Christmas at Ladysmith

Well, Christmas is here again, so compliments of the season to those who follow this Blog, and it seemed an appropriate time of year to do a short piece on how Yuletide 1899 was celebrated by those besieged in Ladysmith.

Republican invasion forces pushed into Natal as soon as Kruger declared war in October 1899. Though victorious in the battles of Talana Hill and Elandslaagte, the Imperial forces were so outnumbered that they had little choice but to abandon the coal fields of Dundee and concentrate at Ladysmith to make a stand there. Known as ‘The Aldershot of the South’ before the war, it was the main garrison town in Natal, and additional troops were rushed there in the days before and after the Boer invasion. A small, but vital, Royal Naval Brigade manning six long-range guns on hastily improvised carriages also arrived in the town immediately prior to the Siege, and would play a critical part in the defence of the town.

Needless to say, the Ladysmith of late 1899 was rather different from the bustling town it is today. An account from a medical officer who arrived at that time gives us a good idea of what it must have been like back then:

Ladysmith consists of two main streets of villas and tin-roofed shops, and contains 4,500 inhabitants. It lies in a bend of the River Klip, 3,268 feet above the sea and 190 miles from Durban, and is surrounded by two concentric circles of heights which command it. The circumference of the outer circle is distant 6,000 to 10,000 yards from the centre of the town [these hills would be held by the besieging Boers], and that of the inner circle from 2,000 to 5,000 yards [British defensive positions were dug on these inner hills]. The outer perimeter is 33 miles and the inner 17 miles long. The season was summer and torrential rain was due in December and January.

A solid, no-nonsense veteran of numerous campaigns stretching all the way back to the Indian Mutiny, General Sir George White VC was in command of the garrison. He is seated third from the left in the photo below, wearing a cap. To his left, hatless and with a magnificent moustache, sits Major-General Sir Archibald Hunter. Hunter led the daring raid on the Boer guns on the night of the 7/8 December.

As Christmas neared, Ladysmith had been under siege for almost two months, with about 13,000 Imperial troops (plus another 8000 or so civilians and refugees) surrounded therein. To date, the only serious attempt the republicans had made to storm the town had been on the 9th of November, but, attempting to take positions held by the Manchesters and 1st KRRC, they had been driven off with significant loss. Having successfully beaten off the Boer assaults, and much to the fury of his besiegers, General White then ordered a 21-gun salute (with live rounds) to be fired in honour of the Prince of Wales’ birthday. This brilliant piece of showmanship prompted spontaneous cheers to ring out from the various strong-points and hill tops of Ladysmith’s defensive ring, one position after another joining in the chorus, rather like a Mexican Wave passing round a soccer stadium.

After the bloody nose they’d received on the 9th of November, the republicans settled in for a lengthy siege, happy to bombard the town from the safety of the hills and starve the garrison into submission. Ladysmith suffered daily artillery bombardment, and though (with an admirable sense of priorities) the soda water factory remained working, food supplies were beginning to run low and the daily ration had been cut yet again. Worse still, there was little sign that the Siege would be lifted any time soon: Buller’s attempt to break through at Colenso on the 15th of December had ended in ignominious defeat and he wouldn’t try again for some weeks. In the wake of Colenso, a momentarily disheartened Buller had even advised Sir George White to surrender the town, but White was having none of it, curtly responding: “I hold Ladysmith for the Queen”.

With the Boers cutting off the water supply, the garrison and townsfolk were reduced to using the muddy waters of the Klip River and disease spread rapidly, killing hundreds. Nevertheless, in the best Late-Victorian stiff-upper-lipped tradition, both the soldiers and townspeople decided to make the most of their situation and Christmas was celebrated in some style. No doubt all were encouraged by a message from HM the Queen which was received on the morning of the big day:

“I wish you and all my brave soldiers and sailors a happy Christmas. God protect and bless you all.—V.R.I.”

