 am to 7.30 pm, & more or less throughout the night. We did not again come under fire until about 11am when a little circumstance of intent to me occurred. The Regt.was hidden in a nullah[5] n ot only out of sight but to keep it away from an infernal gun the position of which we could not locate. I was letting my horse graze with the bit out of his mouth when I saw a Maxim gun hurrying up to the front, leaving my bit hanging on my the

[[4]] hilt of my sword I slipped the snaffle into his mouth girdled up & cantered forward about 100 yards or so. I halted put up my glasses when I suddenly heard the hissing of a shell it came nearer & nearer & just as I thought it would hit me on the head I ducked down I heard it strike the ground & explode & looking behind we saw a column of dust 20ft in height about 100 yards behind me & exactly where I was grazing my horse only a minute before — I wish you could have seen yours truly scuttle back, I had no time to put my glass back in their place as shell after shell was falling, then I remembered I had hung my bit on my sword & that the reins were probably dragging along the ground & might bring me down in addition the ground was stony rocky & very difficult to get over so that my position for a few minutes was not comfortable. Of course bear in mind they were not firing at me but were only anxious to locate the position of the cavalry.

Later in the day they dropped two shells into a squadron of the Royals as they crossed a field close to this place I was watching the advance of the squadron from a hill some distance off at the moment for they were well on our left. You cannot imagine the startling effect of two shells dropped one after the other into a mass, they scattered like chaff before the wind is in all directions men without horses, horses without men, some the right others to the left & strange to say as we subsequently learned without the loss of a horse or a man. To recount all the operations of this day would be impossible I could only see what was occurring over about 4 miles of country[.] Our fire was terrific & we set fire to more than one of their positions. I ought to have explained before that their positions were well chosen the tops of high hills while nothing but the valleys below were left for us. The irregular Cavalry took one hill a very steep one I could not believe my eyes as I saw the men some with & some without horses crawling up the side of this sugar loaf hill[6]

[FS/2/2/4/2/7] (2)

[[1]] now known as Childe’s Hill from the name of the man who led the assault & was killed, of him later. The game went on all day & night found us tired & sleeping close to the base of Childe’s Hill having previously to get all our animals & waggons through a river. Fortunately I had a good dinner that night even though the night of a battle & slept in a ploughed field, at any rate if not so clean it is softer than the velt[sic]. I must have been tired as I fell asleep soon & [3 lines redacted].

On the following day (21 Jan) we moved early from the ploughed field & went back over the drift & river to our old camp about 1 mile further back as we were exposed to the fire of a long range gun, we got back after a short time & had settled to breakfast when suddenly there was a hissing sound of an approaching shell & one dropped not far from where we were sitting, a second came still nearer & it was evident our position was known, we moved a little further forward under cover of a hill & there we have been for two days the battle going on day by day with monotonous regularity. There are 12 guns on our right which pump in shrapnel all day. Hitherto both sides have observed Sunday as a day of rest, but last Sunday we fought all day & it is now Tuesday & we have not yet got their position. It was confidently believed that we would get to Ladysmith by Wednesday (to morrow[sic]) but that is impossible.

Major ChildeLate R H Guards came out to one of the Regts of irreglar cavalry or Mtd infantry. He was originally Childe-Pemberton but dropped the P. He led his men up the steep hill in gallant style & soon after they got to the top a shell hit him on the head & killed him. Now it is a curious fact that the night before at dinner Childe said he knew he would be killed the next day, & though the fellows chaffed him he persisted in his statement & dictated his own Epitaph which he directed to be placed on his grave. It was as follows: —

[[2]] “Is it well with the Child? It is well!” Now this is a most extraordinary coincidence & worth telling to people. The man was killed as he said he would be, he was buried early the next morning & by evening a simple wooden cross with his rank name & regt, date of death, & the above Epitaph upon it was erected  No parson buried him, he was buried by a brother officer nothing but his belts were taken off even his spurs were buried with him & I knew him by sight, he leaves a wife but no family. There is no telegraph officer here so that no one can send her a wire.

