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Letter Written by Ernest West - Ladysmith - Boer War

On 9th October 1899 the Boers gave the British an ultimatum that they withdraw their troops from the borders of the South African Republics. The British refused and two days later the Anglo Boer War commenced. The mounted Boer commandos immediately swept into the British Colony of Natal and pushing back the British troops in only 21 days, they were at the doors of the town of Ladysmith, the last major obstacle facing the Boers before they reached the coast. The British troops, under the command of General Sir George White, were told that their duty was to stand firm in the town and to prevent it from being taken. So began the Siege of Ladysmith. 21000 Boers pitted against 12000 British troops encircled in the town.

This letter was written by Ernest West to his mother, in Barton, describing the hardships experienced by the garrison of Ladysmith. Taken from St. Nicholas Parish magazine, Barton Le Clay, May 1900. The transcription is as written, the spelling is his.

March 8th 1900

My Dear Mother,

Just a few lines to you in answer to your numerous letters that I received om the 2nd of March. You don't know what pleasure it gives me to think that I have been spared to write to you again, for, dear mother, I must say, that I never witnessed four such months in the whole of my life, for as you know, if you have read the papers, that we in Ladysmith have been surrounded by the enemy, and could not get out, and for a whole four months have been looking forward to our relief coming, which it did do on the 28th February, and, dear mother, it only came just in time, for we was just about run out of rations, and you can guess what it was like for we had to eat our own horses. Out of the 520 horses that we brought with us we have only sixty left. We have eat all the others, and we was on one little biscuit a day the latter part of the time, and you would not credit the rubbish and muck the poor fellows eat, and that is not saying about the danger we was exposed to all day long, for we was being fired upon all day long by their big guns which they had on the hills all round us, for we was in a hollow and they was on the top of high hills. For the number of shells they fired at us there should not have been a man left, but I think the Lord must have been working with us, for most of the shots found a spare piece of ground. But it was food we was suffering from mostly and enteric fever, for up to now, dear mother, we have lost sixty-four out of my Regiment, and it is the same in every other Regiment. But I don't know what they are going to do with us now as we have no horses to go any further up country with, but I don't think the war will last much longer now as they are just beginning to see the mistake they made taking on England, but I shall be only too pleased to get out of it. I always said I should like to go on active service, but this has fed me up! I don't want any more of it, but, dear mother, I can't tell you half of it in here. I shall have to tell you bit by bit, and then go through the whole thing when I come home. It might please you to hear that I am alive, so in case I don't have a chance to write to the others you might let them know that I am still alive. I will write to you as often as I can, dear mother. Good-bye! I hope to see you soon.

Sir George White was in command at the famous defence of Ladysmith, under siege from November 1899 until March 1900. Known incumbents at Ladysmith:

The Leicesters The Dublins 1st Battalion 60th The King's Royal Rifle Corps
2nd Battalion 60th The King's Royal Rifle Corps The Liverpools The Naval Brigade
13th Battery, The Naval Brigade 69th Battery, The Naval Brigade 61st The Gloucesters
HQ Staff 1st Battalion of the Manchester Regiment  5th Dragoon Guards

The siege of Ladysmith saw the naval brigade under Captain Hedworth Lambton of HMS POWERFUL with two 4.7 inch guns and four 12-pounders, the only weapons with any chance of responding to the Boer's five 6 inch and seventeen 75 millimetre weapons. However, it was correctly anticipated that the siege would be a long one and fire was limited to responding to Boer artillery. Thus despite having only some 600 rounds of 4.7 inch ammunition, this lasted until Ladysmith was relieved.

Last updated 16 February, 2007

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