Katherine Louisa Oswell was born on 21st June, 1865, in Kings Lynn, Norfolk, England1,2. By 1881 she was still living at home, but working as a dressmaker3. In 1883 she married Charles Rowland Hill in Kings Lynn4.
At the time of the Boer War, Katherine Louisa Hill (now a widower who had trained as a nurse in South Africa) was working in Johannesburg. As with all other British people she was required to leave the Transvaal, and moved to Durban in Natal5.
She volunteered her services to the military and was one of the Natal Volunteers working at Intombi Camp during the siege of Ladysmith. She also worked at the temporary hospital in Vryburg6. She was Mentioned in Dispatches by Sir George White7, and also awarded the Royal Red Cross for her services at Intombi8.
I was in South Africa for a few years before the war started, nursing in Cape Town and Johannesburg; out of which latter place all British people were ordered by the Boer Government.
I, with others, went to Durban in Natal on South East Coast where I carried on my profession. Seeing war was imminent, I volunteered my services for the front on Aug 9th 1899 and received a reply telling me that in case of hostilities, to report at once to Fort Napier, Maritzburg. As all the local Volunteer Militia were being rushed to the front and it was rumored War had broken out, I again wrote to Maritzburg.
We had startling news every day saying the Boers were coming to Durban to drive all the British into the sea. The Imperial Troops began to arrive, the first coming from India. These were disembarked and with their horses, immediately rushed to the front where there was Elaandslagte and Dundee near the border of the Orange Free State now called the Orange River Colony.
Considerable excitement was caused about this time by finding that the Durban light house keeper was in league with the Boers, having been caught sending them heliograph messages (a heliograph is an arrangement of two small round concave mirrors on a tripod and so arranged that they can be adjusted by screws so that the sun shining on one transfers the flash to the second one which is facing the direction in which you are sending the message. These messages are sent the same as telegraph - dot and dash - this means of communication is serviceable for very long distances, it is claimed up to 60 to 70 miles). Apparently this man had been using this means to notify the Boers of all the arrivals and movements of our troops. He was arrested, tried by Court Marshal and shot within three hours, Marshal law being in force. He admitted having received L800, nearly $4000.00 and was to receive L2000 more.
Shortly after this, I received a telegram to report at Maritzburg at once. I arrived at night and took a cab for Fort Napier, but the cabby did not know anymore than I where to go. After trying several places, we discovered the right one . I was very tired, having been nursing right up to the time I was called away. Attached to this Fort was a Military Hospital where I went on duty next morning.
The third morning after my arrival, Col. Johnston came in the ward and said that Nurses were wanted at once at the front. I, with several others, said we wanted to go, he said “what shall I do without Nurses, however you must be ready by 10 p.m. tonight” and told each of us to take for our own use, 1 enamel cup, saucer and plate and one knife, fork and spoon. We left at 10 p.m. a great crowd cheering us.
We traveled all night and arrived in Ladysmith at 7 a.m. and were taken to the Grand Stand on the race course which was to be the Nurses quarters for the present. It was enclosed in canvas in which we cut holes for windows. Heavy fighting had taken place the day before at Dundee and Elandslaagte in which our men were victorious but at heavy loss in killed, wounded, and prisoners. Gen. Pen Symons was amongst the first killed, while gallantly leading his men with victory in sight. Col. Dick Cunningham was badly wounded at Dundee.
A few Nurses who arrived before us had turned the Town Hall into a hospital; going into the stores and commandeering all they needed for equipment. It was a large, airy room with plenty of light and held about 30 beds. We were told we would not be wanted for duty that day, so we took a walk on the hills with one of the Chaplains and had a view of a battle which was in progress to the north.
Ladysmith lies in a hollow, two circles with hills and the Klip river running round it; a pretty place with plenty of trees. It is a Garrison town of about 10,000 people, 200 of whom are soldiers and the remainder white people and Kaffirs. After the battle of Elandslaagte and Dundee, the British decided to fall back on Ladysmith and use that as their base of operations until reinforcements arrived. The Boers followed on and took up positions on the outer range of hills, all of which were within six miles of the centre of the town. The British took up positions on the inner line.
We will now go back to where we were watching the battle. We were not able to see much of what was really going on, so we decided to return to the town. We descended the hills and went to our Grand Stand, with the hope of finding tea ready. During this meal, the Nursing Sister in charge (“Sister Dorise”) told us we had better have a rest as we might be wanted later on. At 12 midnight we were called on duty, as they were bringing a few of the wounded men in. There were not many brought in that night, but the next day we were kept busy, hardly time for a meal. When we did go, we found some of the ladies of the town had prepared a large jug of soup & a rice pudding for us which was very acceptable, as we had no time to prepare anything ourselves.