There he is in his grave two days (he is buried 100 yards from where I am writing this) & his friends ignorant of the fact but perhaps it is just as well so. Great sympathy is felt for him, it is [3 lines redacted].

He was buried on the 2nd day of the fight & since that we have not had very active employment the Artillery hammering is incessant but it does not interfere with our movements. Yesterday I went & had a bath in the river & washed my clothes, I only have those I stand up in & they have not been off since last Monday week viz 9 days today boots the same. So I determined to wash everything Jarvis & I proceeded to the River & we did it well I washed shirt, drawers[,] socks, cholera belt[7]

It took 3 hours for the things to dry during which time we sat on the rocks or in the water shaved & otherwise wasted time while the clothes dried. It would have been a sight for a photograph[,] I in the water up to my neck with a cascade playing on me my helmet on my head & smoking my pipe, Jarvis sitting on the rocks shaving, while a short distance behind was a battery of howitzers[8] pumping in 50lbs Lyddite shells into an enemy 2 miles off a curious scene for a quite[sic] South African river.

I ought to explain before I go further that I have shaved. I know this will be a great relief to you & it was to me, I now protect my face with that valuable red silk pock’ h’chief[sic] & so prevent it from getting burned though in the effort I am more like a Guy Fawkes than a reasonable being. If only my little son could see me, he would laugh for a week[.]
[[3]] *[9] this is the appearance I present from the side. I find the manoeuvre an excellent one.

Last night we got 5 minutes notice that a convoy of sick & wounded were going back to Frere & that the Medical officers would take back letters for England. I tore out a page from a book & wrote you a few hasty lines, this letter had been started but was very incomplete so I thought it best to send you a short note to show you I was fit & well rather than send you an incomplete letter — I was sorry for the haste in which it was written, but the man was standing waiting for it, I sent a scrawl & without a stamp. I do not know when this letter will go, but I will keep it addressed & ready to close at a moment’s notice.

The place I sleep in would greatly amuse our two dear mites, there is a pack saddle & a Field pannier, the one forms the head of my bed the other the side. *[10] Across the pack saddle & pannier I stretch my waterproof & this keeps off the rain & wind from my face & the heavy dews. Close to my head is my revolver waterbottle[sic] & haversack. I sleep in clothes, boots woollen waistcoat (if very cold sweater also) & Ulster[11]. So you see I am well protected at night. The ground of course is hard & one rises in the morning very stiff & sore from contact with such an unyielding surface.

Of course I have received no letter from you for last week, it is said that our mail got as far as the Tugela & was sent back, if so it is very rough on us. I hope to receive from you the newspapers containing a full account of all our movements, for as you truly say though on the spot we know the least excepting of things occurring in our immediate vicinity.

This battle will be the most remarkable in History, it is now in its fourth consecutive day, & though we are pushing on slowly still progress is not rapid. The people in Ladysmith are we hear suffering great privation eggs are 30/- a dozen. Even here things are at famine prices which are scarce. Soldiers are offering 5/- for a packet of 10 cigarettes!! I will soon be out of tobacco so must nurse what little I have. — I shall certainly be glad when Ladysmith is relieved.

[[4]] *[12] I hear Crawford died from dysentery. Poor fellow. Will it improve my prospects!!!

24 Jan. Last night or rather at 3 am to day[sic] we made a night attack on the enemy. The artillery pounded away for an hour & then the infantry went in. In the still night air the streams of lead as the infantry fired volleys was exactly like the escape of steam from a steam engine[.]

It was most curious one does not notice the sound during the day. A battle by night is a very weird sight. I am glad I did not lose it.  The result of the night attack we do not yet know, though it is possibly available to the city clerk on his[?] way to London this morning, but the fact remains that this is the fifth day of the battle & we have got very little further ahead. Really the Boers are very serious antagonists. They have a gun which fires eight times in succession a one pound shell[,] each shell is dropped at a different range. The noise it makes is exactly like Pow Pow Pow & so on repeatedly for eight shots. Its[sic] a devilish contrivance & we cannot locate its position. Yesterday we lost in one regt alone 1 officer & 15 men & I think Pow Pow has some thing[sic] to say to it.

