In Natal there were two units that were responsible for the “repair and care” of the wounded, the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and the Natal Volunteer Medical Corps (NVMC), both of whom performed their duties in exemplary fashion. Other institutions such as St. John’s Ambulance, British Red Cross Society, Natal Volunteer Indian Ambulance Corps (more commonly referred to as ‘Dhoolie Bearers’) and many other units played their part in the treatment of both The British Military and civilian casualties.
The ROYAL ARMY MEDICAL CORPS was formed in 1898 by amalgamating the Medical Staff officers and Medical Staff Corps men. A surgeon, with a small staff, was attached to every unit and at his disposal were trained ambulance men, 2 for each company. Every brigade of infantry or cavalry had a medical company, comprising generally three officers and about fifty-seven men, with various vehicles being divided into an ambulance section, a collection station, ambulances and a dressing station. The service provided by both units was more or less the same and equally as good as each other, the difference between the two units lay in the fact that the RAMC provided the facilities used by both.
Apart from caring for the wounded and sick, RAMC responsibilities included hygiene, sanitation, monitoring water supplies, etc. It was in this area that the army was found wanting. Sickness was to cause more deaths than military action in the Anglo-Boer War.
The theory, more often than not fact, was that each soldier would carry a field dressing to be applied to whatever type of wound he received. Each company was to have a Medical NCO and 2 Stretcher Bearers whose responsibility it was to carry the wounded back to a casualty collection point where the staff, Medical Officer and a Medical NCO, did their best to tend to the man’s injuries. After receiving treatment the was either returned to their unit or referred to a Field Hospital, Stationary Hospital or general Hospital depending upon the severity of the wounds, for more care. Each division had its own Field Hospital, with an army corps having 10 each with a capacity of 100 men. The personnel of the field hospital consists of five officers, a warrant officer, and thirty-four NCO’s and men, with six horses, and a number of vehicles for provisions, water, medical stores, equipment, and reserve rations. The wounded were retained in the field hospitals and their injuries attended to until they can be transported to the hospitals upon the lines of communication or at the base. The reality of war often meant the provision for the sick and wounded was inadequate.
General Hospitals were initially placed at bases, but as more medical assets came into South Africa and the lines of communication grew longer they were also found further forward. They were equipped like any civilian hospital of the time and could take 500 plus patients. The nearest General Hospital to Ladysmith was at Mooi River
Stationary Hospitals were positioned close to lines of communication, railway and road links being paramount for the swift transfer of patients to a more prepared facility able to cope with the seriousness of the wounds. Ladysmith had one Stationary Hospital, No.12, initially at the Town Hall but later moved to Intombi Camp.
Field Hospitals were, in the battle areas, tented, very much mobile and equipped to deal with a hundred casualties, mostly fairly minor operations. There were no beds or stretchers so casualties lay on groundsheets where they were cared for by orderlies as nurses were not sent to the front lines during the Boer war.
In Ladysmith there were seven Field Hospitals, sited just off the road on the outskirts of town Market Square adjacent to Town Hall (later moved to the ravine at the foot of Leicester Post ), the Railway Station (subsequently moved to Intombi Camp), between Black Rock and Red Hill near Range Post. It was a massive affair, constructed of turf, with a roof of pipes and rocks and big enough to hold 20 patients who were reached through a winding passage. Major Donegan took charge and was assisted by Majors Martin, Porter and Holt. A fifty bed unit, the Indian Field Hospital, was initially sited near Market Square but subsequently moved to Intombi Camp under Major MW Kevin. Finally there was a native Field Hospital under Major WHW Elliot, assisted by Indian Medical staff.
Additional hospital space was set aside in the church buildings and there was a civilian hospital within the town called “The Ladysmith Borough Hospital.” This facility was managed by the Mayor and his deputy, patients being referred by their medical practitioner and paid their way at 2 pounds 2 shillings per week for nursing, accommodation, bedding and medicine.
In Ladysmith the RAMC was under the overall command of Colonel R Exham with Major JF Bateson as his secretary and comprised 33 officers, 175 men and 976 attendants. They also came equipped with 17 horses, 462 mules and 22 oxen.
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.
NURSES had served with the military in South Africa as far back as the Zulu Rebellion.Many nurses served with the Boer forces as members of “Het Transvaalsche Roode Kruis” the Red Cross organisation started in Pretoria with the approval of President Paul Kruger before the war. A number of nurses served with the Natal and Transvaal Medical Corps. As members of the Natal Volunteer Medical Corps, 18 nurses took the field in 1899, some serving in the Siege of Ladysmith. Other nurses served in the Assembly Hospital at Pietermaritzburg. Sister Dick was for a time in charge of two wards at the Alexandra Road Barracks, also in Pietermaritzburg.
Following the Crimea War and other military campaigns on the African continent, the health care provision for soldiers had become more formally structured. Shortly before the war in South Africa the Army Nursing Service had come into being, established to provide a body of trained and competent nurses to give care both at home and overseas. By the start of the war in South Africa the Army Nursing Service had a Lady Superintendent and approximately 90 sisters and nurses. The formation of the Princess Christian’s Army Nursing Service Reserve enabled the eventual deployment of over 1,400 trained nurses from the UK.
Natal Volunteer Medical Corps
The NATAL MEDICAL CORPS was formed in 1899 as the Natal Volunteer Medical Corps and was made up of unit staff detachments already in existence. The Commanding Officer, until 1914, was Major (later Lt.-Colonel) Hyslop. In 1899 the strength was 14 officers, 46 other ranks and 18 nurses who served, in the main, in Ladysmith. It became the 2nd Field Ambulance of the South African Medical Corps in 1913.
