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Deelfontein Imperial Yeomanry Hospital
Anglo-Boer War Graves at Deelfontein
A dry, desolate and dusty place, the white letters IYH spread across 25 metres of the hillside at Deelfontein. The letters a reminder of the small railway sidings part in one of South Africas largest wars, the Anglo-Boer War. In 1900, smack bang in the heat of the war Lord Roberts was sent to South Africa to replace Sir Redvers Buller as commander-in-chief of the British Forces. It didnt take him long to realise that one of the biggest causes of death throughout the British army was not gunfire but rather typhoid. The disease was rife and Roberts decided that a military hospital was urgently needed.

The staff for the hospital were recruited in January 1900 and most of them sailed for South Africa from Southampton on the S S Norman on February 10, that year. The IYH, Imperial Yeomanry Hospital at Deelfontein was opened on the 17 March 1900 and on the 19 March the first train arrived with over a hundred patients on it, by the end of March 300 patients were being treated in prefabricated buildings and tents.

By the end of 1900 over 6000 patients had been through the facility. During the Anglo-Boer War the hospital was the largest surgical facility and convalescent hospital in the Colony, providing recuperative care to the soldiers. It was also one of the first military hospitals to have an X-ray installation.

Today Deelfontein consists of a few buildings clustered around the railway station and several more are scattered over the Karoo plain, none of the buildings or stone-lined pathways, which made up the IYH, are visible, and the only evidence that structures once stood there, are stone embankments, depressions and dilapidated mortar floors. And two cemeteries with over 134 graves tell the life stories of service men and medical personnel who gave their lives for what they believed in.

The focal point of the cemeteries is a large monument which has the names of 8 men of the Yeomanry Hospital Staff inscribed on it. Of these 8 staff, 6 died of disease and were buried at Deelfontein.

Ambulance at Deelfontein

This is a sepia-toned photograph of a horse-drawn ambulance wagon used in the Boer War. The ambulance, belonging to the Imperial Yeomanry Hospital, has one red cross on the side and another on the canopy, and two horses in the traces. An Australian soldier sits on one of the horses and another one stands at the back of the ambulance. A British soldier wearing a Red Cross armband stands to the front of the ambulance. In the background are three corrugated iron huts and a tent. On one of the huts are the words 'P.M.O.'s Office'

National Library of Australia,
Hospital Ward - Deelfontein

Four beds, with a patient lying on each, and above each bed the name of the sponsor: "Eastern Counties Chelmsford bed", "Eastern Counties Newmarket Town bed", "Eastern Counties Isle of Ely", "Eastern Counties Babraham bed". Also attached to the wall behind the beds are (apparently) blotting paper holders containing foolscap sheets of paper (for medical notes?), baskets for the patients' clothes, pictures (a print of a jockey, apparently; a print of a Victorian painting of a Georgian street scene), and a long shelf for books, bottles etc.

Presumed to be the Eastern Counties Ward in the Imperial Yeomanry Hospital, Deelfontein, South Africa, which had an Eastern Counties Ward with beds given or equipped by donations from named East Anglian towns (Georgiana Countess Howe, The Imperial Yeomanry hospitals in South Africa, 1900-1902

A History of Deelfontein

After the events of 'Black Week', during which the British Army suffered reverses at Stormberg (10 December 1899), Magersfontein (11 December 1899) and Colenso (15 December 1899), the British War Office, in response to a request for reinforcements, called for volunteers from different regiments for active service in South Africa. In addition, the formation of a corps of mounted men, drawn from the regiments of Yeomanry, termed Imperial Yeomanry, was called to assist. Candidates for enlistment had to be between the ages of 20 and 35 and had to satisfy the authorities that they were good riders and marksmen.

At such a time when thousands of men left Britain to serve in South Africa, it was felt that women too should assist in the war effort. Lady Chesham and Lady Georgiana Curzon (who later became Countess Howe) felt so strongly the need to mitigate the horrors of war that they resolved to organise a hospital for the Imperial Yeomanry in South Africa. A letter published in London newspapers, followed later by another, appealed to the British nation to come forward with funds.