I hear this morning that letters are being sent in so to atone for the shabby note which was sent you a day or two ago I will send this off up to date. I trust to you keeping all these letters as they are my diary of the war.

Firing is still now going on against the hill we tackled last Saturday, so that I judge the night attack had not the fullest measure of success. [3 lines redacted].

Nearly a fortnight since I heard from you the letters are in the country but we cannot get them. Ten days since we started on this show & I have never been out of my clothes & boots except to bathe. You can imagine how we look [5 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.

[1] Annotated by Smith with ‘Keep’

[2] South African Dialect, a small hill in a relatively flat area.

[3] Either a village of huts enclosed by a fence, or an enclosure for cattle or sheep

[4] Smith’s home – The Croft, Little Heath, Charlton, in South East London

[5] A watercourse, riverbed or ravine

[6] Comparing the hills to the Sugar Loaf, Monmouthshire which are mountains in South Wales

[7] a flat strip of flannel or knitted wool worn around the abdomen under a shirt as a preventive measure against cholera

[8] A short gun for firing shells on high trajectories at low velocities.

[9] Caricature by Smith of his self-fashioned technique to protect his face from sunburn

[10] Drawing by Smith of his sleeping arrangements.

[11] A long loose overcoat

[12] Later annotations added to the top of the page ’19th Jan Tugela’ and ‘January 00’

8 – Letter to Mary Ann Smith from Frederick Smith, 22 Jan 1900

Terms of Use
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.


North of the Tugela

22 Janry 00

[Salutation Redacted]

[[1]] We have been fighting for three days & I have an abundance of news but no time to write it. There is no telegraph or post office here, but a convoy is going in to morrow[sic] morning of wounded & the Medical officer is taking letters with him. I can only say that I am fit & well

[Letter Damaged and Incomplete — No valediction]

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

9 – Letter to Mary Ann Smith from Frederick Smith, 24 Jan 1900

Terms of Use 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.

[FS/2/2/4/2/9] (1)

*[1] Ventners Sprint Camp 24 Janry 1900 Send me a nice Red & Green silk pocket h’chief[sic] mine are looking seedy I like a large one. Register it my pet.

[Salutation Redacted]

[[1]] It was only this morning that I sent you my last letter & yet here I am already writing another. I hope you are doing the same for me, for though you are not experiencing the stirring times we are, yet every detail of the life led by you [1 line redacted].

We have just learned that our night attack was successful, one General (Woodgate) being killed, further I learn we are doing well & that Buller expects a 7 day battle[,] this is our fifth day of it. The Relief of Ladysmith will live in History as per-manently[sic] as the Relief of Lucknow.[2] I would not miss if for any thing[sic] There is probably no man living outside our force which has seen five consecutive days fighting. We are lying under a hill out of shell fire our turn will come when we get the enemy on the move.

Jarvis & I have built a tent d’abris formed of our two waterproof sheets hung on a pole & supported at both ends here is a sketch of it [illustration][3], it is the envy & admiration of all, the poles are iron & taken from a neighbouring farmers gate & fence, held in position by wire stays. Of wire here theres hundreds of thousands of miles in this country nothing else is used for marking out & separating the different farms there is not such a thing as a hedge to be seen anywhere.

In this shelter we passed last night & its rain in absolute comfort, how those dear mites would love a tent of this sort I will put them up one the first summer I spend at home

28th Jan. Since I last wrote much had occurred a detail of it would fill a volume & [1 line redacted] the fact is that we have been again defeated & have had to retire or rather retreat. When I last wrote we were doing well & our spirits rose under cover of a night attack we seized a hill what was said to be the key of the position during the whole of that day the fellows on this hill

[[2]] were exposed to a perfect hell fire for 16 hours they stood it & finally at night it had to be evacuated, at once Buller made up his mind no to press the attack again & our retreat was only a matter of time. Such is the history of this disaster in a nut shell now for details.

