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As with most wars soldiers send letters home. The following letters, except the final one, were sent home by Lieutenant William Bunbury and have been kindly supplied by Turtle Bunbury ( for publication here. The final letter is from Harry Scobell and tells the story of Williams death.

Billy’s Boer War Letters
9th December 1899 – 12th February 1900

William McClintock Bunbury was born at Lisnavagh on -- 1880, the eldest son of Thomas Kane (Tom) McClintock Bunbury, 2nd Baron Rathdonnell, and his wife, Lady Katherine Anne (Kitty). Billy was educated at the Dragon School in Oxford and Eton College where, like his father before him, he captained the rowing team. He joined the Scots Greys shortly after leaving school and was with that Regiment when it was posted to South Africa to deal with the escalating tensions between the British army and the Boers of the Transvaal and Orange free States.

These letters cover the time from Billy’s arrival in Cape Town in early December 1899 to his death at Dronfield less than 10 weeks later. I have footnoted where appropriate, largely so that the context of this absurd war might become more apparent. Billy’s own enthusiasm for life at the front seems to peter out quickly what with his disapproval of Lord Methuen and the way in which he and his men are apparently left to do nothing for weeks on end. I spy a welcome streak of rebellion in the lad when he and his fellow officers chase after springbok on their new ponies and prepare for the big race meeting whenever they finally reach Pretoria. It is curious to note the affectionate tone his letters adopt when he talks of his sisters Mamie and Poly, although Isabel (Forester Colvin’s wife) rarely gets a look in and I don’t see anything at all about Tim.

The Royal Scots Greys (Second Dragoons) were raised in 1678 as three independent troops of Scots Dragoons. These were formed as The Royal Regiment of Scots Dragoons 1681, and took part in the last major cavalry charge of the British Army at the Relief of Kimberley during the Boer War in South Africa. In 1971, they were amalgamated with the 3rd Carabiniers (Prince of Wales's Dragoon Guards) to form the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (Carabiniers and Greys).

Billy’s first letter home after his arrival in South Africa, written and sent from Government House in Capetown. There is no envelope.

Government House, Cape Town [1]. 9. Dec. 99.

My dear Mother,

We arrived here safely on Wednesday & are now in Camp at Maitland about 4 miles from here – ready to leave at 2 hrs notice. We shall probably leave for the front, Kimberley way, almost directly. It’s awfully hot & dusty, & the last squadron came inhere this morning but have not landed yet. The 12th 6th Dgns. 10th Hussars have all left, except the Squads. On the 10th which have no horses. Here they think the War has only just begun – we have had to cast all our brown {bells? Re] & have to be just the same as the men as 20 per cent of the Boers have been told (to aim for) officers& sergts. They seem to be awfully treacherous. One of the Guards was shot by a wounded Boer when he was helping him. The horses are wonderfully well. This will probably be last letter (civilised) I shall be able to write. L(ord?) Belgrave(?) is ADC here & he goes in French’s staff immediately. We’re beginning to really rough it now. No knifes & spoons & we have boxes to eat off & sit on – there’s no news here, as you will probably have seen all the news for the next fortnight before you get this. They seem to be in great want of cavalry at the front & send all up as early as they can. The Inniskilling had orders at 12 yesterday & left at 2 although they all aren’t here. I hope all of you are quite well. I’ve no time to write to any of the others as the mail goes soon and this is the first chance I’ve had at writing since we arrived as disembarking & setting up our own camp has been filling up our time for the last two days and a half. This is rather a fine town & the bay with the Mountain behind is an awfully fine sight. The Railway is rather a funny one, much smaller gauge than the English ones. Has Father been hunting at all yet (?) – I hope he likes his new horses – my two are very well & were never bad on board. Mr. [Indyce?] lost both of his – and we lost seven of the squadron ones. I’ve got a nice pony, a [loaned?] by the Govt for £2.10 a quarter. Got about the best of the lot too.

I’ll write again by a later mail when there is something [write you?].

Best of love to you and all, your loving son, Billy.

Two letters sent from Billy when he was stationed at the Orange River Station just over a week before Christmas Day 1899. The first letter is to his father; the second to his mother.