The Siege had trapped a good number of war reporters in the town, all of whom probably thought it would make the story of their career. Alas, it soon transpired that the only communications with the outside world were those smuggled through the republican lines by a plucky ‘native runner’ or those signaled to and from the relieving forces by heliograph and searchlight. The press-men were thus reduced to keeping diaries or writing articles and letters which would only be published in their respective papers after the Siege. An article in the Daily News featured one such letter written by their splendidly named Special Correspondent, Mr Henry Hiram Steere Pearse, who was trapped in that outpost of Empire throughout:


                                                                                H.H.S. PEARSE

                                               THE ‘DAILY NEWS’ SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT

                                                                                  London, 1900

It needed perhaps all the music that could be mustered in the town to remind the beleaguered garrison and inhabitants that the festive season was upon them. It was inevitable that at such a time the thoughts of all should turn a little regretfully to other scenes.  But it takes a great deal to depress the British soldier to the point at which he is willing to forego his Christmas; and on all hands, in spite of adverse fortune, reparations were made to keep the day in as fitting a manner as the restricted means allowed – with what success is described by Mr. Pearse in the following letter:–

 “Thanks to the perfect organisation which Colonel Ward, C.B., brings into all branches of the department over which he is chief here, and the attention paid to innumerable details by his second in command, Colonel Stoneman, there has never been any danger of necessary supplies being exhausted, even if this place were invested for a much longer time than seems likely now, but these two officers seem to have more than absolute necessaries in reserve. When Colonel Ward was appointed Military Governor of Ladysmith his measures for preserving health in the camps surrounding it took a very comprehensive form. He not only made provision for ample water-supply, in place of that which the Boers had cut off, but his ideas of sanitary precaution embraced inquiry into sources of food-supply and kindred subjects. To the end that he might know whether wholesome meat and drink were being sold, it was obviously necessary that he should have reports as to the articles in which various proprietors of stores traded. Information on these points was collected with so much care that, when the pinch came, he knew exactly where to put his hand on provisions for the healthy and medical comforts for the sick and wounded. He had only to requisition a certain number of shops and hotels that were scheduled as having ample supplies of the things wanted, and the trick was done. Some tradesmen were glad enough to have their old stock taken over wholesale by the military authorities at a profitable price, but others, who foresaw chances of a richer harvest, were inclined to grumble at the arbitrary exercise of power of officials whose acts they regarded as little better than confiscation, and, unfortunately, some of these managed to evade the first call, so that they were allowed to go on selling privately, and running up the prices to a fabulous extent.

 This was a mistake. All should have been treated alike, so that none might complain that kissing goes by favour, even in the most immaculate and best regulated armies. As it was, the military commissariat secured much that would add to the comfort of soldiers, but for what was left civilians had to pay dearly. Some idea of the way in which this worked may be given by a quotation from the prices bid at our Christmas market on Saturday. We have no Covent Garden or Leadenhall here, but it was felt that some sort of show ought to be made at this festive season, and accordingly everything in the form of Christmas fare that could be got together was brought out for sale by auction. It did not amount to much.

 The whole barely sufficed to fill one long table, which was placed in a nook between the main street and a side alley, where fifty people or so might crowd together without attracting the notice of Bulwaan’s gunners, who would delight in nothing so much as the chance of throwing a surprise shell into the midst of such a gathering. [Bulwaan / Bulwan / Bulwana / UmBulwana – take your pick – was one of the hills which dominated Ladysmith, and upon which the Boers had emplaced guns]

 The time for holding this auction had been fixed with a view to the enemy’s ordinary practice of closing hostilities about sunset each evening, but he does not allow this to become a hard and fast rule, nor does he recognise “close time” that may not be broken in upon at will, if sufficient temptation to shoot presents itself. So the sale was held, not only in a secluded corner, but in the brief half-light between sunset and night. Some civilians came as a matter of curiosity to look on, but the majority were soldiers, regular or irregular, on business intent, and they soon ran up with a rapidity that gave the good traders of Ladysmith a lesson in commercial possibilities when it was too late for them to profit by it to the full. Eggs sold readily at nine shillings a dozen, their freshness being taken on trust and no questions asked. Ducks that had certainly not been crammed with good food were considered cheap at half a guinea each, and nobody grumbled at having to give nine shillings and sixpence for a fowl of large bone but scanty flesh. Imported butter in tins fetched eight and sixpence a pound, jam three and sixpence a tin, peaches boiled that morning in syrup, and classified therefore as preserves, went freely for seven and sixpence a bottle, and condensed milk at five shillings a tin. But these prices were low compared with the five shillings given for three tiny cucumbers no longer than one’s hand. The crowning bid of all, however, was thirty shillings for twenty-eight new potatoes, that weighed probably three or four pounds. The buyers were mostly mess-presidents of regiments, whose officers began to crave for some change from the daily rations of tough commissariat beef and compressed vegetables; or troopers of the Imperial Light Horse, who will rough it with the best when necessity compels, but not so long as there are simple luxuries to be had for the money that is plentiful among them.