You will remember that the disaster occurred on the 5th day of the battle at a time when we were doing well along a front not less than 12 miles in length. The hill which was captured during the night was a big one in the centre of the position with sides so steep that a man could only crawl up them with difficulty while to get horses or guns up was an impossibility. It was strange that the Boers did not put guns on this hill if the operation had been possible for their side, they had only a relatively small body of men on it & it is now said that we did exactly what they wanted viz seize the hill get established there & then their batteries hidden behind at a position where we could not possibly see could then knock us to pieces while we had not a gun with which to reply. If this really was their scheme it reflects the very greatest conduct of their Generals & very little on our own. We fell into the trap & got knocked to pieces. Strange that men who were not Generals should have remarked days before that the Boers had no guns on this hill which looked suspicious on the face of it. Well the hill was taken during the night attack the Lancashire Fusiliers leading. The first Boer sent who challenged us was an Englishman!! He called out who goes there? The Captain of the Lancashires told his men to lie down on their stomachs while he went forward alone & wh with this no further ado bayonetted[sic] the wretch in several places. It was on this regt[sic] the brunt of the attack fell & on Thornycroft’s lot. During the morning following the seizure the party was exposed to a heavy cross rifle fire, at about 2 pm the Boer Artillery opened on them & I never saw anything more dreadful their shrapnel shell fired from a long distance off burst over the heads of our unfortunate people in a veritable storm. I counted the shells bursting

[[3]] at the rate of seven a minute & we have since learned that it was a seven gun battery which wrought the havoc & with our own shrapnel captured with the guns at Colenso!! This hell fire lasted 21/2 hours, legs were torn off men blown to pieces, others scorched beyond recognition still they[sic] devoted band held out, at last a white flag was shown it is said by an officer of the Lancashires[sic] & the Boers advanced from their trenches to seize them. Up jumped Thorneycroft an immense man with a loud voice & said [“]No surrender while I am here! back[sic] to your trenches & the Boers slunk off as if they obeying an order from their own officer. The Colonel of the Lancashires[sic] was wounded & a prisoner. I knew him in the Soudan a very good fellow, the command fell on Thorneycroft & at night time all that was left of this devoted band came down the hill. I saw Thorneycroft yesterday & I took off my helmet & waved it as I met him, he lost 50% of his men & 11 officers one of the latter Petre (pronounced Peter) was a good friend of Jarvis’s & a Yeoman — poor Jarvis was much cut up. Lord Petre brother of the above is a Roman Catholic Bishop & Petre had exposed a wish that it anything happened to him [1 word illeg.] he would like to be buried by a R.C. Great delay being experienced in finding one his funeral was delayed & Jarvis by great good luck was able to be present[,] he was buried on the side of the road on our side of the Tugela & with the body was a bottle inside which was the name of the deceased date of death & other information in case the body is wished for at home. Jarvis also photo’ed[sic] the spot. Next day after the evacuation of the hill two parsons R.C & P the latter Gedge rode up to the hill under a red cross flag & with a party of body snatchers & buried the dead[.] I dont[sic]  know the exact number but about 300 poor fellow[s] were left for ever on Spion Kop the name of the hill & when I took my last look at it yesterday morning I thought of all the sorrows that

[[4]] wretched hill would give to hundreds of homes in England.

While the dreaded shrapnel fire was going on that I just described, I tried to avoid looking at it knowing that each [1 word illeg.] meant death & mutilation to dozens, but one was fascinated & try to avoid it as I could, I constantly found my eyes turning on the fateful hill on which a hidden battery was pumping iron & fire.

