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The second Boer war

Black and white photo of man standing in front of Princess Christian hospital trainOn 11 October 1899, the bloody second Boer war began. Battles between the British Empire and the two independent Boer republics lasted until 31 May 1902.

The British Red Cross worked alongside the army medical services to care for sick and wounded soldiers during the war.

What was then the Central British Red Cross Committee supplied and ran hospital trains and a hospital ship, opened a number of hospitals and arranged for doctors, nurses and medical supplies. 

Hospital trains

Black and white photo of inside of Princess Christian hospital trainThe first purpose-built hospital train was the Princess Christian. It and other hospital trains carried medical supplies one way and wounded soldiers on the return journey. It carried a total of 7,548 badly injured soldiers during the war.Volunteers met the trains at the station and provided cooling drinks, fruit, milk, eggs and other comforts. Before it left Cape Town for the front, each train received a supply of hospital kits. The kits were linen bags stamped in red letters: ‘The gift of the Good Hope and British Red Cross Societies’. They contained essential clothes and toiletries.

Wounded men were often carried straight from the battlefield to the trains and needed the supplies in the ‘lucky bags’, as they called them. By 21 November 1900, the Red Cross had given out more than 14,000 bags.

Demand for supplies soon increased with the spread of typhoid so the British Red Cross provided another hospital train.

Hospital ship

The Red Cross also used a hospital ship to help the wounded. On 8 January 1890 the hospital ship Princess of Wales arrived in Cape Town carrying a large quantity of Red Cross supplies and with accommodation for 200 patients. A total of 728 people were treated onboard.

Some wounded soldiers who were sent back to Britain were also given clothing to help them cope with the cold weather.

Letters of thanks

Black and white photo of group of Red Cross nursesIn a letter to the Red Cross on 12 September 1900, Colonel T.J. Gallwey said: “I would like to express through you . . . the thanks of the sick and wounded of the Natal Army for the excellent work of the [British Red Cross] Society in providing extra clothing, equipment and medical comforts throughout the war.“Voluntary aid societies such as the British Red Cross are important in time of war in filling up the inevitable gaps in a huge and widespread medical organisation.”

In another letter to the Red Cross, Major Fred Heuston, wrote on 17 October 1900: “I consider it marvellous, under difficulties of transport, you managed to supply us so liberally with aid for our sick when in the front line, where we have always been. I feel that any thanks from us must, however, be feeble compared to that of the sick and wounded to the number of some 3,500 who have passed through this hospital whose sufferings you have done so much to mitigate.”

Going home

In May 1900, the British Red Cross reached the peak of its activities and after that the pressure on the hospitals began to decline. The strain of the past months had affected the staff, though. At least one surgeon, Lieutenant-Colonel Forrester, medical officer of the Princess Christian hospital train, had died of typhoid.

The activities of the British Red Cross in South Africa covered almost exactly twelve months. During that time they helped in more than 200 hospitals, and with five hospital trains and eight hospital ships.

The organisation had spent more than £40,000, distributed 13,000 bales and cases of relief supplies to the value of £30,000, and spent £3,000 on 1,000 British soldiers held in Pretoria as prisoners of war. The supplies included articles of clothing, bedding, toiletry items, food items, medical supplies (such as stretchers, dressings, drugs and hospital implements), mosquito netting, crockery and ironware, games and newspapers.

After November 1900, the Good Hope Society took over the Red Cross’ work.

The first official Army Order allowing women to receive campaign medals was published in 1901, so nurses and nursing sisters could be awarded the Queen's South Africa Medal.

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