The response was termed enthusiastic in that an amount of some £174 000 was eventually collected; sufficient to equip and remunerate the personnel for four hospitals (initially only one was envisaged), a convalescent home, a field hospital and a bearer company. An Imperial Yeomanry Hospital Committee, under the chairmanship of the above-named ladies, was soon established, and began to function in early January 1900. The War Office and the Red Cross sanctioned the scheme, with the proviso that the hospital should not be kept exclusively for the Yeomanry. This was agreed to by the Committee. During the remainder of the month the medical personnel were appointed, and between 10 and 17 February 1900 the entire staff with the exception of nurses, departed for South Africa.

The Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in South Africa, Lord Roberts, decided, for strategic and other reasons (including the difficulty of railway transport), that the hospital should be located not further north than De Aar which was at the war front during February 1900. The town was situated at the railway junction linking Bloemfontein and Kimberley with Cape Town, and East London and Port Elizabeth with Mafeking. Deelfontein, 46 kilometres south of De Aar in the Karoo, was selected as an ideal location for a large hospital. It was situated at an altitude of 1 359 metres above sea level, with a bracing climate and a good water supply. Hitherto Deelfontein had been used almost exclusively for supplying water to steam locomotives and the point had been used for a crossing of the railway. The station itself consisted of a large water tank, a pumping plant, a cottage and a small store.

The medical officers, and the whole staff (except nurses) left Cape Town by train for Deelfontein on 3 March. The journey, lasting two days, was uneventful save for the loss of one member of staff, George Vassie, who fell from the train near Worcester and was killed instantly.The first two weeks was a period of hard work. The first day was spent pitching tents for immediate accommodation. At the time there was a detachment of Duke of Edinburgh's Volunteers on guard at the railway station. With the assistance of a fatigue party, the medical personnel began the erection of huts adjacent to a range of hills. All stores and equipment had to be carried from the railway station to a site some 400 metres away.By 17 march 1900 the hospital was opened under the charge of Colonel A T Sloggett, RAMC, with Mr A D Fripp as Senior Surgeon. The entire staff consisted of 21 doctors (including surgeons, physicians, an opthalmologist and a dentist) 10 surgical dressers, 40 nursing sisters, 10 ward maids, 76 men from the St. John's Ambulance and 110 orderlies, making a total of 191 persons.

Prior to its opening, the military authorities completed a railway siding in front of the hospital in order to facilitate the removal of patients brought by rail. Water had been laid on by means of piping it from a tank at the foot of the hill behind. Flowing under the force of gravity it was easily distributed throughout the camp. Pathways, lined with stones painted white, gave the camp the appearance of a small town.On 19 March the first ambulance train with 101 ill and wounded men arrived at Deelfontein and at the end of the month some 300 had been accommodated. By then prefabricated buildings had been erected, a few big marquees and tortoise tents pitched and a water drainage system established. To keep outbreaks of diseases to a minimum, certain standards of cleanliness were adhered to. No human excreta was carried by drains, all of it being removed by buckets and buried away from the camp. Numerous sinks were placed all over the hospital complex; utensils infected with enteric (today called typhoid) fever were disinfected, and all mattresses used by enteric patients were disinfected and washed.

In mid-May Lady Chesham and her daughter arrived. The distribution by these two women of newspapers and books as well as luxury items, including tobacco, was greatly appreciated by the patients.
The hospital site continued to expand, and as the days went by additional structures were erected and equipped. By the middle of June 1900 provision had been made for the accommodation of nearly 800 patients. The hospital complex eventually contained fifteen buildings used as wards, six of which had been designed in Britain, while the nine smaller structures which could be assembled in sections, were manufactured in South Africa. The former were well lighted and ventilated and contained up to 34 patients. Each building was named after a particular donor organization, for example Sherwood Rangers Ward, Home Counties Ward, Wales Ward, etc. In addition, the names of many of the private donors (whose contributions included the beds, china, hardware, blankets and bedding) were inscribed at the entrance to each ward. On the beds themselves appeared names of donors. There were to be at least 77 tents (bell-shaped, tortoise and marquees) which were used as wards, dining rooms, recreations rooms, warehouses and for cooking. A composite building contained an operating theatre and an X-ray room, and a dispensary. Water and electricity were also supplied. The dairy, constructed of iron and wood, had a concrete floor (to facilitate easy washing) and two sterilizers for milk.

