YEOMEN OF THE KAROO: The Story of the Imperial Yeomanry Hospital at Deelfontein by Rose Willis, Arnold van Dyk and JC ‘Kay’ de Villiers. Published by Firefly Publications, Brandfort, Free State, 2016.
I wonder how many of Rose Willis’s fans have waited for this story to come to light, to be properly unearthed and recorded? Reading through the names in the Acknowledgements, one soon realises that the list of friends, geologists, ecologists, heritage experts, farmers, researchers, archivists and family members who contributed in some way is extensive . Rose Willis, known to many readers as the founder and compiler of the monthly Rose’s Round-up, found time between teaching and writing to dig deep into intercontinental events that are woven into the tapestry of this extraordinary tale.
She discovered Deelfontein when she was living outside Beaufort West and promoting tourism in the Central Karoo, and she was helped in her research by Dr van Dyk , an authority on the Boer War with a library of pictures on the subject, while Prof Kay de Villiers, a Cape Town neuro-surgeon and expert on both the war and its medical aspects also supplied valuable input.
As the 19th century drew to a close a war raged across South Africa and, on the desolate plains of the Great Karoo, a unique hospital sprang up…
In 1899 the British realised that this war against “a bunch of farmers” was not going well for them, and the government appealed for volunteers. This succeeded as many men, including newly qualified doctors, enlisted and ships sailed for South Africa almost daily. In England two high society women scrapped their social calendars and set out to raise funds for a private hospital to care for the men who would be wounded.
The results were nothing short of extraordinary – from conception in England to erection in the Karoo, a little less than three months passed before the Imperial Yeomanry hospital opened at Deelfontein, a narrow valley between a row of koppies and a railway siding, 46km south of De Aar and 77km north of Richmond. The date was March 17 1900.
Stating that it was a place ahead of its time is something of an understatement . I quote liberally from the press release: The huge tent hospital that mushroomed in this desolate region was unique… along with operating theatres, treatment and convalescent wards, it boasted specialist units for dentistry, ophthalmology and radiology – all firsts in a military hospital. There was a fire station, a dispensary, electricity and a telephone system. It had its own stables and dairy, which supplied sterilised milk. Steam-driven disinfection and waste disposal units helped in the war against typhoid, and ensured hygienic conditions. The laundry washed and sterilised more than 2 000 sheets a week. Drinking water was filtered and running water was piped through the grounds. There were luxurious touches as well –such as a comfortable officers’ mess with its own mineral water plant and ice-making machine. A chapel, a theatre, sports fields, tennis courts, a shooting range, and, (can you believe) a horse-racing track provided recreational facilities.
How did this happen? The credit must go to two aristocratic English women – Lady Georgina Spencer-Churchill and Lady Beatrice Chesham, second daughter of the first Duke of Westminster, whose husband Lord Chesham was commander of the Imperial Yeomanry in South Africa. The former focussed on liaison with the War Office and other institutions in the UK while the latter spent much time at Deelfontein supervising affairs. The two women, with help from friends, raised a substantial sum – 174 000 pounds – more than enough to equip and staff a hospital. The goal was conceived in December 1899, and over the next couple of months tons of equipment was dispatched from England by ship, to be transported to Deelfontein by oxwagon, horse and slow train.
During its year of operation the hospital treated more than 6 000 patients, and lost just 134, of whom 112 succumbed to typhoid.
In order to cover all aspects of the story, events and people are grouped into chapters chronologically. Not only professional men enlisted but women from all walks of life also volunteered as nurses. The staff of 200 personnel was not only highly skilled, but their services produced many tales of bravery, dedication and lasting friendship . Boer commandos operated in the vicinity on several occasions, and skirmishes outside the gates caused casualties: Both British and enemy soldiers were treated in the hospital.
We learn about the many individuals who contributed in some way to the success of Deelfontein’s hospital through s series of cameos – brief biographies of soldiers, doctors, surgeons, donors, nurses, and more. The final chapter covers those who are buried at the Deelfontein cemetery, today almost the only remaining sign that a hospital ever existed. Most of these perished from disease rather than bullets.
Other stories - and mysteries – are interwoven with medical history: the Adamstein family emigrated to South Africa and ended up at Deelfontein where they established a trading store and went on to build a luxurious hotel complete with walled gardens in which peacocks and cranes strutted. The story of the post office that never was provides light relief, its ruins alongside modern cemeteries which are reasonably well maintained. Visitors to this forlorn spot report they have the feeling of being watched in spite of it being deserted , while the local railway siding attendant takes it for granted that his surroundings are haunted.
The stories are further brought to life with a fascinating collection of old and a few contemporary photographs scattered liberally through the book: Portraits of many of the role players are there along with pictures of huts and rows of tents below a koppie which sports its identifying IYH in giant letters. Interior scenes of the chapel, wards, operating theatre (and an operation in progress) offer proof of just how well organised and equipped the Imperial Yeomanry Hospital was. Sad pictures of a pathetic informal settlement near the hospital and another of carcasses of horses – the “true losers” as Willis labels them – remind readers of the many miseries that war brings.
This fine volume of Africana combines military with medical history alongside lesser-known aspects of the Anglo-Boer war. It’s a treasury to dip into frequently, and to accompany all who choose to visit the site where cemeteries and the ruins of the Adamstein’s hotel rub eerie shoulders in the heart of the Great Karoo.
This is my choice as Book of the Year for 2016 as I congratulate Rose for fulfilling her dream of publishing a story she shared with me back in the mid- 1980s. .
The standard edition costs R390 and the limited collectors’ edition R1 400. Postage and packaging come to an additional R100. Order the book from Firefly Publications, make an EFT payment to their bank account at FNB, Preller Plein branch, Acct no 62138779642.. For more information fax 0865809189 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or Rose Willis at email@example.com.