Captain OJ Currie was ordered to take charge of the Volunteer Hospital at Ladysmith which consisted of 6 marquees, with room for 10 patients in each and the Library buildings were used as an office, operation room and a nurses’ sitting room. Medical staff included Doctor Fernandez, Captains Buntie and Bowhew and Campbell, Doctors Balfour, Marton, Harwarden, Whitehead, Salmond, Kay, Henter, Cream and Nix. The Matron was Yeatman with sisters Mrs Ludlow, Ross, Lees, Shapiro and Miss’s Charleson, Patterson, Keighly and Stow. The number of cases treated by the Volunteer Hospital was 843, 99 of whom died. The largest number of cases accommodated at one time was 345. Those nurses who preferred to remain in town were often helped by civilians such as Miss Craw, Nurse Deane and Miss Webber. The Volunteer Hospital remained in town until November 5th when they were ordered out to Ndomba’s Spruit. (Ntombi).
In 1893, an attorney-at-law, Mohandas K Gandhi arrived in Natal on a brief legal assignment. He decided to remain on learning that disfranchisement of Indians was intended. During his sojourn in South Africa, two field units were raised and commanded by Gandhi from amongst his fellow countrymen then resident in Natal, one, in 1899, the NATAL VOLUNTEER AMBULANCE CORPS and the other, in 1906, the INDIAN STRETCHER BEARER CORPS
The inception and service of the Volunteer Ambulance Corps is best described in Gandhi’s own words: “When war was declared, my personal sympathies were all with the Boers, but I believed then that I had yet no right, in such cases, to enforce my individual convictions. I felt that, if I demanded rights as a British citizen, it was also my duty, as such, to participate in the defence of the British Empire…..So I collected together as many comrades as possible, and with very great difficulty got their services accepted as an ambulance corps…..Dr. Booth supported it whole-heartedly. He trained us in ambulance work and we secured medical certificates of fitness for service at the front…..The Bishop was delighted with my proposal and promised to help us in getting our services accepted…..our services were ultimately needed. Our corps was 1,100 strong, with nearly 40 leaders. About three hundred were free Indians, and the rest indentured. Dr. Booth was also with us. The corps acquitted itself well. Though our work was to be outside the firing line, and though we had the protection of the Red Cross, we were asked at a critical moment to serve within the firing line. The reservation had not been of our seeking, the authorities did not want us to be within range of fire. The situation, however, was changed after the repulse at Spionkop, and General Buller sent the message that, though we were not bound to take the risk, the Government would be thankful if we would do so and fetch the wounded from the field. We had no hesitation and so the action at Spionkop found us working within the firing line. During these days we had to march from twenty-five miles a day, bearing the wounded on stretchers. Amongst the wounded we had the honour of carrying soldiers like General Woodgate.”
Although civilians, the Indians bearers were paid a daily allowance from the Dept of Public Works and they did receive medals, however they were not considered eligible to receive the Queen’s Chocolate. The Rev. Dr Lancelot Parker Booth, the Medical Officer to the corps, lobbied the Secretary of State for War, Sir John Broderick, for decorations on behalf of the leaders. Field-Marshal Lord Garnet Wolseley agreed to the proposition as he felt that, were the matter brought to Queen Victoria’s attention, she would have insisted that medals be awarded. The motivation written to the Colonial Secretary by Lancelot P Booth MD, Medical Officer to the Corps is dated 8th October 1900 and states the following:
“These men are educated, English-speaking, Indians residing in Natal who volunteered for active service in any capacity and underwent training in Ambulance work, and when some 700 to 800 Indian coolies, ignorant of English, were engaged as Ambulance “bearers” these Volunteers were appointed Leaders. The Leaders stipulated that they should be unpaid, as their one desire was to prove in some humble way their loyalty to the Empress of India. These men saw active service in the operations at the Tugela, at Colenso and Spionkop. Their special usefulness was in helping to remove the severely wounded to Rail-end by stretcher when the troops fell back, carrying as far as 25 miles in one day. The War Medal would be highly prized by them.”
Only 34 members of the Indian Ambulance Corps received a Queen’s South Africa medal. Leader S N Richards received the silver Queen’s South Africa medal with bars Tugela Heights and Relief of Ladysmith. The remainder, including Leader Manikum Royeppen, received a Queen’s South Africa medal no bar.
Captain Currie wrote: After the battle of Elandslaagte we had to work hard in the Volunteer Hospital and our beds were all filled up with wounded volunteers and soldiers and we were working till ½ past 3 in the morning, operating on them and attending to their wounds. Among the wounded sent in to us was General Koch the Boer general who was wounded and made prisoner. Colonel Schiel, a German Commander with the Boers, was also wounded and taken prisoner and is now at St Helena. General Koch was sent in a few days to the Dutch Hospital where he died.
On the 22nd October 1899 Surgeon Hornabrook, medical officer of the Natal Mounted Rifles, was seven miles out from Ladysmith when he met a Boer patrol of 25 men. Although alone he shouted to the party to surrender and, as the Boers had been defeated and they were surrounded. The demand was promptly obeyed, the party giving up their rifles to three of their own number, and the triumphant doctor led his 25 prisoners into Elandslaagte Station. If this tale were not vouched for by the Natal Staff it would probably not be credited.
Lord Roberts mentions the invaluable assistance by the British Red Cross Society, who equipped hospital trains and, he also speaks of the value of the hospital ships. As to the nursing sisters he says, “It is difficult to give expression to the deep feeling of gratitude with which the nursing sisterhood has inspired all ranks serving in South Africa”.