A corrugated iron shed contained a laundry, with a stove used for disinfecting clothing before being washed, a steam plant for disinfecting articles under super-heated steam, a 'dust destroyer' which consisted of a large cylindrical drum in which water was boiled on the fire used to destroy rubbish. Other buildings included a fire station, a carpenter's shop, the Commandant's office (the only brick building), 4 toilets, a pack store, linen store, etc. As already noted, the excellent supply of fresh water helped to determine the choice of Deelfontein as a suitable location for a hospital. All drinking water was pumped through two large filters to a special tank from where it was distributed in pipes all over the camp. There were four large bathroms, as well as a 'Russian bath' (which was used for therapeutic purposes) the latter being supplied with hot water.

Recreation was provided for the patients as well as for the hospital staff. For the not-so-ill an occasional concert provided both entertainment and relaxation. For the healthy and energetic, football and cricket were played on the flat ground across the railway to the east of the hospital.

With the acquisition of additional funds, the Yeomanry Committee decided to enlarge the hospital at Deelfontein, the size of which has already been alluded to. In addition, a demand for medical assistance in Cape Town, led to the establishment of a Yeomanry Depot. Consequently, a small hospital, of 100 beds, was started at Mackenzie's Farm at Maitland. This was followed by a Yeomanry Field Hospital and Bearer Company which accompanied various columns. As a result of privations in the field, most of the personnel of the Bearer Company became ill or suffered from fatigue, and accordingly it had ceased to exist by April 1901. With the fall of Pretoria (5 June 1900) to Lord Roberts' forces, which included a considerable number of Imperial Yeomanry, the Committee decided to establish an additional base hospital in that city. The Yeomanry Hospital opened in August 1900, and ceased to be under the control of the Yeomanry authorities from October 1901 when it became the No.22 General Hospital. The hospital at Mackenzie's Farm continued to be used until April 1901 when it passed into the control of the Cape Government who used it as a plague hospital. A convalescent home for Yeomanry offices was established in Johannesburg in March 1901 and remained open until October of that year when use of the building reverted to its owner. A new hospital was opened at Elandsfontein, near Germiston, in June 1901. It eventually contained 138 beds and was transferred to the management of the Army Medical Authorities in December 1901.

As a result of the high number of cases of dysentery and enteric faver reported amongst the soldiers of Lord Roberts' Army while in Bloemfontein, a Royal Commission was appointed to investigate the care and treatment of those who had contracted illness or had been wounded during the war. The Commission of six members, under its President, Lord Justice Romer, proceded to South Africa, and took evidence at many of the hospitals located on the lines of communication. The Commission visited Deelfontein on 30 August 1900 and were impressed with the doctors and patients they interviewed.

Another interesting event was the visit to Deelfontein by Lord Milner on 1 November 1900. He inspected the hospital and expressed his satisfaction with what he saw there. On 3 December a storm struck the hospital. Although it lasted no longer than a minute, it wrecked seven of the largest marquees. With the ravages of dysentery and enteric fever amongst the patients, and the numbers of those who died from wounds, a cemetery near the hospital began to grow. The medical personnel were not spared from disease either. The deaths from enteric of at least two men, viz. Dr Fitzburgh and Surgeon-Dresser Sells, were described as a 'severe loss'.

