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 Letter from an Unnamed Naval Surgeon

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Petty Officer Tom

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PostSubject: Letter from an Unnamed Naval Surgeon   Sun Feb 19, 2017 5:18 pm

Herwen Hospital, Stanger, Natal
April 15th, 1879

My ___________,
 I have just come back from Zululand after having been absent about two weeks.  I left this hospital with the medical staff on the 28th of March, and got to the Tugela on the next day.  There I saw a sight which I shall not forget – tents for 5,000 men all over the ground.  We were to start for the relief on Sunday – viz., the relief of Ekowe, where Colonel Pearson had been shut up for close on two months.  We started on Saturday morning, at four a.m., and marched into Zululand to a place called Lunane, about nine miles inland, where we laagered up for the night.  We discovered no signs of the enemy ass yet, so the mounted men went out and burned all the kraals about.  The next morning, at eight a.m., we started off for the Maticulo river, where we expected a fight, but no Zulu were there, but we saw their signal fires at night.  The Maticulo is a beautiful river, in which I had the luxury of a bath.  I never enjoyed a swim so much.  The river is not deep, but it has a rapid current like the Rhone at Lyons.  We took all the day crossing it.  You know every waggon here is drawn by eighteen span of oxen, so you may image the length of our column of 115 waggons; it was six miles long.  Luckily, the Zulus did not attack us on the march.  Well, when we got to the other side we laagered up as usual, and made preparations to resist an attack.  On the 1st of April we again started – rather next morning at five o’clock – and marched six miles to a place called Gingholovo, where we encamped and formed our laager.  It is the rule for all regiments to dig a trench all round the camp.  Just as the laager of waggons was finished down came a terrific thunderstorm, which drenched us all to the skin, and as we had no tents with us, and had to sleep out in the open air, it was very dismal and wretched; however, we had some rum served out to us to prevent the rain from giving us cold, I suppose.  I felt no evil effects; in fact, I have never had an hour’s illness in this country, although I see men of in all directions down with typhoid fever, dysentery, diarrhea, etc.  Well, that night we had a false alarm, the scouts coming in and saying that Zulus were about – and so they were.  In an hour’s time we heard, “Stand to your arms, boys; the enemy are coming.”  I got up on a waggon to see if I could see them, and just about five hundred yards off I saw that the whole camp was being surrounded.  They could not have come on at a better moment – everything was ready for them in the trenches.  As far as I could see, the place was swarming with them, and they came on with terribly loud yells.  They all had guns.  Well, after I had looked at them for five minutes – the men were saying, “Why don’t they open on them with the Gatling?’” – when bullets whizzed past my head and the fight began.  Never did I hear such a roll of musketry, interspersed with the rush of the rockets, and boom of the 9-pounders, and I felt that I was in a battle for the first time.  I had some of the narrowest escapes any man ever had.  Surgeon-Major T_____t was probing for a bullet wound in a man’s shoulder, and he asked me to fetch him another foreceps; I was kneeling beside him at the time; so I got up and ran to get it for him.  Just as I left the place a bullet came and hit and flattened on the ambulance wheel, exactly where I had been; a horse was shot within two yards of me; and Dr. Longfield, of the Tenedos man-of-war, was shot quite close to me while he was dressing a wounded man.
 The Zulus are very brave.  They ran up to within 25 yards of the Gatling gun.  We lost seven men killed and two officers, Lieutenant Johnson and Colonel Northey.  I knew poor Johnson very well; he was shot through the heart.  Colonel Northey was shot in the spine and lung; he lived for three days.  We had thirty wounded – that is without counting the blacks in our pay or the native contingent.  We killed close on 1,700 Zulus, and I am sure there were many more who died of their wounds, as bodies were found five miles from the place of the fight.  I suppose you will read it all in the papers.  I was dressing some of the Zulu prisoners taken after the fight, when the artists of the Illustrated London News and the Graphic were taking sketches of the scene.  It was a great defeat to the Zulus this battle, and has almost ruined their prestige.  The prisoners give the number of those who attacked us at 18,000 and 7,000 of a reserve.  Our trophies were 800 old guns and thousands of assegais and shields.  Well, the next day the General left us in a small laager, with two companies of the Buffs, six companies of the 99th Regiment, and the Naval Brigade, to go to the relief of Colonel Pearson.  He took with him the 57th, 60th, and 91st, and two rockets.  So we left alone there for four days.  We had several false alarms.  Then we left the laager we were in and came up to another on an opposite hill, where the remainder of our men who had come back from Ekowe joined us and erected a large entrenchment.  We then, the medical staff, proceeded with the wounded and sick men, of whom we had seventy, a good number.  We came on by slow stages, and have at last arrived at the hospital, which is called the Base Hospital, in account of it being near the base of operations.  I am greatly disappointed in the country here.  In Zululand, so far as I went, on can see nothing but long grass and a few clumps of mimosa, but as to game of any description there is absolutely none.  No buck except one or two have I seen since I came out, and scarcely a bird except vultures, and there are plenty of them round the battlefield.  I can tell you I often wished for a little bit of butter and a good cup of tea and bread, instead of hard biscuit and tea without sugar or milk, and having to lie out on the grass, with cattle and horses all around you, in nothing but a blanket.  We are not allowed to carry more, and yet it seemed to agree with me.  We had to cook our own meat, but I had my man Friday, who was a great help to me.  I have seen and taken part in a battle, I only fired three shots right out of camp at a Zulu, he fell, but I don’t think my bullet struck him.  Tell J. Mc_____ that it would have frightened him to see these men rushing forward with yells to attack us.  They are nearly all over six feet, and some of them close on seven.  They are nearly naked except a few skins round their loins.  I have not received a letter from you since I left Durban on the 10th March, but I hope to get my letters, etc., from it soon.  I have just had orders to proceed to Victoria in charge of a hospital marquee and two tents, with three men and a corporal of the Army Hospital Corps, to be a kind of intermediate hospital stage for wounded men.  Victoria is about thirty miles from Durban; Stanger, where I know write, about sixty –five.

(Source:  The Belfast News-Letter, May 28, 1879)

Petty Officer Tom
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