 Cynics dining sumptuously in their clubs may jeer at the idea of campaigners attaching so much importance to creature comforts. Let them try a course of army rations for two months, and then say what price they would set against a fresh egg or a new potato. Two privates of the Gordon Highlanders stopped beside the auctioneer’s stall as if meditating a bid for some fruit. They listened in wonderment as the prices went up by leaps and bounds. Then said one to the other, “Come awa, mon! We dinna want nae sour grapes.” For them, however, and for others whose means did not run to Christmas market prices, there was consolation in store. Colonel Ward had taken care that there should be a reserve of raisins and other things necessary for the compounding of plum-puddings; and officers of the Army Service Corps were able to report for Sir George White’s satisfaction that sufficient could be issued for every soldier in this force to have a full ration. The only thing wanting was suet, which trek oxen do not yield in abundance after eking out a precarious existence on the shortest of short commons; and half-fed commissariat sheep have not much superfluous fat about them. What substitutes were found it boots not to inquire too curiously, seeing that Tommy did not trouble to ask so long as he got his Christmas pudding in some form. There was no rum for flavouring, as all liquors have to be carefully hoarded for possible emergencies. So for once the British soldier had to celebrate Christmas according to the rules of strict temperance. Yet he managed to have a fairly festive time for all that.

 Boer guns sent us greeting in the shape of shells that did not explode. When dug up they were found to contain rough imitations of plum-pudding that had been partly cooked by the heat of explosion in gun barrels. On the case of each shell was engraved in bold capitals, “With the Compliments of the Season.” This was the Boer gunner’s idea of subtle irony, he being under the impression that everybody in Ladysmith must be then at starvation point. In all probability it did not occur to him that he was throwing into the town a number of curious trophies which collectors were eager to buy on the spot for five pounds each, with the certainty of being able to sell them again if they cared to at an enormous profit some day. After wasting some ammunition for the sake of this practical joke, our enemies began a bombardment in earnest. Most of this was directed at the defenceless town. One shell burst in a private house, wounding slightly the owner, Mrs. Kennedy, whose escape from fatal injuries seemed miraculous, for the room in which she stood at that moment was completely wrecked, the windows blown out, and furniture reduced to a heap of shapeless ruin.

 Shells notwithstanding, the troops had their Christmas sports following a substantial dinner of roast beef and plum-pudding. There were high jinks in the volunteer camps, where Imperial Light Horse, Natal Carbineers, and Border Mounted Rifles, representing the thews and sinews of Colonial manhood, vied with Regular regiments in strenuous tugs of war and other athletic exercises, preparatory to the tournament, which is fixed for New Year’s Day–“weather and the enemy’s guns permitting.”

As Mr Pearse mentioned in his letter, the Boers did indeed deliver some plum pudding to the garrison that morning. The shell is displayed in the Ladysmith Siege Museum:


The locally raised units rather enthusiastically described by Mr Pearse – those comprised of ‘sinewy Colonial manhood’ – do seem to have done everything they could to enjoy the festivities. The Border Mounted Rifles[i] staged a concert on the 22nd December, using improvised instruments such as a drum made of a flour cask with sheepskin stretched over it; the ensemble’s wind section included several tin whistles.

Men of the Natal Mounted Rifles built a large brick oven to cook as many chickens as they could afford to buy at the by-then exorbitant prices: 5/- to 7/6. Plum cakes were on sale at 30/- and plum puddings at 40/-.

Natal Carbineer Arthur Crosby attended Communion at All Saints and later reported, ‘Our dinner consisted of soup, stewed goat and baked beef, both very tough, and plum pudding, very elastic’, but at least there was some rum to wash all that tough meat and elasticity down – no ‘strict temperance’ for these fellows. The Natal Carbineers had suffered badly in the days prior to Christmas: a shell hit their lines on the 18th, killing 2 troopers outright, and mortally wounding another three – plus a sapper who was no less than 200 yards away. The same shell also did for eleven of the Carbineers horses.

