Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Christmas under Siege, 1899. Part 2

I continue the newspaper correspondent’s description of the events of Christmas 1899, during the Boer siege of Ladysmith:-

You may be sure that sick and wounded at Intombi hospital were not forgotten in the midst of our wild festivities. For them the morning train was laden with fruit, flowers, and such delicacies as the resources of this beleaguered town can still furnish. There are many unselfish people here who do not want to make money by selling things at market prices, or to keep for their own use the dainties that might be nectar to the lips of suffering soldiers. And there are officers also who have given of their abundance so freely that they will have to be dependent on similar generosity if the chances of war should number them among the sick or wounded. I must guard myself against being misunderstood. The hospital patients at Intombi Camp are not reduced to meagre fare yet, nor likely to be, but medical comforts are not all that a sick man craves for, and the simplest gifts sent from Ladysmith's store that day must have been like a ray of sunshine brightening the lot of some poor fellow with the assurance that, though far from home, he was still among friends who cared for him. Nor were the weakly and the children who still remain in this town forgotten. Colonel Dartnell, a soldier of wide experience, who commands the Field Force of Natal Police, and is beloved by every man serving under him; Major Karri Davis, of the Imperial Light Horse; Colonel Frank Rhodes, Lord Ava, and a few others got together the materials for a great Christmas tree, to which all the little ones between babyhood and their teens were invited. The Light Horse Major's long imprisonment with his brother officer Sampson in Pretoria, far from embittering him against humanity in general, has only made him more sympathetic with the trials and sufferings of others; just as heavy fines and a death sentence seemed to bring out the most lovable characteristics of Colonel Rhodes. It was Karri Davis who bought up all the unbroken toys that were to be found in Ladysmith shops; and the ready hands of ladies, who are always interested in such work, decorated the Christmas trees or adorned the hall in which this gathering was to be held with gay devices and hopeful mottoes. There were four trees. Round their bases respectively ran the words, "Great Britain," "Australia," "Canada," and "South Africa," and above them all the folds of the Union Jack were festooned. Contributors sent bon-bons and crackers in such profusion that each tree bore a bewildering variety of fruit. To avoid confusion in distributing prizes, these were numbered to correspond with the tickets issued; and Santa Claus, who patronised the ceremony, in a costume of snowy swansdown, that shed flakes wherever he walked, was content to play his part in dumb show, while the children walked round after him to receive the toys that were plucked for them, with many jests, by Colonel Dartnell and his genial colleagues. Over two hundred children were there, and many of
them so young that it seemed as if the one precluded from attendance on the score of extreme youthfulness must have been the siege baby, who was then only a few days old. Generals Sir George White and Sir Archibald Hunter, with their aides-de-camp and many staff officers, came to take part in the interesting scene.
Looking at the little ones as they trooped through the hall, in their white finery, Sir George said he had no idea that so many children remained in Ladysmith, and perhaps at that moment his heart was heavy with a deeper sense of the responsibility thrust upon him. But fortunately we have been spared the worst horrors of a bombardment. Though Boer gunners have never hesitated, but rather preferred, to turn their fire on the open town, with a probability of hitting some house in which were women and children, none of the latter, and only two of the former, have been hit through the whole siege. Mrs. Kennedy, to whose narrow escape I have already referred, suffered so little bodily injury or nerve shock that she was present with her children at the Christmas tree entertainment, and took the congratulations of her friends quite coolly. After the children had gone home trees and trappings were dismantled, and the hall cleared for dancing, which the young people of Ladysmith and a few subalterns off duty kept up with much spirit until near midnight. In days to come we may look back to our Christmas under siege in Ladysmith, and think that after all we had not a very bad time.
At this moment, however, there is probably nobody outside who envies our lot, or grudges us any enjoyment we may manage to get out of it. Soldiers, at any rate, deserve every chance of relaxation that can be found for them. There are several regiments of this force that have been practically on outpost duty since the investment began, often exposed torain-storms during the day, because they could not pitch even shelter tents without drawing the enemy's fire on them. When the honours for this campaign come to be distributed I hope the services of these regiments will not be ignored.

And on 31st December:

And so Christmas-tide was past, and the New Year broke upon the beleaguered garrison. So great is the influence of times and seasons that we may well believe that even in Ladysmith the first day of 1900 brought a brighter ray of hope. But hope must yet for long be deferred, and the daily round of tasks grow wearisome by repetition--the daily dole of eked-out rations, the daily tale of bursting shells, were for many weeks, with one day's startling break, to be the sole preoccupation of the defenders. The enemy, even his first day of January, were not willing to leave the garrison in doubt as to their presence, although, despite the possible touch of sarcasm, there was a grim sort of friendliness in      their reminder. It again took the form of blind shells--this time fired from the Free State batteries inscribed "Compliments of the Season." The sarcasm (writes Mr. Pearse) seems the more pointed because we hear that the Boers believe us to be starving and unable to hold out much longer. We should, at any rate, appreciate the good wishes more if they were sent in another form. Shells, even without fuses or powder-charges, are not quite harmless; and though these have done no damage so far, there is always a chance that they may hit somebody when fired into the heart of a town where people still carry on their customary occupations in spite of bombardment.

I wanted to give you a South African recipe for gingerbread – as you know, I like to add a few gingerbreads to the archive at Christmas. The first that I came across has a name that is now offensive and derogatory, but food history has its dark side too, so I give it to you as it is. Kaffir (kafir) corn is not maize, but is a type of sorghum:

Kafir Corn Gingerbread.
2 cupfuls Kafir corn meal                           1 teaspoonful powdered cinnamon
2 ½ cupful sour milk or buttermilk          ½ teaspoonful powdered cloves
1 teaspoonful salt                                         1¼ teaspoonfuls soda
2 tablespoonfuls butter                               ¾ cupful sugar
1 cupful wheat flour                                     1 egg
2 teaspoonfuls powdered ginger
Mix thoroughly the meal, buttermilk, and salt in a double boiler, and cook over hot water one-half hour or longer. Stir the butter into the mush while it is still warm. Sift together the flour, spices, and soda. When the mush is cool combine all the ingredients. Beat thoroughly and bake in a moderate oven in shallow iron pans.

Farmers’ Bulletin, US Government Printing Office (1919)

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