Letters from the Boer War


5th March 1900


My dear dear Mother and Father


I daresay you have been thinking of me ever since the day you saw me off in this trooper to the war. It is now a week since I left and although seven days is not much it seems an age as so many things have happened and each day is crowded with events. I hope you and the children are not unduly anxious about me; I am in perfect health and in the best of spirits. We left the Coasts of Ceylon behind yesterday (the first land we saw after leaving Calcutta), and now we shall not see land again till we arrive in Durban twelve days hence. We cross the Equator to-morrow sometime. And now for the life on board ship. It is most awfully hard and yet not unbearable – in fact I think on the whole it is the very best thing for us. We get up at 4.30 and are supposed to scrub decks but being volunteers we are let off this and the sailors do it instead. We are given tea without milk and the sugar is that horrible brown stuff more like treacle than anything. At 5.30 the bugle sounds and we have to go & water & feed our horses; directly this is finished we are told off in sections of fours to clean the horse stalls and this is the most filthy and horrible work we have, but as we are all laughing and singing the whole time and the “wits” of the Regiment are cracking jokes the whole time it is soon over, that is in about an hour. We have to strip up to our waists and pull up our trousers past our knees. We have to simply wallow in the dung and by the time it is finished we are all covered with it from head to foot; the smell of the ammonia is overpowering at first but one soon gets used to it and can work away shovelling and scraping it as if we had done it all our lives. Sections 1 and 2 (the Behar Light Horse) have their horses on deck and consequently it is not so bad for them but we poor chaps have our horses below. Directly this work is over we have breakfast which consists of coffee boiled in huge cauldrons and either dry bread or biscuit, sometimes a tin of fish, part of the presents given us, is allowed; After breakfast is over we go on deck and can do what we like such as wash clothes, clean our guns or saddles or something of this kind till the bugle goes for parade. During this parade about 11 the Colonel and the Captain of the ship go round inspecting everything below and above. Sometimes this parade is a saddle or a rifle inspection and so we always have to have these things clean. Then at 12 we have to water and feed our horses again and at 1 we have dinner which consists of bully or compressed beef – horrible stuff absolutely tasteless and like rags & potatoes with beer for those who want it. During the afternoon we can do what we like except when it comes round our turns to exercise our horses which we do in turns of half companies so that we do it every other day. Matting is spread and the horses walked round and round for about half an hour. This takes us up to 4 o’clock when we have tea given us with milk this time (part of the presents). At 6 we again feed and water our horses and when this is done we can do what we like till 9.30 when the bugle sounds enjoining silence. This is the ordinary routine if you are fortunate but there are a hundred other duties which require to be done and as likely as not you are called on to do them. For instance just as you are comfortably settled and about to say wash your clothes, look over your kit read or write a letter, a non-commissioned officer comes along and says “Fall in for fatigue” and you have to fall in at once and most likely go down the lower hold and fetch cases up or take something down or do some other work which has to be done. Of course it is not as bad now as it was the first three days which were something too terrible, it was fatigue, fatigue all day long.


6th March


I left off suddenly yesterday as the bugle went for water and feed and I had to go away so am continuing today; in fact I’ll add a little every day or so to this letter till we arrive in Durban and you will have quite a budget to read. I forgot to mention yesterday that it was the Colonel’s birthday and he gave us some very good plum pudding and a peg of whisky each. I have just been warned for guard to-night worse luck which means that for the next 24 hours I shall be 2 hours on and 4 hours off, sentry. I have been pretty lucky as it is my first time and some fellows have had it three times already. I have been twice “mess orderly” which is a filthy job; he has to early in the morning fetch a bucket of tea for the whole of his table, then at 8 o’clock he goes and gets the rations for the day which he takes to the cook at least that part of them which has to be cooked such as meat potatoes & onions; he has to clean all plates & pans after each meal scrub the tables and the floor and tidy up everything near his table in the mess room. We crossed the Equator at nine o’clock this morning and we are now in the Tropic of Capricorn. It is beautifully cool above deck but very warm below and it is something awful rubbing our horses down etc; one always strips. You will no doubt think this an awful scrawl but I can’t help as I am writing this on my knee and there are no tables above deck, only below where it is too warm.

We have very good fun in the evening after all work is over, singing, boxing, cockfighting etc. I am to have a grand boxing match to-morrow night. A grand affair, bets have been laid on it. We had a sweepstake on the ship’s run today and two fellows of the Behar lot who went partners won nearly a hundred rupees although we all lost only a rupee each. However I shall not risk any more. A very funny thing happened today – about six of the Behar fellows hung their clothes shirts and khaki uniforms on a line over the side to be cleaned and the rope broke – you should only have seen their faces – one poor chap has only the pair of trousers that he had on left the rest are in the sea. Others lost a shirt or a pair of trousers or something of that kind. I like some of the fellows very well but a great many of them, once gentlemen seem to think that because they are now Tommies it does not matter what they do. They steal, they use the most vile and low language and behave just like ordinary low cads. It is not safe on this ship to leave anything for a few minutes even, it disappears at once whereas in a barrack room I believe stealing is unknown. We are all very sick of the voyage and wish we were there. If we had known the food was going to be so uneatable we could have laid in a stock of butter milk jam cocoa etc. We all thought we should be fed fairly well but it is awful and were it not for the extras provided for us by firms and private individuals we should have a very bad time of it, but they help to make it endurable. Strange to say however that although I sometimes wish I were with you dear ones again I am very contented. I am never sick or sorry and I am too busy to think of the discomforts. After all it is wonderful how easily we can do without many things which once we thought necessities but which are really only luxuries. From early morning till 2 or 3 in the afternoon I don’t have time to have a proper wash even and sometimes not then but I don’t mind it a bit now. One good thing we are never worked harder than we can bear – we are simply asked to do as much as we are able and no more. If you are ill and not feeling well you are either let off all duty or given some light work which does not harm you at all. The Officers are all that can be desired and Dr. Holmes is particularly nice with me. The other troopers don’t like him because he is an outsider but I always stick up for him and say he is the best of them all. The Colonel is a brick. The non-coms are, taken as a whole, fairly good but as they can do nothing it does not matter much what they are; their work is generally supervising and as long as a man works well they can’t say anything. I will now close for today as I am getting tired of writing in this position.


It is now three of four days since I last wrote down my thoughts to you, as I have been extremely busy. We have been rifle drill and horse exercising and numerous other duties which have just been started. I crowed rather too early the other day in saying that I had had only one picquet guard to do – I was on duty again last night and am on at present, although I am having the four hours off. I go on again from 2 to 4 this afternoon.

We are having splendid weather, it is getting cooler every day as we get further away from the Tropics and more into the South Temperate Zone. I daresay it will be beautifully cold at the Cape; we are to arrive there week today, that is on Saturday 16th inst. I suppose you all are wondering where we are. It seems very strange not seeing any land for such a long time except that short glimpse of Ceylon we had. We see none till we actually arrive although there is a rumour that we sight Madagascar to-morrow. We are at present in the Mozambique Channel. You will no doubt be sorry to hear that Mr. C…. is not the man I thought him. He drinks like a fish and talks the most utter rot I have ever heard a man speak. Most of the fellows think him either mad or drunk. He was to have been made Sergeant but on hearing this it was decided that he should not be and another man has been chosen. I see very little of him although I always speak kindly to him when I do and advise him not to drink. He is so dirty too. We all get filthy but we wash & clean ourselves when we get the chance. He prefers to be dirty for a week or so and then he has to clean up. When I was on sentry duty last night from 2 to 4 I was thinking of you all and wondering what you were all doing, not at the moment of course as I daresay you were all sleeping. I did feel so sleepy but I had to keep awake as we are liable to imprisonment if found asleep on our posts and death if in the face of the enemy. Everything is very much stricter now – no nonsense is allowed but it is not a bit irksome; I am only surprised that some fellows complain about it. I suppose Rachel is home by now. You must have been glad to see her and she to see you. I only hope she is having a good time. We all wonder how the war has been getting on, whether we have had any more victories or whether we have lost more men; one thing we all hope and that is that it is not over before we arrive so that we may have a chance of distinguishing ourselves. or at any rate of seeing some actual fighting. The last thing we heard was from the boat taking the pilot off and that was that Cronje had surrendered; whether it was true or not none of us know. Of course before I post this letter to you I shall know but I will send it to you all the same as showing our thoughts & feelings on board. I dropt you a postcard each by the Pilot and also a letter to Mrs Jordan thanking her for her letter and wishing her farewell. I was not able to get a stamp for the letter as I did not find out I hadn’t one till just as the boat was leaving and it was too late by then. I hope she didn’t mind at any rate. Give her my apologies. I told you we were going to Cape Town; I believe we are but we have first to call at Durban for orders to see if they want us there. There are two or three Army officers going out with us and their baggage is all marked Cape Town so I think we are going there. Our average run every 24 hours is about 280 miles although we sometimes do over 300 and sometimes not even 260, according to the winds.


On finishing the last sheet I had to go down and feed & water my horse and as that is now done I have come back to continue my letter to you my beloved ones. I can’t help remarking again how much cooler it has become during the last two or three days. I actually did not sweat at all below just now whereas before I should have come up from below wet through. I think I have told you we wear no shoes whatever on board except at Sunday church parade and even then it is optional, and no coats, only shirts and trousers. One of our horses died day before yesterday (one on deck belonging to a Behar man) of heat apoplexy – a very valuable animal – a good many horse are ill and we have lost a few.


17th March

Dearest Mother, Father & all of you we have arrived at last. I am afraid I was not able to continue my letter to you every day as I was kept very busy and as we are now anchored and shall have to give our letters up I am afraid I can’t write very much before. I have had a very great honour done to me; I have been chosen a Scout for my Section; there are four of us and we are supposed to be picked men. I am glad for although it is a post of danger I have a much better chance of distinguishing myself. When I say “danger” I don’t think one is likely to be killed but more likely to be taken prisoner as we have to go out by ourselves. I have been chosen for my “activity and intelligence”. I think I should have been made a non-com but that I was too boyish looking and the elder men object to having boys over them. I would much rather be what I am than a non-com: a Scout. Goodbye dearest Mother. We have just anchored and are waiting for news of the war. We have just heard Ladysmith is relieved and are waiting for orders whether we have to disembark here or go on Port Elizabeth or Cape Town. Love to you all.

Your loving son



I am afraid I can’t wait until I hear where we are going so I will seal my letter. You will doubtless see it in the papers long before you get this. W