When on the 6th day of the battle it was known that we had returned from the hill during the night a fearful gloom fell over us & soon we heard that Buller had given up the game. We still shelled their batteries & our infantry engaged them when ever[sic] they could, but we had orders to get off of at once our 17 miles of transport & get it over the river without delay in the mean time we keep off the attention of the Boers by shell fire. The transport took 11/2 days to get over the two bridges & this left the way open for us but then we knew that if we retired in the face of the enemy they would shell us & our rickety pontoon bridges (only 2) & simply wipe us out, so the retreat was keep[sic] a dead secret & the time was to be night but when no one knew. Our first stroke of luck came on the 8th day, it commenced to rain & the hills occupied by the Boers were covered with mist & at once the order went round that we were to leave at 6pm instead of 10 pm as arranged.  Now you cannot conceive the road we had to pass over the first place was a drift over a small fordable stream with banks at his slope [illustration][4] through the rain the banks were so slippery that neither horse nor mule could get a foot hold. The carts of ammunition etc had to be pulled up by hand & all without making a noise for our watchful enemy was only 3 miles away & would have shelled us all night had he had the faintest notion what was on. By the time we got over this drift it was dark & still raining & we blundered along the road to the bridges over the Tugela. So dark was the night (Thank God) that I could

[FS/2/2/4/2/9] (2)

[[1]] only just see my horses ears!! Precautions were taken to keep camp fires going the whole time to deceive the Boers & gradually this force of over 20 000 men horses guns waggons[sic] conveyed from a front of several miles are to one point on the river where some boats with planks on them formed our only means of escape. No lights but of the dimmest description were allowed near the bridge in case the enemy fired — one single shell would have wrecked the proceedings, & as 20000 were jammed into a space smaller than Trafalgar Square each waiting their turn to walk over a bridge not so wide as our dining room, & without a rail or rope at the side, with a sif swift running stream below, it was no light hearted job, [2 lines redacted] — We had to wait our turn to crawl down the sandy bank of the river a false step on which would have landed one in the Tugela below — “Keep well to the right”. “Keep close to the left when you reach that lantern then follow the faint light which is the centre of the bridge” [4 lines redacted]. The crossing was jumpy, I led my horse, he could not see the river it was so dark, but he heard it & he felt the bridge rising up & down to the current, he snorted, an ammunition waggon[sic] in front of me conducted by some Irish soldiers halted on the bridge. I felt now that my horse was gone for a halt was fatal, but no it started once more & we were across, “Turn to the right & make for that lantern” we did so over stones the size of several paving stones, reaching the lantern the holder said “make for that light  it is in the centre of the bridge”. Another bridge! what horror! (the Tugela at this point has two arms) this latter bridge was fairly easy & it was roped at the side, nothing but the fact that it had carried 17 miles of transport could

[[2]] have given one the needful confidence to have walked over it with a nervous horse[,] the guide led us to the edge of the bridge, & then left us with the in inky darkness. We led our horses. I got too much to the right & fell in a donga about 21/2 feet, crawled up the other side, fell in another, then a third, finally determined that I had come to much to the right, then made to the left & fared better, finally after a long pull arrived at the farm house we had shelled the day of our arrival, & here a big fire was burning & we gladly warmed ourselfes[sic] — I ought to say that by this time the ‘we’ was represented by the Farrier Major & a man leading my mule The regiment we had lost in the darkness but we stuck close to some other mounted corps until we got to the bridge, but after that we lost it, & so only three men & four animals crossed with of the us. At the Farm Yard I determined to stop until the moon rose at 3am it now being about 10pm, still raining, wind blowing, horses shivering, & men ditto[.] The ground was too wet to lie on so there was no help for it we stood for all three hours & longer, waiting for a moon we could never see from clouds, or for the early streak of dawn — at 4am we started walking up the hill from the river for you will readily understand that our position was a  serious one if the Boers’ opened [1 word struck through, illeg.] fire for we were lying in a basin while they were on the hills above, we climbed up our side of the basin & by dawn no British Army could be seen, it had disappeared truly ‘over the hills’ but not ‘far away’.[5] We watched the Boers in the morning, before the wind rose they fired a few sniping shots at nothing, as it rose & the morning became clearer & nothing could be seen of the army which for eight days had been sitting below them, first one head then another appeared at the trenches & finally two men rode down the hill, they soon rode back when they found that we & the bridge had gone bag & baggage & that the most difficult & most successful retreat in the annals of the British army