In early December 1900 the Cape Colony was invaded by the Boers, and during the next three months Deelfontein hospital became the centre of hostililites. Many sick and wounded (including a large number of surgical cases) were received from the columns operating in the surrounding district.
On termination of the Committee's contracts with the hospital staff, negotiations for the transfer of the entire hospital were entered into with the military authorities. The transfer took place on 1 April 1901 (a little more than a year after the date of opening) with most of the staff returning to Britain. By that time 6 093 patients had been admitted to Deelfontein hospital of whom 81 (including 18 from the Imperial Yeomanry regiments or hospital staff) had been buried in the cemetery. The hospital then became known as No.21 General Hospital with Colonel Sloggett remaining in charge.
The frequency of burials at Deelfontein declined during the latter stages of the war. Before the termination of hostilities (31 May 1902) a small cemetery containing five graves was established, while nearby another cemetery containing many more graves was enclosed by a large rectangular-shaped stone wall. The approach to the large cemetery was then lined by trees, while the graves within this cemetery were identified by marble crosses or with boards bearing the soldiers' particulars. A monument consisting of a marble cross on a large cairn was erected within the cemetery. On the cross appeared the names of those men who had died in the service of the Imperial Yeomanry Hospital.

Deelfontein today consists of a few buildings clustered around the railway station and several more are scattered over the Karoo plain. A visitor cannot help but notice the large IYH lettering, measuring 25 metres in length, etched on the hill side. Faintly discernable beneath is the word DEELFONTEIN. Of the Yeomanry Hospital complex, no buildings or stone-lined pathways are to be seen, and the only evidence that structures once stood there, are stone embankments, depressions and dilapidated mortar floors. Some distance away from the site are depressions in the ground where holes once existed in which the excreta of typhoid patients was buried.
Deelfontein station in 1900 was described as being '...a large water tank and pumping plant, pumpman's cottage ... and a small store.' Water, then drawn from a well to the south of the station, is now pumped from a borehole located to the north-east of the station. Several buildings have been erected in the intervening 86 years. A hotel consisting of a corrugated iron structure, in front of which stands an archway with the word 'Yeomanry', was probably one of the first buildings to be built. Subsequent additions were made comprising more sturdy buildings which, until recently, were used for accommodation. Other buildings adjoining the hotel included a liquor section (opened in 1935) and a general store (opened in 1938). The sole white inhabitant in the hotel (and for that matter of Deelfontein), a Mr J Adamstein, who resided there for many years, has now left the place.
Between the station and the cemeteries the observer sees several other buildings and these include a school for coloured pupils, a post office (now disused) and a compound which provides accommodation for railway workers.

Some 450 metres away in a south-westerly direction from where the hospital buildings stood are two cemeteries containing the graves of 132 soldiers and civilians. A graveyard with 5 graves contains the earliest burials performed at Deelfontein. Perhaps the ground was too hard (many stones are seen in the vicinity) and this persuaded the hospital authorities to select a site for another cemetery some 60 metres away. In the latter, 128 men are buried. A big stone wall, which enclosed the 'large' cemetery has now disappeared. A reservoir nearby has a stone wall (possibly the stones which once comprised the walls of the cemetery). Prior to the cessation of hostilities (31 May 1902) the original rectangular enclosure was filled with additional graves.

After the war, additional burials, including reinterments, resulted in the creation of a single line of 21 graves projecting beyond the original enclosure. Most of the graves in the two cemeteries are identified by a metal cross to which is attached a metal disc bearing the particulars of the soldier. The remainder are marked by marble crosses. In the large cemetery, two adjacent graves, identified by different markers, denote the same person - an obvious error made by either the graves commission (whose work included the manufacture of the metal crosses) or a family member (who was responsible for the marble cross).

Dominating the scene is the large monument on which are inscribed the names of 8 men of the Yeomanry Hospital Staff, 6 of whom died of disease and are buried at Deelfontein. Another man was killed accidentally and he was buried at Worcester but reinterred at Maitland, Cape Town.

Today the responsibility for the care of the cemeteries has been undertaken by an enthusiastic De Aar resident, Mr Clarence Wood. The clearing of weeds and shrubs within the cemeteries, the painting of the crosses and stones over each grave and the possibility of applying a coat of paint to the IYH lettering on the hillside forms part of a continuous project undertaken by a small but interested group of members belonging to the De Aar Rotary Club.
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