In terms of his Christmas dinner, at least, Lt. Colonel Park of the 1st Devonshires seems to have fared rather better, reporting their meal was complete ‘with tablecloths and real wine-glasses’ and a menu comprising hors d’oeuvres, soup, beef, olives, roast chicken, plum pudding and figs. Though it is doubtful the other ranks enjoyed quite such a good feast, again, at least there was little evidence of ‘strict temperance’ for them either: after the loyal toast to the Queen, the Devons drank to the Colonel’s health, with further toasts to sweethearts, wives and absent friends, followed by a lusty singsong and hot rum punch.
It is rather surreal to think that, on the 22nd of December, a shell had killed 5 of the Devons and injured another dozen. It is equally incongruous to imagine that, just a fortnight after their Christmas dinner, on the 6th of January 1900, the same men who were toasting their Queen, sweethearts and Colonel would drive the Boers off Wagon Hill in a fearsome bayonet charge, winning the day for the British. The three companies of Devons who charged that day comprised five officers and 184 other ranks, of whom three officers and 14 men were killed, with another 35 wounded. Lt Masterton won a VC for his gallantry in the action.

One chap could certainly have done with some hot rum punch that Christmas was a trooper of the Natal Police. Another war correspondent, Donald MacDonald – an Australian working for the Melbourne Argus – recorded that this unfortunate (or fortunate, depending on one’s view) fellow was shaving on Christmas morning when ‘a ninety-pounder [presumably a Long Tom shell] passed between the mirror and his face. The shock of the passing shot left him groveling on his face on the ground – as I have seen a beaten pugilist after a knock-out – and for an hour the poor chap could only sit with his head in his hands and, in reply to questions, murmur “not hurt, not hurt”.’


We can also learn a little more about the Festive celebrations – and the obsession over food stuffs – from the diary kept by Henry Woodd Nevinson (of the Daily Chronicle) during the Siege:

                                                                                                                     December 21, 1899.

“Puffing Billy”[ii] of Bulwan, distinguished himself this morning by sending one shot into Colonel Ward’s house and the next into the general’s just beyond. In Colonel Ward’s was a live Christmas turkey, over which a sentry is posted day and night. At first the rumour spread that the bird was mortally wounded; its thigh fractured, its liver penetrated. But about midday public alarm was allayed by the news that the invaluable creature could be seen strutting about and stiffening its feathers as usual. It had not even suffered from shock. The second shot went through Sir Henry Rawlinson’s office, which he had just left, and shattered the Headquarters’ larder, depriving the Staff of butter for the rest of the siege. It has made a model ruin for future sightseers. Unhappily the general was ill in bed with slight fever, and had to be carried to another house up the hill in a dhoolie. This may have encouraged the Boers to think they had killed him.

                                                                                                                     December 24, 1899.

Nothing disturbed the peace of Christmas Eve except three small shells thrown into the town about five o’clock tea-time, for no apparent reason. The main subject of interest was the chance of getting any Christmas dinner. Yesterday twenty-eight potatoes were sold in the market for 30s. A goose fetched anything up to £3, a turkey anything up to £5. But the real problem is water. The river is now a thick stream of brown mud, so thick that it cannot be filtered unless the mud is first precipitated. We used to do it with alum, but no alum is left now. Even soda-water is almost solid.

                                                                                                                       December 25, 1899.

The Boer guns gave us an early Christmas carol [ie. a bombardment], and at intervals all day they joined in the religious and social festivities. Our north end of the town suffered most, and we beguiled the peaceful hours in digging out the shells that had nearly killed us. They have a marketable value. One perfect specimen of a 96lb. shell from Bulwan fell into a soft flower bed and did not burst or receive a scratch. I suppose it cost the Boers about £35, and it would still fetch £10 as a secondhand article. A brother to it pitched into a boarding house close by us, and blew the whole gable end sky high. Unhappily two of the inmates were wounded, and a horse killed.