[[3]] had been carried out. Try & imagine what it would be to take half a dozen men & horses over a bridge in pitch darkness & land them in safety some miles in the hills on the other side, & then think what it means to take a whole army!! It is the only bright spot in this campaign& it is a record. The morning broke as we stood in safety on the hills. They could have shelled us here, but we were in a position to reply & they contented them-selves[sic] with firing a shell at what was left of Thornycroft’s devoted band as they were the last to wind their way up the hill. [2 lines redacted]. We cooked some breakfast here & after an hour moved on to this our old camp Spearman’s Hill where we arrived at 12 noon after 18 hours continuous work, anxiety & bad weather, I lay on the ground with a tarpaulin for my head & slept in the sun for half an hour . Tents[,] an unknown luxury for days[,] were soon up, a good lunch, a sleep in the afternoon on a hospital stretcher (such a luxury) a good bath, clean clothes & to bed in Pyjamas was civilization indeed to one who had been in his clothes & on the bare ground for nine days. We soon forgot our troubles but not our defeat[.] to[sic] live as we are living now we can scarcely understand, though to any one introduced all at once to our present system would not regard it as civilization at all. [2 lines redacted].

The retreat was carried out in excellent spirit the men were cheery, not a grumble, cracking jokes & it even struck one that they thoroughly enjoyed it. Of course few except the officers recognised the extreme gravity of the situation & it was well they did not[.] I heard one man say in the inky darkness can anyone what regt[sic]  is this ‘I dont[sic] know’ was the reply, well could can anyone tell me who I am? Another man was heard to say to a chum “Well this is the frostiest job I have been on, since I came to South Africa. Here we have been in the rain for hours without Cloaks ‘cause they

[[4]] have been are on the waggon[sic] & now when we’re wet to the skin, a blooming Staff Officer comes round & says you can lie down men for a short time if you like”. This has to be heard to be appreciated. It was a fine & inspiring sight to see our infantry which had been lying out night after night without cloaks on the hill side, decimated by bullets & shell fire, & retired during a wet & stormy night, march off the next morning with a fine swing & cheery confident bearing, carrying behind them on stretchers more of the men last wounded, or the wounded man hobbling along with his arms around the neck of two comrades. The sight of this infantry made one feel that we were not yet beaten & had plenty of life in us yet.

I saw Schofield (pronounced Skofield) ADC to Buller & a very good friend of MacKenzie’s[,] he had had a letter wire to say MacKenzie was dead having died of Typhoid at De Aar. Mrs Mackenzie was devoted to him & was is on her way out to S. A. to nurse him, she has a brother in the service who will meet her at Cape Town & break the news to her. Schofield told me that he really does not know what he will do without MacKenzie so great was the friendship between them. This war will be the means of breaking up many homes & bringing untold misery to thousands. It has drawn some few closer together who perhaps did not suspect the depth of their attachment, but such are in the minority, the misery, waste of life & loss of friends pre-dominates[sic]. Yet we must give their people the ‘knock’ Ladysmith as I told Sir EW[6] on [1 line illeg.] not through Natal but by the Orange Free State, A good victory then an advance on Bloemfontein would mean the relief of Kimberley & Ladysmith by drawing off the Free States. We must carry the war into their own country to make them feel it. Personally I have experienced all I wished to experience [3 lines redacted] & much I did not wish to experience two defeats & two retreats

[FS/2/2/4/2/9] (3)

[[1]] [5 lines redacted] but we must first whack the Boer.

