Monday, February 01, 2016

Desperation Dinners: The Siege of Ladysmith, February 1900.

At the end of December I wrote two posts (here and here) about the attempts to keep up the Christmas spirit during the siege of Ladysmith (South Africa,) in the face of ever-dwindling food resources. I want to return to the story of the siege again today, but first, for those of you not familiar with the events of the time, let me repeat my summary from my December post:

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.

We pick up the story on this day, February 1st, 1900, as it was recorded by a correspondent for Daily News in one of a series of letters published after the siege was over.

February 1. It has come at last. Horseflesh is to be served out for food, instead of being buried or cremated. We do not take it in the solid form yet, or at least not consciously, but Colonel Ward has set up a factory, with Lieutenant McNalty as managing director, for the conversion of horseflesh into extract of meat under the inviting name of Chevril. This is intended for use in hospitals, where nourishment in that form is sorely needed, since Bovril and Liebig are not to be had.
It is also ordered that a pint of soup made from this Chevril shall be issued daily to each man. I have tasted the soup and found it excellent, prejudice notwithstanding. We have no news from General Buller beyond a heliogram, warning us that a German engineer is coming with a plan in his pocket for the construction of some wonderful dam which is to hold back the waters of the Klip River and flood us out of Ladysmith.

February 3. Horseflesh was placed frankly on the bill of fare to-day as a ration for troops and civilians alike, but many of the latter refused to take it. Hunger will probably make them less squeamish, but one cannot help sympathising with the weakly, who are already suffering from want of proper nourishment, and for whom there is no alternative. Market prices have long since gone beyond the reach of ordinary purses.

February 4. One pathetic incident touched me nearly this morning, as a forerunner of many that may come soon. I found sitting on a doorstep, apparently too weak to move, a young fellow of the Imperial Light Horse - scarcely more than a boy -his stalwart form shrunken by illness. He was toying with a spray of wild jasmine, as if its perfume brought back vague memories of home. I learned that he had been wounded at Elandslaagte and again on Waggon Hill. Then came Intombi and malaria. He had only been discharged from hospital that morning. His appetite was not quite equal to the horseflesh test, so he had gone without food. I took him to my room and gave him such things as a scanty store could furnish, with the last dram of whisky for a stimulant, and I never felt more thankful than at that moment for the health and strength that give
an appetite robust enough for any fare.

As the recipe for the day, please enjoy the following very basic instructions for horse meat soup given in The Journal of Prison Discipline and Philanthropy (Philadelphia, 1868) and said to be that served in Danish prisons of the time:

The prison fare for Denmark is two pounds of rye bread a day for men, and one and a half pounds for women; one pint of beer, and in winter half a pint of hot beer. Neither tea nor coffee are served, and nothing (excepting the beer) given as substitute.
Twice a month, on Sunday, there is a soup served, in which there are fifty pounds of beef, bone and all, for one hundred persons, and on the alternate Sunday soup is served, made of Horse Flesh.

Subjoined is a recipe for the horse meat soup:—
Horse meat,              50 pounds
Cabbage,                    36 pounds
Barley groats,            4 pounds
Spice,                         2 pounds
Salt,                            4 pounds
Some onions.           

There are several of these recipes, but horse meat is the basis.

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