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A vet, a spy, and the general’s wife... Unsung war heroes remembered

Lady Carol Wilson’s role in the Anglo-Boer War is highlighted in Carol MacCallum’s book Eavesdropping behind the Frontlines of the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902.

Lady Carol Wilson’s role in the Anglo-Boer War is highlighted in Carol MacCallum’s book Eavesdropping behind the Frontlines of the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902.

Published Jan 22, 2022


A vet in Ladysmith went through heartache having to select which horses should be sacrificed for meat.

It was at the turn of the last century and British forces in the town were under siege during the Anglo-Boer War.

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The vet, a Dr Herbert Watkins-Pitchford, had been dispatched there by the British forces to take care of more than 40 000 horses.

“He went through a lot of heartache,” said Pietermaritzburg social history author Carol MacCallum, whose book, Eavesdropping behind the Frontlines of the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902, came out recently.

“He had to make some heart-rending choices because food was running out. He had to tell Lieutenant General White (commander of the British forces at the siege) which of the horses should be killed for meat.

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Pietermaritzburg social history author Carol MacCallum’s latest book is about the Anglo-Boer War. Picture: Peter Upfold

“This was not only tough for him but also for members of the volunteer corps who actually owned their horses and were attached to them.

“True vets are real animal lovers and they have a gift in that direction. Hurting animals is not their scene at all,” she said.

Watkins-Pitchford founded Allerton Laboratories, which continues to function in Pietermaritzburg to this day.

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MacCallum’s book highlights the role of unsung heroes during the war and, for the Siege of Ladysmith account, she has sourced the content about the vet from letters Watkins-Pitchford wrote to his wife.

“The book talks about the courage and determination of individuals who made a difference towards the war but who were not part of the soldiers and the politics and that type of thing,” said MacCallum, who also has the titles Eavesdropping on Early Maritzburg and Eavesdropping on Early Natal to her name.

She was in a library researching a book on Durban when she came across interesting information about Lady Sarah Wilson, a relative of former British prime minister Sir Winston Churchill. Her plans were diverted from researching Durban to finding out more about the Anglo-Boer War

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Lady Sarah’s stage was another town under siege, Mafeking (now Mahikeng), where she had been taken prisoner and released in a prisoner exchange. She also acted as a spy and, like Sir Winston, a war correspondent, said MacCallum.

Lady Sarah had come to South Africa with her husband, interested in gold. She was offered a position as a war correspondent with the Daily Mail in London. Among her writings was a letter written on December 3, 1899, titled Our Life in Mafeking.

“When the Boers started to attack Mafeking she got the order from (British Commander Colonel Robert) Baden-Powell to get out,” said MacCallum.

Out in the countryside she managed to receive mail from her husband in Mafeking through a trustworthy runner and, when she realised she could get letters back to him, became a spy, sending information to the British in the besieged town.

Boers were suspicious of her, MacCallum went on, with some believing she was the daughter of Queen Victoria sent to spy on them and others believing she was a man dressed as a woman.

Once her trustworthy runner was no longer available to her, she tried using flying pigeons which, instead of taking her information to the British in Mafeking, took it to the Boer headquarters, leading to her arrest. She was eventually freed in exchange for a Boer horse thief held in Mafeking.

MacCallum added: “She and Churchill never saw eye to eye. They had the same nature and personality.”

Then there was Jacoba Elizabeth “Nonnie” de la Rey, wife of the Boer General Koos de la Rey.

“She did not want to go into a (British) concentration camp, so she took her children and her servants in an ox wagon and for 18 months lived in the veld avoiding being captured, assisting her husband on the quiet when she could,” she said.

With seven children and two servants, she wandered the former Transvaal, sometimes living in abandoned farmsteads or caves and, when possible, camping out near her husband’s bases.

When supplies such as flour became scarce, she processed maize in her coffee grinder, introducing “pap”as a staple instead of bread, made her own soap and candles and clothes using starch extracted from green mealies.

“She was the rock that got her family and servants through the difficult times, kept their spirits up, relying on tenacity and adaptability and that strong Boer survival instinct,” said the author.

Social history writer Carol MacCallum’s lastest book Eavedropping behind the Frontlines of the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902.

MacCullum started social history writing after becoming widowed, with her children grown up, and having completed a degree in history and psychology in her adulthood.

She said that Sylvia Vietzen, a historian with a doctorate and a former principal of Pietermaritzburg Girls’ High School, instilled in her a love of history when she was still a student teacher to her Grade Nine class at the school by “bringing the subject to life in the classroom”.

MacCallum plans to return to Durban for her next book, still at the ideas stage, which will be about Victorian Natal, highlighting Durban and Pietermaritzburg and the villages in between, many of which are today absorbed into the urban sprawl.

Unless, of course, the discovery of another interesting character takes her on a diversion to writing a book that is about eavesdropping on something else.

BLOB Eavesdropping behind the Frontlines of the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902 sells for R200 and is available from Ike’s, Durban; Nuts about Books and Toys, Howick, and Bookworld in Pietermaritzburg. It is also available through the author’s Facebook page or via [email protected]

The Independent on Saturday

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