Now my narrative is brought up to the time of our arrival here. I should explain that Spearman Hill is on the Tugela about 15 miles to the W of Colenso. I wrote to you from this place before going to the battle of the Upper Tugela & told you a drift known as Potgieters existed here across which troops could be passed. Now I gather that Buller is going to try & force the Potgieter position it is a very strong one, but we have an immense force of Artillery here & ought to crush the Boer fire — I believe we have also got some of the ‘Pow Pow’ guns I hope so, I should like the Boers to taste them. They actually had the cheek to ‘Pow’ ‘Pow’ our balloon the other day as it was quietly over-looking their position, one shell knocked off the helmet of the fellow in the car & put 5 holes in the balloon so he telephoned to be pulled down. Really I think this act of the Boers vulgar & inconsiderate!

One sad feature in this war is the way the people living in the country have suffered. All British sympathisers have had their farms ruined by the Boers[.] All Boer sympathisers have had their farms sacked & destroyed by the British. Not far from where I write is a pretty farm home surrounded by trees (all planted no others in the country) owned by a man name[d] Pretorious who has 5 sons the father & sons are all fighting for the Boers. Well this mans[sic] farm implements have been burned, his home sacked glass china & crockery have been smashed & thrown into the garden lace curtains torn down & used to keep flies off the horses. Iron bed steads broken up, feather beds ripped up & the contents emptied. I saw one room full of feathers bier[?] glasses & drawing room furniture pulverized. all[sic] I saw left was a first class harmonium & some music, the instrument I expect was too heavy & strong to smash up

[[2]] on the wall of the house was written “Shoot the traitor’ ‘Bayonet him’ etc[.] However the man is far away but his pretty home is a wreck. Close to his home is his cemetery & here lies the bones of his ancestors & of his daughter who married an Englishman named Spearman hence the name of this hill. It appears that every S.A. farm has its cemetery & this one can readily understand considering the distances people are apart. [Words redacted] I arrived here & in the afternoon of the next day in came our letters. I only got one everybody else two viz. 22nd & 29 Dec. I only got one from the 22nd so live in hopes of that of the 29th turning up besides this I got Punch[7] & Truth[8] for these very best thanks. Your letter was naturally tinged with anxiety but you cheer up at the end when you got my cable, & the language in which you have expressed your thanks for that cable [1 line redacted]. One result of my cable going from P’martizburg[sic] is that you have addressed my letter there, this was a mistake & may account for your letter of 29 Decbr not yet having come to hand[.] I am not at PMb[sic] nor likely to be, address your letters to the Regt. Natal Field Force South Africa that will find me. Should we whack Paul[9] is the next fight & relieve Ladysmith I do not think the war will be further prosecuted in Natal everything will have to be done from the Free State side in which case the 13th may go back to Durban ship to East London & then by rail to the O.F.S. but this is anticipating events. You say Matthews is a prisoner, but only in so far as he is shut up at L’smith[sic] he is not in the Boer hands. Newsome I saw was convalescent, I did not know he was wounded. Rutherford coming out is news. I tried to send you a cable yeste the day I returned here & again yesterday but they would not take it. I got however a man in the 14 Hussars to take it to Frere & I hope it left there this morning for well do I know your anxiety. It troubled me greatly until I could get it off  

[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] Annotations on Header ‘Keep’

[2] The Siege of Lucknow lasted from May 30 to November 27, 1857, during the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

[3] Illustration of a tent by Smith

[4] Illustration by Smith of the stream he is discussing

[5] Here Smith could be referring to ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’ a traditional Scottish song (circa 17th century).

[6] Field Marshal Sir Henry Evelyn Wood (1838-1919)

[7] ‘Punch’ was a British weekly magazine of humour and satire established in 1841 by Henry Mayhew and engraver Ebenezer Landells.

[8] ‘Truth’ was a British periodical publication founded in 1877 by the diplomat and Liberal politician Henry Labouchère.Truth was known for its exposures of many kinds of frauds, and was at the centre of several civil lawsuits.

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

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

Terms of Use
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.

[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.