The wounded men that came in the second day were very wet. They had lain on the field for about 24 hours in pouring rain. We attended them as quickly as possible, those who had to be operated upon were hurried to the operating room. The doctors & nurses were operating all night.
We had one Boer Commandant (Pretorius by name) who came in with a fractured leg. They sat him in a chair & put his bad leg on another chair until he could be attended to. The man must have fallen asleep, suddenly we heard an awful roar. This man’s leg had fallen off the chair. You can imagine what agony it was.
He was blessing the British in Dutch language; he was a big powerful man;, they hurried him into the operating room & attended to his leg. Some months later he had his leg amputated in Cape Town & went back to duty. He often told the doctor, on account of the latter’s size, he would make a good target; he was very fond of coffee, as they all are, but he had his special brand; he was an educated man & spoke English fluently.
The wounded were brought in from the battle fields in ambulance wagons & also by Doolie bearers which are Indians & are carried straight into the wards. We had several of the enemy as well as English; we were kept busy practically night & day for a week, then I was put on night duty alone in this Hospital. There were two of the Churches by this time turned into Hospitals.
I found it very difficult to sleep in the day-time with the noise of the guns & small arms which were kept up from daylight to dark & the bursting of the shells. One of the Staff Officers suggested moving my quarters with his wife, who was also a nurse there, to the house occupied as headquarters of the Intelligence Department. This change was worse than ever, what with the dispatch riders & scouts coming in and out continually with the messages; it was quite impossible to obtain any sleep. A woman who lived there had a baby a few weeks old, she carried it in her arms all the time, as she was afraid it would be killed if she put it down. There had been a shell burst close to the house the day before & several had burst nearby.
Canon Barker, an old man, had services in the Anglican Church daily & many times shells had rolled down by the side of him, but he always escaped unhurt. The shelling was kept up continually. The Church was struck three times. All these shells which were fired into the town were 100 lb. shells. The guns which fired these daily had fancy names. Silent-Susan, Creeping Jenny, Billy Goat, Bloody Mary, Long Tom, etc.
The shelling was kept up & too close for the safety of the hospital that General White thought it advisable to send a message to the Boer General, which was Joubert - telling him that the shells were endangering the lives of the patients in the hospital, and asking whether they might be removed down the line to Maritzburg. Before this happened, there had been a meeting of the townspeople at which the Military Authorities advised them at least to send the women & children away to the Coast for safety. A great many of them refused to go, but several hundred went.
At this time the Boers were round three sides of the town and were harassing the railway on the South. Communication was not all cut off until Nov. 5th 1899, after which date, General White asked permission to send the patients away. The messenger was gone a day. (Of course we knew nothing of this at the time) but apparently the request was not granted as asked. The reply was this from Gen. Joubert, that the patients could be moved to a place where they would be safe, Doctors , Nurses, all Hospital equipment etc. to Intombi Spruit a bare spot four miles from the town, near the base of Unibulwaan (a hill) on the top of which Long Tom was situated. For this removal he would allow the space of 24 hours to elapse without shelling the town.
General White thought for humanities sake, he had better agree to this, as Gen. Joubert gave his promise that the camp & contents & residents would be looked upon as neutral & not be molested in any way by them. We received instructions in the morning, but having so much to do, we did not get there until late in the afternoon.
We went down by train, as the new site was near the railway. They just managed to put two or three tents up before dark & we had to bundle the worst patients in these tents lying side by side on the ground. The only attention they were able to get that night was a drink of water.
All nurses baggage was thrown out of the train on the veldt & we each had to go & get our own in the dark. The nurses that night had to sleep in a small tent, or tried to sleep; we were not able to undress. I, having been on night duty the night before & up all that day. I felt very tired. The next day I had to prepare for night duty again. By night the patients were more comfortably settled, as we had several big tents up. We had about 100 patients then.
In two weeks time, the place began to look like a village of canvas. From the time we moved there, the train brought our food & water every morning. All during the siege the food was weighed out for each person with great exactitude & everybody fared exactly the same, luxuries we never had while the siege lasted.
While the line of communication was cut on the 5th of Nov., there were in the town about 21,000 people. Of these, 13,000 were under orders & known as combatants or fighters. The residents who remained behind were in the same position as the soldiers, regarding their food & treatment. They had to take their chances with the rest. About a week after we arrived in Camp, dysentery & then fever broke out. Patients increasing in numbers. They arrived from the town daily, various numbers ranging from 20 to 40 a day. All were soldiers. This taxed the hospital to the utmost, nurses having as many as 60 patients each to look after with the help of one or more orderlies.
I was on night duty for the first two weeks & it certainly was not very pleasant as it rained a good deal of the time. We only had 19 nurses & never more than three on night duty. At one time, about the middle of the siege, we had about 2000 patients in hospital.
