For 118 days during the Second Boer War, the city of Ladysmith (Natal, South Africa) was under siege conditions. From 2nd November 1899 to 28th February 1900, Boer forces kept the British stronghold surrounded, forcing the 20,000 residents to ever-increasing creative efforts to feed themselves. By the time the siege was broken, thousands had died from disease and starvation, as well as from artillery fire.
Christmas fell in the middle of the siege period: the supply situation was grim, but not yet extreme. A Daily News correspondent recorded some of the events in a series of letters which were not published until after the event. The following extract describes the efforts made to maintain an atmosphere of festivity.
THE STORY OF LADYSMITH
BEING UNPUBLISHED LETTERS
THE 'DAILY NEWS' SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
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.
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 the recipe for the day I give you a non-alcoholic drink entirely suitable for childrens’ parties, from a Johannesburg newspaper:
To 1 cup of sugar measure 2 ½ cups boiling water, 1 oz. tartaric acid, 1 egg white and 1 tablespoon lemon essence. Pour the boiling water over the sugar and stir until the granules have dissolved. Whisk the white of egg until it is stiff. Allow the sugar and water mixture to cool then add the tartaric acid, the lemon essence and whisked egg white. Pour the mixture into a bottle and shake it well.
When giving the drink to the small guests, allow 2 tablespoons of the bottled mixture to a tumblerful of water. Add just as each child takes a glass a good pinch of bicarbonate of soda and it will make a delicious “bubbly” drink.
Sunday Times (Johannesburg) December 30, 1945