Orange River Station. S. Africa. Sunday Dec 17th 1899

My dear Father,

You will see by the “address” we are now up at the front. We left Maitland Camp early on Tuesday morning. It took about 40 hours in the train. The railway is built absolutely regardless of hills (up or down) & they don’t seem to mind right angle curves. All the country we came through was very bleak & completely dried up. Hardly any inhabitants in sight of the railway barring a few blacks. This place here is rather an important place as the railway crosses the Orange River here. It is quite close as [---?] see on the map to Spytsfontein where Methuen made such a ghastly blunder with the Highland Brigade last Monday – we are hoping & expect him to be superseded, as we’re under his command here. All his troops are completely broken hearted & have lost all faith in him. No wonder from all accounts. He seems to be completely off his head – Takes no precautions to save mens lives & always attacks positions in the way calculated to cause greater loss – so the wounded officers say who are here. There is a hospital here as well, & many wounded here – we are patrolling all the country round here. Subalterns patrols – up to date we have not come in contact with them but the night before we began the Mounted infantry ran into them at Zoutpansdrift, about 10 miles N.W. of here & killed some of them, but Bradshaw who was in command was killed & about a dozen men wounded. [2]

Things are rather at a standstill here now since Monday’s fright & of course we hear very little of any fighting in Natal or near Colenso, where we were first intended to go. You can’t imagine the heat here. Everything is melting including all my condensed food – the chocolate, lozenges &c are a sort of unrecognisable pulp. The nights too are as hot – we thought it hot at Cape own but it was nothing to this. There are I think three trees in sight - & they a long way off so you can imagine the sort of place – all low scrub & big stones, & dried up water courses. However we better off than we shall be as we bathe in the River which is about a mile away. The horses on the whole are very well. We’ve lost only about three since we landed – my two are well. Filgate’s one is eating everything she can get near & doing well. The other is, I’m afraid, very thin, tho picking up a bit now & feeds well at night. The “2.10 a quarter Government Pony is useful but awfully lazy & gone in the wind but does the job well enough. There are a fair amount of troops here now. ! Battn. 1 battery R.A. (15 pdrs). 1 Howitzer battery (Lyddite)Mounted Infantry & ourselves. They are very anxious the railway s’d be kept safe. So we have to patrol about 8 miles down it.

There are reported to be two lots of Boers near here – one between us & Spytsfontenin & the other at Zoutpans drift, where they had the fight the other night – but transport is very amusing, consisting of long narrow wagons driven by Cape boys – 10 in hand – mules – they drive extraordinarily well.

Hippesley is too appalling for words. He’s quite made up his mind we are all going to be killed. The other day he said - to Archie Seymour & [Dag?] Harrison [3] – “I know we shall all be killed – I must go & write to my unfortunate wife” – can you imagine such a man. He does nothing but whine all day, & paint everything black. [4] This place is overrun with rats & in the rocks scorpions – The guard on the top of a small hill 100 yards away can’t sleep on account of them. The Orderly D- has to turn it out every two hours every night. Rather fun!

We’re not in the lap of luxury here only tinned meat and tepid water & lime juice to drink. The water is very yellow, very nasty to look at. But they say its alright. Its so hot that if one leaves ones tin plate or knife & fork in the sun, they get so hot you can’t pick them up. I’m going out patrolling tonight & if I’m in time tomorrow I’ll finish this. Please give my love to Mother and everyone. I hope you’ve been having some hunting and some good sport. Have you been out in Meath at all [?]

With best love,

Your loving son,

Orange River Station. S. Africa. Sunday Dec 17th ’99.

My dearest mother,

Your letter has just arrived & I have time to write now so as to catch tomorrows mail. I’m just going out on an escort of the companies of the Duke of Cornwall L.I. [to] a place called [Witteputs?], & shall not be back in time tomorrow to catch the mail. I’m enclosing this in a letter I wrote this morning to father. Its sure awfull the heat out here – I wonder what all the English Papers have been saying of Methuen. The feeling here is very strong against him. Everyone considers him “mad” in the true sense of the word. No man in his proper senses could possibly have behaved as he has done, not only last Monday but ever since he has command. We all hope very much that he will be superseded as we are now under his command at the present moment in the 1st Cav[alry] Brigade. They are always changing plans & we never know where we shall be next day. We were moved up to here only about 6 hrs notice. The country here is very dull to look at, it was very “fine” scenery on the way up. Great mountains – practically uninhabited near the Railway. You’ve no idea what disaffection there is in the Colony itself. If they had the slightest opportunity they would all rise. Here we run in anyone who has not got a pass or who does not know the [comlu?sign]. We have a lot of prisoners here. Some men with grey beards & some quite young. Its quite useless telling you any news as of course you will see it in the papers & besides we have very little here & scarcely ever see a paper except old English ones. The latest are the 23r Nov. Mamie wrote to me too. I wonder what she’s called the Squawker. I suppose I mustn’t call Poly’s a Squawker. Mamie tells me its called “Mark Over” – let Mamie call hers “Forrard Away”.

I have very little time so must stop as I must write to Mamie.

With vy best love from
Your loving son, Billy.

Orange River. Dec 29th

My dear Mother,

I am still in time to wish you a Happy New Year, also Father & Isabel. Please thank Isabel for her letter which I got yesterday – I also heard from Mamie & Eleanor. There is no news to tell you from here. In fact you hear all the news long before we do, from other parts of the country. We are at the present waiting for Lord Roberts. Weren’t you sorry to hear of poor Freddy Roberts being killed the other day at Colenso. We hear such a lot of “Canards” here. Most startling thing is we heard the other day Ladysmith had been relieved & Buller killed. I suppose its not true as we s’d have heard by now – Methuen is not allowed to do anything now fortunately as he w’d probably have another go at Magersfontein. In fact he intended doing so in precisely the same way the next day only the Brigade Major of the Highland Brigade aid it was an impossible thing to do. I don’t know if you’ve really heard the facts of the battle but you anyhow will have heard how the Black watch & Seaforthers were marched up to within 200 yds of three lines of Boer trenches in [quarter] column – after that no orders were given, no one knew who commanded them. Every unit was mixed up in another. No one even knew who was in command or who was killed. They lay there from six a.m. to 2 p.m. when the [----?] went. Then in the evening Methuen told the High[land] Brigade Major he intended doing the same thing next morning, but was prevented fortunately by circumstances. However he had the Highland Brigade up [-- -----] … said he condoled with them on the loss of their General & hoped they w’d always do their duty. He has never been to the hospitals or visited the wounded & to all intents & purposes blames the officers for the defeat. That place requires at least 80 thousand men & a siege train to take it. There are 26 miles of entrenchments & underground passages. A regular fortress, bult on the most modern principals. However, I dare say you will have heard all this from Forester who I suppose is up there.

We’re having much larger patrolling now. 30 miles sometimes & they are strengthening the guarding of the railway from here to Modder. Major Middleton’s Squadron has gone up to [Honey] [ ___] [---loof]. We see a lot of Officers of the Gordons & I have seen some of the Seaforthers and one of the Black Watch so know the history of Magersfonetin well by now. The idea now is we shall march on Bloemfontein from here now but of course we s’d know before you get this. Lord Roberts should be here in a little under a fortnight now. Our horses are doing very well indeed up to date on the whole & my own are extremely well fit. We have been having the most awful dust storms here the last few days. Altogether this is a most undesirable a spot with no decent water. [Mr? W?] Sinclair is very very bad with dysentery & will have to go to the base to recover. However he’s far better now though he’s been awfully bad. [Mr?]. Lindsay went out buck shooting with a carbine a few days ago & got one too it being the [close/] season at present but it begins on Jan 1. This rather a bigger thing than everyone thought it was going to be, isn’t it[?]. We haven’t turned the Boers out of Zoutpans drift yet. They fired on one of our patrols a few days ago but did no damage.

We’ve caught 2 spies a Boer & a Kaffir & have had an armed demonstration at Hopetown- artillery, infantry & our squadron. Nothing else has been happening her of late tho they seem to expect the Boers to come here to destroy the bridge. They’ll get it fairly warm if they do as there’s a Lyddite battery here now. Also a Filed one & some R.H.A.

However perhaps they won’t come – we generally seem to expect them from exactly the opposite direction to which they finally do come. At least Methuen does.

With best love to you all,
Ever your loving son,

Billy – Lady Rathdonnell

These two letters of Jan 10th and 12th 1900 (including a map) arrived in the same envelope, addressed to Lady Rathdonnell, Drumcar, Dunleer, Co. Louth, Ireland. Also on the envelope are the words “Zoutpans drift. No stamps available. Wm. Bunbury. Scots Greys. A stamp mark suggests the British Army paid the tab on 14th January and the letter was on the sea by 2nd February. I do not know whether she would have received these letters before or after her son’s death on 17th February.

Captain Edward Ussher, 2nd Dragoons.
Died of wounds 18th February 1902

Zoutpans Drift, Orange Free State. Jan. 10. 00.

My dear Mother,

By the above address you will see I’m in the first force to invade the enemy territory. We marched here last Friday, leaving camp at Orange River on Friday evening & bivouacking about 20 miles north of the Ridge. We started again at 2am Sat & arrived here at 11am – having met the opposition. This is the spot where the fight was about a month ago & we have found a lot of Boer cartridges. &. The force here is 50 men & 3 officers. Of ourselves – 30 Mtd Infant’y & about 300 infantry (D of Cornwall’s & Shropshires) 9th Co. R.E. 2 guns RHA. Scobell, Ussher [5] & myself are the ones here. There are to all appearances may Boers around though they at present keep out of contact, but we see them often in the distance. Ina straight line this is about 12 miles up the River from Orange River but the River is between & no bridges so to get to camp we have 20 miles to go round. There are reported to be 800 Boers about 6 miles from here. We did a Raid yesterday & bought in 64 head of cattle, 12 Cape horses and 5 mules – all of us, the 2 guns & mounted Infantry went out – we saw some Boers who retired. The Raids are rather amusing. We looted a deserted farm about four miles away too. There are two small houses here, one has been made into a fort & the Infantry Officers occupy it. We ate in the other, at least the kitchen & another small room where we keep our things & eat, but they are too hot to sleep in. We have been bivouacing since we left camp – I’m making a small picture of this place.

(Picture of area including an * marking spot “where Bradshaw was shot”).

You can see our supplies come from Orange Station on the other side. We are allowed no baggage or more than 3 days supplies this side of the river – I saw Forester just before leaving on Friday on the way to Cape Town. He came & had some dinner at our camp, also one of the Grenfells [6] – they seem to be having a very dark(?) time at Modder now [7]. The two squadrons at Orange River were out for about 5 days, after the Boers who were defeated at Sunnyside the other day, but did not come in contact with them. Their horses are very done up. We are a completely mixed lot here, horses & men from every squadron. Scobell is quite different out here. I’m very glad he’s come. He works hard and doesn’t fuss so much as Headquarters do [8].

My mare is very well (------- a word that looks like Myrtle but soldiers surely can’t be taken seriously on horses called Myrtle so I doubt it - TB). I rode her24 hours out of 48 2 days ago then a days rest & ten hours yesterday & she feeds well & is very fit. She stands the work well & is very clever over the country. We get really onto the open veldt now. She is the only one I have out here. We’re going on another Raid tomorrow or the day after. If this hasn’t gone I’ll continue. Enclose sketch of country round the Modder.
Your loving son Billy.

Captain Harry Scobell
(1859 – 1912

Friday Jan 12th 00 - II

My letter as you see has not yet gone & I have some more news. Yesterday we went out on another raid. We started at 5am & the guns at 5.30amgoing along the same road up to the farm we looted 2 days before, then keeping further North along the Jamesmith road about three miles when we sight two large farms about 3 miles to the north. Some Boers were reported on our front & right front. However we came to the first one. While nearing them my scouts on the right saw some men driving cattle who retired behind some kopjes on seeing us. We left them alone & came to the 1st farm where we waited. Afrer that we went on to farm No. II out of which about 10 men were seen to go at a gallop. We pursued them & captured some cattle, the ones I had seen earlier. We saw 2 waggons (sic) about a mile further but left them alone. We were returning then, my men (on our left& myself going to look for some sheep we had seen earlier – not finding them we were returning when almost 600 or 700 yards from a low range of kopjes the Boers opened fire on us. The first intimation being a report & a “fut” in the sand about two yards to my left at which the mare nearly shied me off. After that they came pretty thick. One going nearly between my mares hind legs. However none were hit & I dismounted with a few of my men & began potting at them at 1000 yards-

Meanwhile Scobell & the Mounted Infantry we [were?] killing kids to take back here for eating purposes. He was near the farm at 1200 yards from the Boer position- & loading the kids in the artillery wagon. He had to leave hastily as the bullets were coming all in along the goats& co & left the tarpaulin behind. Meanwhile the two guns, about a mile behind, came up at the gallop& came in & began to shell the hill when the Boers apparently quitted. However they didn’t worry us anymore. Our booty for the day was 30 head cattle, 20 kids & a sheep (cold meat), a saucepan, the latter we’d been greatly in want of for a long time & I have secured a very nice bridle for a pony I intend “commandeering”. I’m sending you a small sketch of the farms & where shot at the Boers.

A loyal Boer came in this morning & said the 2 waggons we’d seen were a decoy & there were 300 boers there – I also think the cattle I saw in the morning was a decoy too, so on the whole we rather scored off them – This is how the farm aly –

Basic pencil drawn map showing site of the skirmish indicating positions of Boers, the cavalry, wagons, artillery, farms and Scobell.

The two farms are about 2 miles apart. * where we captured the cattle. The Boers were waiting by the wagons off the right edge of the paper - & when we retired came up into the position marked X---X arriving there when I was  & Scobell was at ¨. I had to retire to let the artillery in – not a very great battle but it was getting very monotonous & dull hardly ever seeing a Boer & never meeting them & the men were beginning to be careless – However this has cheered them up tremendously & they are as pleased as anything.

We hear rumours of a big fight at Ladysmith but have no details as yet. We have just heard Roberts has landed at Cape Town, so we should know what we are going to do here – The colonel & (Nuller?) were over here this morning to see the horses – but brought no news – I believe all our squadron are coming here – Mamie wrote to me saying they’d been having very hard frosts in England. I hope it hasn’t stopped hunting in Ireland – There is no more news to tell you So with best love to everyone,

Ever your loving son Billy.

Billy Bunbury to Forester Colvin.

This letter has no date but was written between Jan 12th – 19th 00. It was written in pencil on a thin scrap of light blue writing paper. The words are fading fast and I would greatly welcome a writing boffin to capture every last word soon. Forester Colvin was married to Billy’s elder sister Isabel. I believe he is one of the co-authors of the “Diary of the 9th Lancers” by Colvin F.F. and Gordon E, a popular reference book for Boer War historians.

North Bank. Zoutpans Drift. O.F.S.

Dear Forester,

I suppose the Heligraph(?) I got yesterday was from you, at least it was signed Colvin. We’re here for some time & the country round is (culping?) with Boers – we marched in here Saturday week ago & have done two raids into the country and captured about 100 cattle and a few necessaries like chairs & saucepans for our own use- on Thursday we had a bit of a fight about 10 miles into the country but lost no men or horses. They nearly finished my mare off as a bullet hit the ground just between my mare’s feet. We had just an ideal force ourselves about 48 2RHA Guns & a few Mountain Infantry. About 10 Boers have been seen so must close today & they think they’re going to attack us as the river is so flooded it takes hours to get anything across. I hope you had a good time at Cape Town. We hear no news here, awfully out of the world. Sending this (with / into) a R by (our) vet who came out this morning and told me the little news there is – Don’t expect you’ll be able to read this. Only (burting?) I’ve got. Give Johnnie my love.

Yours ever,

W. McClintock Bunbury

Letter from Billy to his mother, January 21st 1900.

Zoutpans Drift, OFS.

Sunday Jan-21 1900

My dear Mother,

I’ve exceptionally little news to tell you & a short time to tell it in. We’ve been sitting here doing nothing but expect being attacked which hasn’t happened yet.

They’ve taken away our RHA & put two obsolete M.L. 9 pounders on the top of the hill. So our raids are stopping for the present. The General, I believe, was furious at the Horse Guns being sent away. He went down to Cape Town to see Little Bob & the man who was left in command wanted people to know he was somebody so moved them to Belmont. However I believe the General has “spoken” to him.

Its very trying sitting here doing nothing but patrolling within a radius of 4 miles, Yesterday we saw Boers building a fort on the top of a hill about 7 miles from here & a party came within 2000 yards of the camp, so they are fussing like anything now & say an attack is sure to come. I wonder if it will. We’re about 300 men here, Yorkshire L.I. & only 70 thousand rounds of ammunition. So it s’d be exciting if we are attacked.

I’m just off now to get on top of a kopje 4 miles out & watch the hill where they saw the Boers building yesterday. They have us up every morning at four o’clock, saddled & everything & the Infantry all in the trenches.

Your letters & Isabel’s have just come across the river which has come down a lot the last few days & they have a flying bridge across it. A party of 5 Boers thought they were going to have a look at us from the kopje the other day & we’d have bagged the lot only a fool of a trumpeter(?) got excited & showed himself & they got away after we’ll fired one volley only got one of their horses. The horses are very well here especially mine. Myrtle is very fat & I’ve got a far better pony now.

Best love, your loving son, Billy.

Addressed to The Lady Rathdonnell at Drumcar

Zoutpans Drift, OFS. Feb 3rd 1899.

My dear Mother,

Thank you very much for your letter. There still is nothing exciting from here tho they still expect an attack. A large force of Boers was seen yesterday & we have had two or three alarms lately but they have not come within four miles of us. If they do attack with force & with half their usual cunning I don’t know what’ll happen to us. The chief scout, a man called Beddy who scouted for Methuen, won’t even sleep this side of the river as he thinks it a bit warm for him. We all fail to see the Generals object in leaving the place so badly garrisoned but it certainly shows why the British Army does not get nearer Pretoria than it does if everything is done this way. We hear no news of Buller or any other force now. Kitchener has collected all the transport which is being run by the AJC now. There’s a rumour of Roberts going up the Modder but these tales from Orange River are generally lies. I should think more false news has been circulated from O.R. than any other ten places in the world for the last decade. You’ve no idea of the stories one hears. My horses are extremely fit & very fresh., both of them. There’s plenty of grass & the grazing does them any amount of good. All the horses here in fact are doing first class & are really looking extremely well.

[Ifew?] old obsolete muzzle loading guns, 2 Companies Shropshires & about 80 of us – 2000 Boers are reported within 8 miles with 5 guns. The river is in flood so we can’t retreat & can’t get guns over – the shape of the place is something like this. The squares are the 2 cottages – our position is marked a-----a, the two guns are about the centre. You see from B. The Boers command the entire inside of the position, & of course they can occupy from B to river. They can come up to this position unseen or by night & there guns of course are far more modern & probably longer range ones than ours which are only 9 pounders. Scobell, Maxwell, Long & myself are here. The rest of the Regiment have gone to Modder where, I believe, the new division will go which are now at orange River. They still won’t let us reconnoitre into the free state but are told to wait here & do nothing. The General says he hopes they will attack him. Don’t think we’re quite so keen, as you see we can’t hide our horses & hardly ourselves for that matter. Its certainly nice to have a “run for one’s money” & we all fancy our run won’t be a very large one.
However perhaps they won’t attack after all.

The chief crate of the commandeered horses is the [midday?] saddle gives them sore backs but we have very few here now with sore backs. We’ve been having rather fun lately after springbucks & occasionally let the general & his orders slide a bit & go a little run thru the laid down 4 miles from camp . Pretty safe as long as one keeps away from kopjes. We ride our native ponies & gallop after them & shoot (at) them with [woobers?], We’ve only managed to collect one that way but its very exciting riding on account of the Boer Cut holes which are numerous & very large. The ponies are awfully clever at jumping over them or dodging round & none of us have come down yet. I’ve secured a topping Argentine pony, think it sh’d win the Baggage Pony race we intend having in the races at Pretoria (whenever we get there). Its along way the fastest of the three here. We’re making some hurdles to make a gallop to keep ourselves fit over on the veldt outside, as otherwise they will simply eat their heads off on camp because as I’ve already said there’s very little to do here except going round our outposts which only takes up two to three hours a day & our day is from 4am to 9.30pm. It’s a bit long & then one always seems to miss any excitement there may be out there such as potting at Boers who come too close. We’ve not bagged any but I hear we got one or two that day we went out with the RHA about 3 weeks ago. Got a big man too, Mr. Van der Merwe, a Volkstaad man I believe. Up to date I think we’ve had the best & most exciting time in the Regiment & one doesn’t mind the heat so much now the nights are getting a good bit cooler.

Please thank Mamie & Poly for their letters & say I’ll write to them sometime soon.

Please don’t circulate this too much as it doesn’t do to criticise generals & no doubt his plans are excellent only we can’t see them here. I’m just going out to “shoot” sand partridge & cape pigeons with a carbine. There have been no casualties among them so far. Please thank Poly v. much for cigarettes. They were most welcome. If you send any, w’d you send Benson & Hedges “Celebrated” small size – Cakes too are much appreciated by C Squadron Scots Greys.

With much love to everyone,

Ever your loving son,

Addressed to The Lord Rathdonnell, Drumcar, Dunleer, Co. Louth, Ireland. OHMS. Stamped and marked 12th Feb 1900. It looks to me like this well-read last letter arrived at Dunleer on about 10th March.

Richmond. Friday Feb 9th 1900.

My dear Father,

[Chester] Master of [Remington] Guides is going into Belmont tomorrow so will post this I hope. We left Zoutpansdrift at the beginning of the week & marched to Belmont where we arrived in the dark and raining hard. Next day we came here, & the next day Wednesday we made a march on Sunnyside reported to be held by about 2000 Boers who disappointed us by running away. We came back here yesterday. Our force consists of 500 Roberts Horse “P” battery R.H.A. – C squadron of us and some Mounted Infantry – some Canadians . An entirely mounted force under Col. Broadwood. Tomorrow we start for a weeks excursion into the Orange Free State. What we are going to do I can’t tell you as naturally we don’t know. Anyhow we are to pick up some Engineers on the way so I expect we shall go across the Riet river. I like the marching much better than sitting still – we have not slept in the same place two nights running & have only our cloaks, no baggage at all – we have to carry two days forage & rations on our horse & 5 days on wagons where we start for the free State tomorrow. I hope we [next?] make a dash for Bloemfontein would be rather nice – I shan’t be able to get any letters for a long time & of course we have not had the last mail or even half of the one before.

It’s getting too dark to go on writing. I’ve borrowed this paper &c from Scobell/ My horses are keeping very well indeed. Best love to all of you,

Ever your loving son,


Letter from Harry Scobell detailing Williams Death
Scobell was a Major with the Scots Greys.

Kimberley Feb 19th 1900

He was as I dare say you know in my squadron and I had grown very fond of him. Well, I will tell you just what happened. Billy had been for four weeks at Loulbaer's Drift in the Free State, on the banks of the Guenge River, with me and the greater part of the squadron. He enjoyed himself there, I think, as it was a much nicer place than Orange River Camp, where he had come from, and we were independent, had our own little mess in a deserted farm building and were quite happy. He used to go out often with a carbine slung over his back and shoot springbok and I used to have some trouble in keeping him within the bounds we were allowed to move in, as he had absolutely no fear.

We made two or three little expeditions which delighted him immensely: capturing cattle, and on one occasion had a bit of a skirmish with the enemy in which Billy fired (I believe) the first shot fired by the British force in the enemy's territory, as he had nipped off his horse before the rest of the men and fired three or four rounds before they were ready. He was always saying "How I wish we could go to their place and mentioning places where Boer laagers were supposed to be) knock them out" and was always willing me to go somewhere where there might be a chance of a fight.

We went from Loutbaas Drift to Richmond to join Broadwood who had 2000 or 3000 mounted infantry and had beem sent on an expedition to punish some rebels at Sunnyside. We were a week on the job and poor Billy was very disappointed when it was found the rebels had slipped us. We then marched to Ramdam to join the rest of the Regiment who had come with French's division from Madder.

You will have read in the papers all about our march to relieve Kimberley, though perhaps it won't be stated what a very hard time both men and horses had during the five days march and the three actions we fought on the way - we, personally, hadn't much fighting to do though we were under fire each day several times and I need hardly say Billy behaved as one knew he would behave through them all.

We reached Kimberley after a very long and tiring day getting to camp with the squadron at 11 at night and to bed not much before 1. Billy was as fit as possible and up next morning like the rest of us at 4.30. At 5 we were told to turn out at once - before the horses had been watered or fed or any breakfast to the men or own clues. We all thought we were going out for 3 or 4 hours to the Boer position and would be back at noon at latest. However we were mistaken. We were sent on the most useless purposeless mission a general ever sent a body of troops on. There were a few hundred Boers in a very strong position about 8 miles off who would have been glad to get away had they not been surrounded, and their big gun had been carted off the night before.

Though there were hundreds of people who could have told us just where the enemy's main position was, no one knew. The consequence was that our Brigadier (Porter) had us in mass formation just behind their entrenchments and the first thing we knew was a storm of bullets passing (luckily) over our heads from a kopje 500 or 600 yards on our left. It was then that I got orders to dismount half my squadron and attack this kopje.

Half my squadron that day was only about 35 men and Billy came with me. We crept up the slope of the hill firing as we went. I was told to advance, I did so by rushes of 40 to 50 yards. The last time I did this , I saw we were in view and within 250 yards of entrenchments and were being fired upon by a great many Boers.

I gave the order to retire and crawl back slowly so as to get under the cover of the hill more. Billy was just by me at the time. We went back 40 or 50 yards very slowly as if we had stood up to retire we would all have been hit and it was just as I told them to halt again that Billy got hit.

I was 10 or 15 yards away from him by then and I didn't know he was wounded until I looked about me as he made no sound and I only knew what was the matter when I said something to him and he made no answer. I then went to him and saw what had happened. He was shot through both legs. The right leg was only a flesh wound, through the thick part of his thigh and he would have been well in 2 or 3 weeks from that injury. The left leg though was very bad. The bullet had gone in at the back of the knee, had shattered what I believe is called the femur bone and had not come out though there was a swelling on the outside of his thigh about 10 inches up from the knee where the bullet (which had splintered) was found when they operated that night.

Poor old Billy was as brave as a lion though he was suffering a good deal of pain. I lay with his head on my knee while I was seeing the men get away by twos and threes from a very tight place. When they were nearly all gone and I could go myself, we, three of us, carried Billy back to a tree more or less under cover. I very quickly got the doctor attatched to the Regiment who did all he could for him with the appliances he had in his cart. He lost very little blood but one could see the shock had been terrible.

He was wounded about 10 or 10.30 and he lay there whilst an ambulance was sent for in every direction to take him and Fordyce (who was wounded about a minute before Billy) back to Kimberley. No ambulance could be found. Some say there were 2 out, others say there weren't any. I don't believe there were any, which seems a crying shame. Anyhow not a man wounded that day in our part of the field (and there were 20 or 30)was taken back on an ambulance. I had to be with my squadron and lost another man killed and another man wounded later in the day.

Finally I got leave to go back to where Billy and Fordyce were lying under the tree. No ambulance could be found, the troops had been ordered to retire (having done absolutely no good), it was getting dark and the Boers who were still in their entrenchments would be almost sure to come out when it was dark and capture or perhaps kill anyone they could find. It meant simply murder to put Billy in his state on a springless wagon and I eventually got some men of Middleton's squadron (my own had started home about an hour) to volunteer to carry Billy and Fordyce on the stretchers they had been lying on. Billy was perfectly conscious but very weak and didn't seem to rally at all. These men carried them for about 4 miles though of course the progress was very slow. It was then quite dark and about 7.30 and the men were so dead that they could absolutely not carry them a yard further. Accordingly Billy and Fordyce were put down on the veldt.

I stayed with them and the rest went on, Lawson going on as fast as he could to bring back help, This he found at the de Beers mines and about 10 o`clock I heard them shouting and they came up and carried Billy the 2½ or 3 miles to de Beers mines, and then put him on a tramway which took us to the hospital at Kimberley, reaching it about 1.30.

Billy was quite conscious then and spoke to me lots of times. He rambled a little when we were left on the veldt and asked for Colvin and asked for me and I don't think he suffered much all that time. I left him in the doctors hands at the hospital and went away. They had operated on him at once to remove the fragmennts of bone and bullet and placed him under chloroform for nearly an hour. He bore this well and the head doctor told me he had, at that time, fair hopes of saving both his life and leg.

When I came back to the hospital next morning (or rather, the same morning) about 7.30, I was told he was very bad. He had sunk into a semi-conscious state and was very very weak. He heard me, I am sure, once, as he smiled at me but he couldn't speak and I don't think he knew anything I said to him. I stayed with him till he drew his last breath about 9.30.

His end was perfectly peaceful and absolutely painless. This I tell you as truth and not because I want to spare you any pain. I don't think he ever knew his end was near. He certainly didn't know when I left him that morning and hadn't a notion that he was more than badly wounded. I never dreamt that he would die from the shock of the wound. He was so well, so strong and so full of life.

It seems very, very hard and his young life was sacrificed for no sort of good. It tempts one to ask why are such things permitted but that is beyond us, I suppose. The doctor told me afterwards that he had just made up his mind that the case was hopeless from the first though he didn't think so when he operated. He said the only possible chance would have been to have the leg off on the spot. This would have meant cutting it off about half-way between the knee and hip. Do you think Billy would have cared for his life under these conditions. I don't. He looked so young, so peaceful and so happy as he lay on his bed after death.

I kissed his forehead for you and his mother. We buried him next day (yesterday) at 8.30 in the cemetery just outside the town. He had every man in the Regt who could be spared to follow him and I know that every heart was as heavy nearly as mine was, as no one in the Regt was more popular than Billy was. The Archdeacon here performed the service. I forget his name now, but he told me he was at Eton with you. Of course George Colvin will give directions about what few effects Billy had here, and I will see that they are carried out.

I need hardly tell you, I think, how much I feel for you and Lady Rathdonnell. It will be a blow you won't get over I know for a long time, but it must be a comfort to you to know that your son died in as gallant a way as any soldier has or will die in this horrible war, and there wasn't a braver, more manly or more loveable man fighting for his country throughout S. Africa than poor little Billy. You will let me know of course if there is anything you wish me to do that is in my power to do.

I enclose a sprig off a tree just by the spot he is buried.

Yours very sincerely,

Harry Scobell.

Last updated 15 August, 2008

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