The men did not have much chance to recuperate as there was so little food & of a poor quality. Our rations were daily: 5 oz cornmeal, ½ lb bread or two biscuits, 1/3 of an oz. of tea, 1/5 of an oz. of sugar, ½ lb. of meat. This was on daily ration, but later on in times of reserves, our rations were cut down to a quarter of this amount & sugar was a luxury not to be had. We were not allowed lights in our tents at night, as all candles had to be kept for the hospital tents. A kind friend managed to get a light for me once or twice.
We had some very bad cases of enteric or typhoid fever, some of which were beyond recovery. All the men who died were sewn up in their army blankets & buried quietly. From the time we moved out there, there was continuous fighting & shelling of the town by the Boers. This shelling was returned in quick time by our Naval Brigade which were stationed in & around the town. One of the Boer big guns “Long Tom” was at the top of Unibulwaan shells of which had to pass right over our camp, also the shells from the Naval guns, we could hear the roar of the shells when they were passing over us. At times we used to rush out to see where the shells would fall.
Towards the latter part of the siege, when the enemy tried to dam the river & flood the town, the British moved one of the Naval Guns into a new position at night & hid it well. This position was considerably closer to our camp than it had been formerly & when the enemy came out to throw the sand-bags in the river they would get a warm reception in the shape of a 4' - 7' shell from the Naval Gun.
On the 8th of Dec. at night, a body of men about 20 in number belonging to the Imperial Light Horse, having got tired of the monotony of life, decided on an expedition of their own; they did not go through the formalities of asking permission, struck out & crossed the Klip river & crept up to Gun Hill which was to the East, not more than half a mile to our camp.
One of the Boer siege guns “Long Tom” was stationed on this Hill where their men were discovered by the enemy (having already had their bayonets fixed) they gave a British cheer & charged. The Boers, thinking no doubt there was an army there, decided to retreat. The British charged right up the hill & as the Boers had left everything, they pulled the breech lock out of “Long Tom” & placed about 100 lbs. of dynamite in the gun; after lighting the fuse, took the cleaning rod & a Maxim gun & started back for their own camp in haste. By this time the Boers having found out there were not so many men as they thought, returned to their entrenchments & fired on the retreating men with their rifles. This was one of the enemy’s strongest positions.
It was only by good luck & strong nerve these men got through so well, having only one man wounded when the enemy got to their gun; not knowing the charge of dynamite was in it & also the fuse burning. This suddenly went off, with disastrous results to both gun & men, it was reported three men were killed & the gun absolutely wrecked.
On the 6th of Jan. there was a big battle on Wagon Hill which we could see distinctly. The Boers made a determined attempt to capture Ladysmith, making their attack on Wagon Hill & Caesars Camp which is alongside & overlooking Wagon Hill. After putting up a determined resistance for about 8 hours, the ammunition of the British gave out. They had to retire.
Reinforcements which were coming up, charged in & retook part of the hill, but were driven out with a heavy loss by the enemy. The highlanders who were also coming up to reinforce the British (although they had been fighting all day & won the battle) charged the enemy with irresistible fury & went over the hill with a rush & a cheer driving the enemy before them like sheep & were with difficulty prevented from pursuing them farther, as it would have been dangerous.
We had an anxious day as we heard so many different rumours. When we saw the Boers retreating, we knew things were all right; our men had saved the town. The patients were all in a state of excitement. Our losses were very heavy in killed & wounded. This was the last time the Boers attempted to take the town by assault.
We will go back a couple of weeks to Dec. 25th Xmas day , General White tried to make things as pleasant as possible. In the town the unit of the Natal Mounted Rifles got up an impromptu band composed of eleven instruments, ten whistles, barrels with the end knocked out & covered with raw-hide were the drums. They made a smart uniform with colored paper fronts & paraded the town, distributed music for all & sundry. We did not see any of this, as we were not in the town.
Gen. White sent each nurse a present out to the Camp for Xmas: ½ lb. of tea, 1 lb. of loaf sugar, 1 tin condensed milk, 1 bottle Rose’s lime juice cordial an unmade Plum pudding, all the ingredients excepting the suet, which could not be had. We were all delighted with our present & had a good time. We managed to make the plum puddings without suet.
I do not remember any shells coming over the camp that day. The people of the town got up a Xmas tree for the children, so altogether Xmas day passed off very well, although we could not help thinking of home.
The only news we ever had came down with the supply train each morning, sometimes there was no news, another time there would be a reverse & sometimes the news was a little hopeful. We thought many times we were never going to be relieved.
Time went on, everything was very monotonous. We thought sometimes we had always been there. The Boers seemed to have decided that their only course was to settle down for a long siege in the hope that we would be forced to surrender through starvation & sickness. At this time the fever was at its height & after the battle of Wagon Hill, the town & camp were full of wounded & sick. There being over 5000 patients in both places about the middle of Jan. This was I think the most we ever had.