But such little contretemps as shells did not in the least interfere with the Christmas revels. About 250 children are still left in the town or river caves (where one or two have recently been born), and it was determined they should not be deprived of their Christmas tree. The scheme was started and organised by Colonel Rhodes [Cecil Rhodes’ older brother, Frank] and Major “Karri” Davis, of the Imperial Light Horse. Four enormous trees [patriotically named: Great Britain, Australia, Canada and South Africa] were erected in the auction rooms and decked with traditional magnificence and toys ransacked from every shop.

At half-past eight p.m. fairyland opened. A gigantic Father Christmas [Regimental Sergeant Major Bill Perrin of the Imperial Light Horse] stalked about with branches of pine and snowy cap (the temperature at noon was 103deg. in the shade). Each child had a ticket for its present, and joy was distributed with military precision. When the children had gone to their dreams the room was cleared for a dance, and round whirled the khaki youths with white-bloused maidens in their arms. It was not exactly the Waterloo Ball with sound of revelry by night, but I think it will have more effect on the future of the race.

Other festivities, remote from the unaccustomed feminine charm, were a series of mule races, near the old camp, for soldiers and laughing Kaffir boys. The men’s dinner itself was enough to mark the day. It is true everything was rather skimped, but after the ordinary short rations it was a treat to get any kind of pudding, any pinch of tobacco, and sometimes just a drop of rum.

Almost the saddest part of the siege now is the condition of the animals. The oxen are skeletons of hunger, the few cows hardly give a pint of milk apiece, the horses are failing. Nothing is more pitiful than to feel a willing horse like mine try to gallop as he used, and have to give it up simply for want of food. During the siege I have taught him to talk better than most human beings, and his little apologies are really pathetic when he breaks into something like his old speed and stops with a sigh. It is the same with all.

Nevinson’s poor old nag might have been one of the many which ended up being turned into ‘Chevril’ to sustain the garrison and townsfolk a little longer. Chevril – a rather ghastly sounding meat paste made of horse – doesn’t seem to have been on the menu of the Christmas dinner enjoyed by General Sir George White, however. His papers contain a copy of the rather charming menu he and his friends enjoyed that Christmas:

Some of the text is not easy to make out – and not helped by the fact that it is written in French – but there are some splendidly ‘stiff-upper-lipped’ (if rather laboured) gags in there: the roast mutton, for example, was served with ‘boiled Pom-Pom’ (presumably pomme de terre, but obviously a reference to the 1-pdr Pom-Pom gun). After the ham ‘aux bombes’, the diners could enjoy ‘hell fire plum pudding’ and the rather mind-boggling ‘Kruger cheese’.

The General and his guests were lucky indeed, as this list of prices at a public auction held in Ladysmith at the time suggests:

Eggs per dozen, 11s. 6d.
Small vegetable marrow, 1s. 6d.
Twelve small carrots, 2s. 6d.
Small water melon (worth 1d.), 6s. 6d.
Condensed milk per tin, 5s. 6d.
Fifty-two small potatoes, £1 10s.
Chickens, each, 8s.
Ducks, 13s. 6d.
Dutch butter in tins, 6s. 6d. per lb.
Half a dozen. Manilla cigars, 1s.

There was no ‘English smoking tobacco’ obtainable, and one bottle of whisky changed hands at £5 10s – about six weeks wages for a private soldier or, to put it another way, almost as much as I pay for a bottle of J&B 115 years later.

George W. Steevens of the Daily Mail was another of the gaggle of war correspondents trapped in Ladysmith throughout the Siege. Arguably the most famous such reporter of the age, Steevens had covered Kitchener’s victory at the Battle of Omdurman the year before and no doubt thought the Boer War would provide an opportunity for more such stirring stories from the front.
Instead, he found being bottled up in Ladysmith to be an enormously frustrating situation, describing it as ‘weary, stale, flat, unprofitable’. Though he devoted himself to editing a satirical Siege newsletter called ‘The Ladysmith Lyre’, it wasn’t enough to sate him and, in obvious frustration, he wrote ‘Relieve us, in Heaven’s name, good countrymen, or we die of dullness’. Steevens wasn’t destined to die of dullness, but instead, alas, succumbed to typhoid shortly after New Year.

