The Siege of Ladysmith

Author: Doug Larsen
Date published: 09/05/2020
© Doug Larsen and mentioned sources

Throughout the Siege a total of 10,673 cases were handled by the Hospitals. Of the 583 soldiers who died, 382 were the result of Enteric fever and 109 of Dysentery.

Blood Transfusions and saline Drips were unheard of, the X-Ray machine was very much in its infancy and Ambulances were covered wagons pulled by oxen or horses. In a very primitive form, it was used during the War when every available machine was sent to South Africa. Rontgen had discovered the x-ray only three years earlier.


Injuries were not the only cause of incapacitation to the British soldier, deaths from diseases were very high on the list and at the end of the 19th century very little was known about treating patients for them. Deaths from disease were higher than from a Boer bullet.

The Boers had cut the fresh water supply quite early in the siege and the only water available was from the Klip River which, as the siege progressed, became increasingly contaminated and was the cause of the high incidence of deaths from diseases such as Enteric, Malaria and Dysentery. The first two cases of Enteric occurred on 11th November 1899 and there would eventually be over 1700 and the records would also list 1900 cases of Dysentery

Dysentery is infectious, causing inflammation of the intestine accompanied by abdominal pain and diarrhoea. The disease can range from a mild attack that is soon over to a severe attack ending in death through dehydration and poisoning. The symptoms occur after about six days and take the form of a fever and frequent stools containing water and blood which is soon followed by dehydration. In severe cases the symptoms also show themselves as ulceration of the large intestine. The transmission of the disease occurs by ingesting food or water that have been contaminated by human faeces. Dysentery is common in areas where people are crowded together.

Enteric or Typhoid Fever is an acute infectious disease caused by the bacteria Salmonella Typhi. It enters the body through ingestion of contaminated food or water. Within twenty-four hours it enters the bloodstream causing blood poisoning. After twelve days or so the symptoms appear as headaches, tiredness, general aches and fever followed by loss of appetite, nosebleeds, cough and either diarrhoea or constipation. During the second week a rash of small, red spots appears on the trunk lasting for approximately four days. By the third week the patient is emaciated, and their abdominal symptoms are marked. If untreated, typhoid proves fatal in up to 25 percent of all cases. The prevention of Typhoid Fever depends mainly on proper sewage treatment and the provision of pure drinking water, both of which were almost impossible to provide during the latter part of the siege. Volunteers with the Relief Force were inoculated against the disease via a hypodermic injection of dead typhoid germs. Winston Churchill when offered the treatment, declined saying that he would “remain unconvinced and resolved to trust to health and the laws of health-an inoculation against bullet wounds he would have accepted”

Treatment during the siege was supportive and symptomatic whereas today vaccination and drugs are all that is required.


The Mounted Police of Natal

By H P Holt
John Murray,London, 1913

The men were now beginning to suffer badly through lack of food ; rations were cut down to half a pound of horse flesh and two biscuits per day per man. All units except the police were supplied with canvas troughs and blankets for filtering boiled water, but as there were insufficient to go round, the increase in the number of sick men may be attributed to that. The volunteers, who were not accustomed to this hard life, were in a sorry plight, there being 650 men sick out of a total of 900. As the police comprised the smallest unit of the Volunteer Brigade they always came in last for the rations, and only too frequently their supply of biscuits consisted of broken fragments and crumbs.

As the days wore on painfully, and more of the police became ill, their whole available strength had to be sent out on picket every night, and they could only muster 2 officers, 6 non-commissioned officers, and 1 6 men. Almost the sole topic of conversation was the lack of food, and on the 27th February rations were reduced to a quarter of pound of biscuits and three ounces of bad mealie meal per man.

There was joy in Ladysmith on the last day of February, when Boers could be seen trekking to the north in small bodies, and in the evening cheering in the region of Caesar's Camp announced the arrival of the relief column's advance party, which included Sub-Inspector Abrahams and 15 of the Natal Police. There was great disappointment when it was found that they had not brought any food with them.

On the following day 43 of the police formed the advance-guard, when a reconnaissance was made towards Modder Spruit, where a few Boers opened fire. The police worked round the flank, extending in skirmishing order on foot and leading their horses. As they cleared a ridge they came into the line of their own shrapnel fire, which cost them two horses. From the top of a hill they could see the Boers loading guns on to some trains, and a message was sent back to Colonel Knox for a fifteen-pounder to shell the first engine, which would have resulted in the line being blocked. The message came back that the Gordon Highlanders were too exhausted to act as escort for the gun. The mounted men moved on in the direction of the trains, and were met by a few shots, three of the Natal Police Inspector Lyttle, Sub-Inspector Clarke, and Trooper Smith being wounded. Orders came to retire, as the infantry of the Ladysmith garrison were too exhausted to overtake them.

The siege had lasted one hundred and twenty days, and during that time 10,688 people were admitted to the hospital. Of that number 600 died. None of the Natal Police died of sickness until after the relief column appeared, though there were then 21 of the troopers on the sick list. Of these 7 subsequently died equal to 8 per cent, of their strength.

When the welcome orders to march to Pietermaritzburg were given, the police were addressed by Colonel Royston, who thanked them for their services. He said they had always done their work cheerfully, and without criticism ; his only regret was that he had not had a thousand of the police under his command, because in that case he would have been able to make a name for them and for himself.


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