From this time up till the end of the siege, the Boers kept up an intermittent big gun fire, but at no time was the firing very heavy against the town. At different times the Boers would come to our camps from the hills under the white flag for medicine. Through courtesy, our people let them have a little, but we could ill spare it as we had so little. We were able to get a little fresh milk each day for the worst cases & the others had a different mixture of different kinds of food such as arrowroot, cornflour etc. This was made in a big pot & if there was not sufficient to go round, the man who made it added more water. The patient’s christened their food “Stretch It”.
About the middle of the siege they had to kill horses in the town for consumption. The patients were allowed the soup which was called “Chevrill”. They liked it very much. We also had the horsemeat to eat, but they kept the joint covered, so that we should not see it. We did not dislike it at all, but really preferred it to the tough meat we usually got. As you can imagine, the man in charge of issuing all these supplies had a very trying position to fill. To his credit it can be said that he was the best man for the work & Sir George White said himself that Col. E. W. D. Ward was the best commissariat officer since Moses.
I will now pass on to just before the relief, which as you all know was on the 28th of Feb. 1900. From about the 8th of Feb. daily we could hear big guns fire, of heavy battles in the distance to the South which up to the 22nd apparently got no nearer, but on the 26th the sound of the fighting appeared to be coming closer on which latter date those on the lookout from the Cumming Tower could see a battle (we heard this quite distinctly at Preters which was a station about 18 miles south of Ladysmith). After this, the rumours were that the British had been driven back.
Our feelings at this news were pretty low (this was the evening of the 27th) the relief column having been seen from the town, it seemed hard that they could not get to us. However these rumours were without foundation. Early in the morning of the 28th the men in our camp remarked things seemed quiet.
On the hill of Unibulwaan (the main Boer position) they could not see men walking about. We heard no firing from that quarter, we could still hear firing from the South which seemed to be drawing nearer as they day progressed until about 3 p.m., when a body of horsemen were seen coming in the far distance riding rapidly towards the town. Great excitement in our camp, men running about saying the Boers were coming, then again it was the relief column & to our great joy it was really at last come to our relief after four months.
We did not know whether to laugh or cry, we did both. As many of the men who were able went to meet them, but the horsemen would not stop, but shouted “General Butler will be here at 10 a.m. in the morning”. They threw the men tobacco, cigarettes & matches, all they had. These things were quite unknown in our camp. This was lord Dundonald & his men composed mostly of colonial troops. There was great excitement when they reached the town.
Nobody slept much that night, the men, doctors, chaplains, etc. singing nearly all night. Early next morning March 1st, a party of men climbed the hill of Unibulwaan & found the Boers had left in haste, took all their guns but left everything else. Tents, food, etc. These men brought as much food down with them as they could & distributed to the people. They came to the nurses tent & gave us two large potatoes & two onions each. We had quite a grand banquet that night. We made some white sauce to eat with the onion.
About 10 a.m. an orderly came up and told us if we wished to see General Butler come in , he was then coming over the hill of Unibulwaan at the back of our camp. He came right down & through the camp & had a talk with us all. He said the camp looked very nicely kept & very clean, but we all looked so thin; but good times were coming for us all & he would see us again. Then he & his men rode into the town.
Before this time I felt I was going to have the fever, but I was determined to see the relief column in; but after it was all over, I had to go to bed & remain there for six weeks. There were six nurses down at the time with fever, but we did not have one death.
Our camp remained as it was for a month, that made it five months except 4 days. The supply convoy came in on the 2nd of March. They immediately rushed all kinds of medical comforts to the Hospitals & distributed freely. It was reported after that even at quarter rations there were not enough supplies in Ladysmith to last four days longer.
The first thing I did after the siege was raised, was to send a cablegram to England saying I was safe. I had had no letters for four months. As soon as we were able to be moved, we were carried on stretchers to the Princess Christian Hospital train (which was pure white & fitted up luxuriously) & taken down the line as far as Mooi River to a Military Hospital.
I was there three weeks & from there I went to Durban on a Hospital Ship to convalesce. I was there a month, then went home on a Transport to England. I was so much better that they put me on duty on board the transport. There were about 200 men & four women altogether. It was a very large vessel. One of the Leyland Liners called the "Wruefredian”. I stayed in England for two months then came back & joined the nursing staff again.
She met Harold Austin Nealon, a Canadian corporal who fought in the Boer War, after Harold contracted typhoid fever. Katherine, 17 years his senior, nursed him back to health. The couple fell in love and married in 1903. Two years later their daughter Ethel was born. In 1908 they moved to Canada to be closer to Harold’s family who had first immigrated to Canada from Ireland in 1840 in search of a better life5.
The memoirs are reproduced here with grateful thanks to her grandaughter Mavis Garland.