Indeed, typhoid – often referred to as ‘enteric’ at the time – was one of the main killers during the Siege and the hard-pressed medical staff had that to deal with as well as the endless injuries inflicted by the republican shelling. 3,000 cases of typhoid were experienced by the military garrison alone – 1 man in 4 – with another 2,000 cases of dysentery. Over 500 officers and men would die of disease during the Siege, a figure which does not include the many civilian deaths.
Several Field Hospitals were set up in the town at the start of the Siege, with a Stationary Hospital established in the town hall. These quickly started to take hits from the Boer guns, however, so, in an agreement reached between Sir George White and the Boer Commander, General Joubert, Intombi Hospital had been established in ‘no-man’s land’ outside the town. Four of the seven hospital units were moved to it, the other three remaining in Ladysmith itself[iii]. It was agreed that Intombi hospital (unlike the ones in town)[iv] would not be targeted by the Boer guns, and that women, children and those civilian men who so wished could move there; ultimately, in addition to the wounded, around 1200 civilians of all races moved to Intombi.
This led to some of the more stoic and patriotic townsfolk naming it ‘Fort Funk’, and taking a very dim view of the men who spent the Siege sheltering there in relative safety. The ‘safety’ it afforded was indeed only relative, though, as local Natalian girl, Nurse Kate Driver, recorded. She worked tirelessly throughout the Siege at Intombi, recalling the situation as Christmas approached:

‘It was now well into December and our nurses were beginning to break down… the rations for all were decreasing… The heat had become unbearable and the storms were many. The whole camp recked (sic) of dysentery and enteric… The flies were black on the canvas of the tents. Over our heads from daylight till dark the continual roar of the big guns was exhausting to all’.

The nurses at Intombi weren’t forgotten on the big day: Sir George White himself sent each one a parcel with a rather eclectic selection of presents: Port wine, lime juice, currants, cornflour and tinned tongue. Nurse Driver, who kept a diary throughout the siege, wrote that these items were selflessly put into a common fund for use throughout the hospital and that ‘later, when our sick nurses were in great need of such things, we wished we had all taken our parcels!’.

For some reason, these days it is fashionable to mock the patriotic stoicism these plucky souls displayed throughout the Siege, but they were remarkable people – not content to simply survive, but also to enjoy the Festive period despite everything Kruger’s gunners could throw at them. It would only be on the 28th of February, after Buller had defeated the Boers at the fortnight-long Battle of the Tugela Heights, that the Siege would finally be lifted.


[i] another diary claims this was done by the Natal Mounted Rifles

[ii] The bombarding guns were given rather disarming names by the townsfolk: like the original Long Tom, which was also at Ladysmith, Puffing Billy was a 155mm Creusot gun. ‘Long Tom’ would become the generic nick name for all four of the Creusot guns in Boer service. The two at Ladysmith were regarded as ‘gentlemanly monsters’ as their low muzzle velocity gave plenty of notice of an incoming shell. Some of the other types of guns were rather more feared, however, including Silent Susan, Jangling Jane, Whispering Willy and Belching Botha. Major-General Hunter commanded a night-time raid on the 7/8 December in which Long Tom was blown up. It was thus out of action over Christmas

[iii] No. 1 Field Hospital, No. 1 Stationary Hospital Natal Field Force, No. 26 British Indian Field Hospital and No. 1 Natal Volunteer Field Hospital all moved out to Intombi. Numbers 11, 18 and 24 British Field Hospitals were retained in Ladysmith

[iv] Boer guns bombarded the hospital in the Town Hall on the 30th of November, an atrocity which caused one enraged Natal Carbineer to remark: “may God Almighty help the first Boer who asks me for quarter”




  • Brett Posted December 30, 2017 4:59 pm

    What a fascinating article! Thank you, Chris

  • Damian O’Connor Posted January 6, 2018 1:58 pm

    Excellent stuff. But just what is ‘Kruger Cheese’?

    • Bulldog Posted January 7, 2018 4:46 am

      That seems to have been lost to history… which is perhaps just as well.

  • Ross Posted February 15, 2018 3:26 pm

    I wonder if Ladysmith, British Columbia, where I myself used to reside, was named after this part of the world? Interesting read thank you.

    • Bulldog Posted February 15, 2018 4:10 pm

      More than likely, Ross, given that Canadian troops played a significant role in the Boer War.

Add Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *