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Author Topic: Boer War soldier's letters home  (Read 8520 times)
Alan65
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« on: 18 April 2012, 21:34:41 »
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I have recently acquired a batch of 6 letters from a soldier in the Boer War writing home to his wife in Aberdeen Scotland.  My plan is to publish the contents of these letters along with the images of the contents.  The covers, the envelopes they came in, are also a valuable resource showing the stamps and postmarks used.  Some are military cancels which appear to change--there are 3 or 4 different ones.

Above is the first letter and cover; the postmark is March 4, 1900 and the letter is dated "Friday the 23rd" which I assume is February and it just took 9 days to get the envelope cancelled in the postal system.  I will leave spelling alone.
Here is the text: "Dear Kate,  My last o you had to be posted early at the ships post office by reason that they cannot tell when they may arrive at given places so many forces & things upset men's intentions on the sea  Nothing new has happened esccept occasionally sighting a stray ship.  We are all in the best of spirits and fairly good health.  At night time in our hammocks below deck with the increasing heat the atmosphere is becoming more oppressive however I escpect that soon some arrangement will be made making that and one or two more things agreeable. You can understand being hammocked up like sardines in a place seven feet high with breath & smell pertaining to human beings the growing heat that the affluvia is superfluous.  It will interest Bob perhaps fat Lewis Grant is in the ships hospital with the well known serious complaint.  The fact is he is too fat.  I have great pleasure in telling you I have made the acquaintance of one & some others that will go side by side with me in the work before us, the one I refer to is Harry Michie who was with McKinnon Engineers I have been very much struck with him and his behavior in some respects we are very much of one mind. The boys were very angry at Captn Buchannon our Captn not allowing me time to bid farewell to my friends & relatives while we were in The Drill Hall Woolmanhill of course there had to be a limit to liberty at such times nevertheless it seemed to others as well as myself the limit was very narrow.  We are having some games on board now at rope Quiots and chalked rings, cards, singing, playing & acting and other (to me) nameless some amusing & interesting. the fact is we are just rousing ourselves up a bit. // I will get this sent with the other letter being later that escpected in arriving at Teneriffe.// Once mor let me know at your earliest convenience how the old folks are & how you are managing.  yours affectionately, [singed] James
//address No. 30 1st V Co G Highlanders Field Force South Africa"
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Alan65
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« Reply #1 on: 19 April 2012, 18:21:29 »
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here are the 2nd & 3rd covers (in chronological order by date mailed) in the Boer War collection I have.  The top cover's postmark says "British Army S. Africa" in the dial and is dated 7 August 1900. 
The 2nd and 3rd images show the front and back of the third cover.  It was mailed in September 1900 and the receiving mark on the back is dated 13 October 1900. Thus we see a month time for mail to sail from South Africa to the UK and then to Scotland.  The sending cancellation is different than the first and second ones; all I can read is "S. Africa".  The letters on the lower left are "AR" which may be 'Army'.

Unfortunately, the letters are no longer with these covers.  I wonder what they contained!
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Alan65
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« Reply #2 on: 24 April 2012, 04:48:43 »
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The cover of the fourth letter from Private Angus to his wife Kate shows that it was postmarked on 20 December 1900 and arrived in Aberdeen Scotland on 12 January, 1901.  The letter itself is dated 17 December so it even took several days from the writing to get the letter into the mail system.  The postmark says "G.P.O. [Government Post Office, I assume] Huh??? Cape Colony"; the town appears to start with a Dapet or something like that.  The return address is more distinct on this envelope and has less abbreviations: "From No. 30 Pte. James Angus/ 1st Vol. Co. Gordon Highlanders"  No city, country or military postal code was needed.  The text follows:
"Dear Kate
   Just another note to remind you I am all alive and kicking.  We have this afternoon been visited by a thunderstorm. [remember, December in South Africa is summer] Some two hundred yards from the platform while we ere waiting to leave for Norvals Pont a native woman was struck down dead.  the child on her back was scorched but will recover, it is thought. Further as trains are wired about before they can proceed on this journey and no answer could be got from the adjoining station we are delayed till too late to proceed. so will have to stay till early tomorrow morning as no trains run at night till they (at least) get past Norvals Pont on to the Cape Government Railway.  Trains of troops and armoured ones may travel at night. I am still pegging away at travelling escaminer [sic] on the Mails between Norvals Pont and Springfontein. Improving the system daily. Am well backed up by the Railway Staff Officer at NP. At this job get to know something of both sides of this long struggle. Hear escperiences [sic] and criticisms of men ranking from leaders downwards. On Sunday morning Lt. Duthie of Duthie Ship Builders with his section left Norvals Pont for Elandsfontein Transvaal.  I know numbers of them and papers from home sent one by Dr. Duthie I.M.R. I gave them to read when finished with them.  They were very grateful to me for them.  Instead of boarding a transport for home the Vol. Company have been sent up to Worcester for further service.  By this mornings mail a few of the company discharged were on their way to Johannesburg having got situations there. I was, nor were they a little surprised on hearing my words "Tickets & permits, please." Some time will likely elapse before I get my letters now.  They will likely be snet to the company.  Now from this address my letters not to the Co. but simply James Angus, Railway police, Springfontein and on a corner of the envelope: From Mrs. J. Angus 89 Summer Street Aberdeen.  I think by so doing yours will come quicker and thus lessen the chances of others intercepting and keeping them back from me.  I am now fully alive to the fact that there is crooked work going on in the Field Post Offices.  In another week or so Christmas is on us again.  I hope you are getting along smoothly and bearing up as well as you can.  From yours affectinately James Angus"

It strikes me that several things that James relates would be censored in later wars -- even 14 years later -- but there was little fear of this letter falling into enemy hands to give away intel and there was not yet a sense that the home front needed to be shielded from a disgruntled soldier's tales.

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« Reply #3 on: 26 April 2012, 17:55:42 »
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The 5th letter I have of James Angus is the longest.  It was posted on the 8th of February, 1901, and received in Aberdeen Scotland (see receiving mark on back of envelope) on the 4th of March.  You can also see that he didn't use the return address he had advised Kate to use in letter #3.  This postmark is simply "Pretoria/ Transvaal" so it's not got any sort of British military markings on it whatsoever.  Here is the text:
"Pretoria 7th Feb 1901
I suppose you have by this time heard a good deal of Pretoria.  For something over a week I have been here and my first impressions of it are favorable & unfavorable.  It is surrounded by hills, capped by forts, and outposts, from which one can get the best view of the Town but I have not yet had the pleasure of mounting any of them.  The Town is not to my mind healthy.  It lies too low.  Rain waters run into and through it.  By the street sides are open drains (say two feet deep 18 inches wide) by which the rain finds it way along.  It does seem so very strange the absence of running water in South Africa and in Pretoria a constant flow, the lie of the surrounding land, and the situation of the Town, accounts for that.  That accounts perhaps for the large family of musquitoes [sic] which at night time visit my tent and have created quite a decent number of minature [sic] -ant heaps- on my body.  These flying musical pests are credited with being a medium for malarial fever.  Here I may mention that Pretoria is furnished with a very large swiming [sic] bath, charge 1/- [one shilling].  Bathers are requested to shake the dust off their feet, at a shower bath provided, before entering the pond.  I fancy this rule applies especially to Tommies who have had no where to lay their head's [sic]. Economy compels me to use the Railway Station shower baths (gratis) instead.  The Town is lit up by electricity, is perhaps 5 miles of boundary.  Apart from Kaffir locations--or villages--and suburban buildings, and camp Hospitals, the town seems to lie on a square.  There are tramway lines, (unused meantime), cabs on hire, motor cars a few, many bycycles [sic] which must have registered numbers on if in use, some superior buildings, neglected grounds, streets rotten, pavements with one or two escceptions [sic] are break-neck, are not at all suited to a meditative pedistrian, an inquisitive stranger frequently, and unceremoniously, and involuntarily kisses the ground.  I am favourably impressed with the towns [sic] appearance--escternal[sic]--if city improvements were made, as is carried on at Aberdeen.  There is no congestion, a garden (or (Tuin) [sic] attached to most houses, plenty trees [sic], and vegetation.  I will finish this weeks description with this story (quite true). In the evenings I take a walk, a review of the town, and last night was passing a house, the door was open, everything very quiet, I saw a woman, she had an infant in her arms, no furniture, lamp burning; In short, the whole situation suggested--my husband is dead, a prisoner, at all events not here, alone in Pretoria, with hopes and aspirations dashed to pieces, esccept [sic], whatever hope and joy her arms burden gave her.  I passed on unobserved, and thought how necessary it is to see, before anyone begins to write, or speak of the awful consequences, following a war, made worse and unbearable by their own kith and kin.  Just yesterday, a train from Durban, having on board some nursing sisters, men civilians, and miitary, were fired upon by about 200 Boers, wounding 13 occupants, riddled the carriage and guards van with bullets.  they got possession of the train for about 10 minutes, indignities and insults (a passenger who escaped injury) were not in it.  From this we may escpect [sic] dastardly, henious [sic], murderous assaults.  Yet some one says all is fair in love and war, virtue here, is on the wane; what they have been I cannot say.  I noticed the bullets had perforated the carriage in line with the heads of the occupants.

No answers yet to my inquires about my right to a free passage home when this job breaks up; nor to my inquiries, why your allowance was stopped on November instead of being as the captn. said paid up to Dec 31st inclusive; up to that date, my allowances to you, was kept out of my accounts, and why it has not been paid you puzzles me altogether, however we will wait and see what happens.   Yesterday I went to Kaaffontein with one  train, and returned with another.  We take our turns of that here.  I trust you are getting along all right that you have got the 28 [pounds Sterling] I sent you last week.  by the mail leaving this in the first week of March you may hope to get another pay 14 [pounds Sterling] or more if I can manage it. 

I must now close for I am clean run out, and until the well gets somewhat filled again you must patiently wait yours affectionately James Angus XXXXXXXX"

Quite a chatty letter this one!  A lot of insight to his thoughts while alone, feeling alone, and some military incidences which often occurred but were never put in the history books.
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« Reply #4 on: 5 August 2012, 23:59:15 »
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I know, I know, you've all been waiting for the next installment in the Boer War soldier's letters home!  Did he live, what's the latest news from the South African warfront?  How is Kate?


For starters, there's yet another type of postmark used on Boer War soldier's mail.  this one has an indistinct upper dial but the lower part reads "British Army S. Africa" and is dated 4 February 1901.  The receiving stamp on the back shows us that it arrived at the Aberdeen post office one month later on 4 March (1901).


The dateline is Pretoria R[ailway] Police / Sunday Febr[uary] and reads as follows:

"Dear Kate   
Just a word about your last letter to me. Your action re-aliment I think was perfectly correct.  Surely the old woman is loosing[sic] her head if she refused what John was willing to give.  Do not send me receipts, they will get lost.  Rather keep them by you.  That we have to pay up the years aliment, I think a little stiff, whenever shall I get my head above water.  Some have through life, fortune, others misfortune and I as one of them, am forcibly persuaded almost to harden my heart to give less even than I am obliged.  Indeed it has been like this since I left home, I have denied myself till it has told on my constitution, and I believe you are very careful of what is sent you, were it not for that thought I do not know what I should do.  You are not correct in supposing my job is permanent or that it will last more than a month, however, whichever way it goes I am on the lookout for something permanent.  Sure enough it is uphill work.  You need not now send out my watch, I have bought one.  Mrs. Beattie is on the stage again is she, will give her a jolly good clap. Oh yes I remember the last baptism--whiskey eh--and Charlie has left Cowie.  Miss Lause[?]--no more--no brides cake--good luck to her.  the bookcase she gave me still stands me in good stead.  Now for a few observations on my way from Bloemfontein to Pretoria.  Arrived at Bfn 3.15 pm, 20-1-01 and left that for Pretoria at 4 am the 23rd January.  Near the line on either side are thousands upon thousands of cattle, mules, sheep, goats, horses that have been gathered together from places distant from the line, or garrisons, so that the enemy cannot get them.  No doubt about the preparations and men may be seen strengthening defences.  Here and there a truck more or less blown to pieces; also evidneces of attacks made upon trains, the usual carcasses on the veldt, Mear cats sitting in an upright position, front, side and sometimes back on quaintly and inquisitively looking on as we move along.  here and there farms destroyed.  Now we have got near Kroonstad we have here buses small trees and green grass.  They are building a new station surely, 3 miles from Kroonstadt. The nesct [next] thing was sea [sic] saw, bump, bang! I looked out, the train was making a curve at which the driver can almost shake hands with the Guard.  I get to Kroonstad where my compartment ceases to be a reserved one.  Reserved by reason of a late order that by every mail a member of the PO staff will travel for the supply of troops with orders, stamps registered letters and so on.  Stock in hand 150 [pounds] worth.  Had a board  hung up in the window markded (Post Office).  He did such a roaring trade, he roused my sympathy I advertised him right and left at the halt and no the move, and finally on arrival at Kroonstad (for he does not come further) he made up accounts, and discovered he was a fraction out.  Mistake commission. Business done 1 1/2.  All along the railway the wire fencing is cut up in pieces some yards long to allow troops to pass.  A percentage of troops carry wirecutters to cut up barbed wire if in the way.  Vultures and Secretary birds a good supply, flying or strutting along."
I will continue with page 2 next.
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« Reply #5 on: 6 August 2012, 00:23:03 »
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here is page 2 of the 6th letter of James Angus to his wife Kate.

"In many places wooden painted crosses (memoriams painted thereon) mark the spot where men have fallen or buried.  Some less fortunate have but a few loose stones some nothing at all.  Huloa here is Rhenoster River, and that the exact spot in the drift where on my way down sick on a bullock waggon [sic] we stuck and had to stay for a whole night.  Two days and a half and two nights on nothing.  Hundreds of tons of all sorts of stuffs, guns and so on passing north through at the time.  The Bridge seems all right again.  Here the Derby's and Imperial Yeomanry (I think) got a shake up by the Boers.  Noticeable at Bridges is the injuction posted up "Not to exceed 5, 8, or 10 miles an hour" as is deemed safe by the Engineer.  the Engine whistle is blown in quick succession I look out and see an ox on the track which gets a gentle lift, to a point of safety, by an arrangement on front of the Engine called cow-catcher. It did not catch that cow, but broke a leg.  At mileage 623 as far as the eye can reach I cannot see a single antheap.  I wonder what accounts for their absence in this locality.  What is meant by mileage, the railway is measured and a stone placed every 1/4, 1/2 and mile distance all the way from Cape Town to Pretoria.  I arrived at Viljoens Drift at 5pm and stayed there for the night, tipped the conductor two bob, 1st class compartment, good bed do you know.  Next morning 24th Jan[uary] stared for Pretoria.  In no mood for writing notes today.  Pleasant scenery on through the mining Districts, land at Pretoria Station at 3pm.  Shall give you what I think of this place later on.  It is without a doubt a great contrast to any other portion of south Africa that I have been in.
    David Frost is in Celon [Ceylon?]  there are of my company discharged and on civil employ in Pretoria 7 all told.  Though not alone, might will be reckoned so.  I hear the company will very probably leave Cape Town for home in the middle of March.  we hear so much that we are driven to turning the deaf ear to a great deal.  I went to a house the other night on entering--'Hands on your watches chaps'--On leaving --'now Angus are you sure you have got all that belongs you'  Answer 'I think I have old chap but there will be no harm in you sending your bed clothes (on which I had been sitting) to the wash'  I would not wonder if this overtakes the other letters I sent you. the English Mail I have been tod was espatched before I psted yours.  Better late than never.  And now I must conclude with the hope that you are all doing well at home.  I must write a letter to Mr. Chapman this week if possible.  You can give him the gist of this one if you happen to see him.  You will observe I have done what I can to reconcile you and my mother that having said or rather written nothing in reference to your troubles, neither of you can turn upon me or blame me.  I will not be slow to give you every assistance in my power if I am certain you are in the right in anything like difficulties.
I am, Madam, your Leige Lord and yours affectionately James Angus"

Another letter filled with many interesting (to me!) observations of war time.
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