A link with the past

2013-11-20 00:00

I MET Miss Kate Champion in 1952, while working in Alpha House, a small nursing home in Musgrave Road, Durban. When I walked into her room on my first night on duty, I was struck by her appearance. Although 83 and obviously frail, she was still a fine-looking woman with strong features, a mop of white hair and lively, bright eyes. Propped up by pillows, she sat reading a book that looked far too heavy for her to hold.

She glanced up over her glasses as I came in. I introduced myself, asked whether she’d like tea or Milo before settling down for the night and inquired whether she would like something to help her sleep.

“Good gracious, no,” she replied, horrified at the thought. “I sleep far too much as it is. But I’d like a cup of tea and ...” She paused, eyeing me thoughtfully. “And maybe a little company. Why don’t you join me when everyone else is asleep? Night duty can be very lonely. And taxing. I know, because I’m a nurse too. Or used to be when I was younger.”

“Oh!” I tried to imagine her slight figure in a white, starched uniform. “Where did you work?”

“In several places — Durban, Pietermaritzburg and Ladysmith.” She drew in her breath. “I nursed there during the siege.”

I frowned, wondering whether I’d heard correctly. “Siege?”

“The siege of Ladysmith. I’ll tell you about it if you’re interested.”

The siege ... I’d heard about it in the same way I’d heard about the concentration camps and the battles that had been fought during the Boer War, but it had all happened a long time ago, long before I was born, and history was not my strong point. The thought of hearing about the siege first-hand, from someone who’d actually been there, sparked my interest.

“I’d like that very much,” I said. “If you’re not too tired, maybe you can tell me when you’ve had your tea.”

It took a while to settle the rest of the patients but when I got back, carrying a tray, Miss Champion was wide awake, waiting for me. I poured two cups of tea, then sat back and listened while she reminisced.

She told her story in bits and pieces, some that night, some the next, some in the nights that followed, each episode so extraordinary I could hardly wait to hear the next. This is the gist of what she told me.

“I volunteered for the front the day war broke out. I was in Durban at the time and was told to report to the station where I and other volunteers took the overnight train to Ladysmith. We arrived the next morning to find a town filled with tents — thousands and thousands, crammed together, pitched on every spare piece of land. I learnt later that there were 13 000 troops stationed in the town so it was no wonder there were so many tents.

“The hospital had been set up in the town hall. By the time I arrived, it was full of casualties. The wounded were brought in from the battlefields in ambulance wagons, at times so many that they lined up, one behind the other, waiting for hours on end before we could attend to the men inside. By the time we did, many had died.

“The siege began about three weeks after I got there, on November 2, 1899. We were told that the Boers had taken up position on the hills surrounding Ladysmith and that, as the rail and telephone lines had been cut, we would have to survive as best we could until the army broke through and relieved us. That news was bad enough, but things got worse because soon after that, the Boers began firing shells into town. The church was hit several times and one landed on the town hall, killing some of our wounded.

“The next day, General White sent a message to the Boer general asking permission to move our wounded to a place where they would be safe. General Joubert agreed, and a place some five miles from Ladysmith was declared a no-man’s land. It was called Intombi Camp. We were given 24 hours to set up the tents we would need to accommodate our patients and staff. After that, a train carrying white flags would be allowed in once a day to bring supplies and more patients. It returned empty because, once in Intombi Camp, no one — whether it be doctors, nurses, patients or general staff — was allowed to leave.

“Intombi Camp ... I remember it quite clearly — the tents, the heat, the cold, the mud, the flies, the shells screaming overhead and the stench. We had 100 beds to start off with. That soon increased to 300. Then 1 000. Then 2 000. When we ran out of beds, we placed mattresses on the ground. When we ran out of mattresses, the patients lay on blankets or ground sheets.

“Nursing in those conditions was very difficult. We had no running water and only the most basic equipment. Latrines were no more than open pits. We were short of linen, blankets and worse still, medicines.

“Each day, the train brought more casualties; men with terrible wounds which, in spite of our best efforts, often turned gangrenous. Then typhoid broke out — a very bad epidemic that killed more men than Boer bullets. Doctors and nurses went down with it too. When things got really bad, the deaths totalled as many as 50 a day. The dead were sewn up in blankets and buried in the cemetery on a nearby hill. We could see the white crosses quite clearly from our tents. As time went by, the grave diggers had a hard time keeping up with the need. When they could no longer cope, they gave up digging individual graves and dug a long trench. There the dead were placed side by side and covered with earth.

“We were terribly short staffed. For weeks on end, no one took time off. Doctors and nurses worked round the clock, snatched what sleep we could then got up and carried on working. When the fever was at its height, a nurse sometimes had as many as 60 patients under her care.

“News came once a day with the train. Sometimes the news was good and we had high hopes that relief was on its way. Then bad news came —our troops had suffered heavy losses at Colenso and Spionkop. As time went by, we began to think we’d be there besieged forever.

“Everyone had the same rations dished out each day — a little mielie meal, two slices of bread, a few tea leaves, a spoonful of sugar and half a pound of meat. The rations were later cut to half and then a quarter. When food began to run out, the cavalry horses were killed and we were reduced to eating horse meat. A soup made from this meat was fed to the patients.

“A few days after New Year, we woke to the sound of gunfire and rushed out of our tents to see a fierce battle taking place on Wagon Hill, about two miles away. This made everyone very nervous for it seemed the Boers had attacked and were trying to take the town. The battle raged on for about eight hours, until the Boers retreated. The next day, when the supply train arrived, it was full of men with the most dreadful wounds. We knew that many of them had little chance of surviving.

“Towards the end of February, we heard the sound of heavy battles taking place to the south. Then, one morning, we woke to an eerie silence. Later that day, a group of horsemen came riding into Intombi Camp to tell us that the Boers had fled and that the relief column was on its way. After four long months, the siege was over.”

I lost touch with Miss Champion when I left Alpha House, but I never forgot her or her amazing story. Years later, when visiting the battlefields of KwaZulu-Natal, I stood for a long time on the site of Intombi Camp and stared out at the white crosses that marked the cemetery. In my mind’s eye I could see the tent town that had housed the field hospital and the staff who’d worked there. I could almost hear the whistle of the supply train and the shriek of shells as they flew overhead. And, for just a moment, I fancied I saw the white-uniformed figure of Nurse Kate Champion making her way towards the big marquee where her patients lay.

• Watch out for the announcement of the winners of the True Stories competition in The Witness on November 28.

DAPHNE Olivier has always wanted to write, but nursing, raising a family and farming got in the way, and it was only when she retired that she was able to follow her dream. Today, she is the author of four books, with another on the way. Daphne lives in Howick with her husband and their two dogs.

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