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TOPIC: Samuel Osborn of the Van Alen American Field Hospital

Samuel Osborn of the Van Alen American Field Hospital 1 month 2 days ago #64370

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In article on Deelfontein in the SAMHS ( samilitaryhistory.org/vol074sa.html ) , the author includes this picture and supporting text:



Sergeant George Vassie, who was killed after falling from a train near Worcester, formed part of the medical personnel destined to do duty at Deelfontein. He was buried in Worcester but his mortal remains were eventually transferred to the Maitland cemetery, Cape Town. His name is amongst the 420 men commemorated, all of whom died during 1899-1902. In addition a separate headstone exists to his memory.
Dr David Biggins
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Samuel Osborn of the Van Alen American Field Hospital 1 month 1 day ago #64379

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Part II of Osborn's diary which is presented as it appeared in The Graphic on 28 July 1900. Some readers may find the content offensive.


We entered Kimberley soon after its relief, and were surprised to find so few evidences of its bombardment. This was probably due to the houses having roofs composed of corrugated zinc, so that by the substituting of a new plate the damage was soon hidden away.

A large hole in the photographer’s opposite the Club House, with slight damage to the Club, and a corner window of the hotel close to the Town Hall, where poor Mr. Labran [sic] was killed, were the most prominent features of the bad time they had gone through. The Boers must have been very bad shots, as the Conning Tower on the De Beers mine afforded an excellent mark, which they, from beginning to end, failed to hit. In the Park here remains, for future posterity to admire, the marvellous gun called “Long Cecil,” made by Mr. Labran, the engineer at the De Beers works. It has been examined by regimental experts, who always admire it, and wonder at the excellent rifling of the interior, and can hardly credit that it was the work of a man who had never made a gun before. If anyone deserved praise for what he did for Kimberley during the siege he did. Some miscreant in the town sent up a rocket to inform the Boers the night of his funeral, and they fired into the funeral ground the whole time it was taking place.

Through the kindness of Captain Penfold, RN, I was made an honorary member of the Kimberley Club, and this kindness, as well as the courtesy of Captain Tyson, the secretary, will never be forgotten by any of us who made it our home for days and days together.

Showing how small the world is, I met here two old friends of the old London Brigade of the Royal Naval Artillery Volunteers — a Mr. Adams, resident in the town, and Dr. J. Williams, P.M.O. of the South Australian Contingent — so we, of course, celebrated the event with the usual dinner. One thing at this club at first gave me the jumps before I got used to it. It was seeing a long black head and arm come stealthily into my bedroom in the early morning to remove or return my boots. A peculiarity of this club was the enormous glass tumblers, holding, I should think, about half a gallon, and the favourite beverage appeared to be shandygaff. That an individual at one meal could put away the contents of three of these appeared to me next door to the miraculous.

A Cape cart had been bought by Mr. Murray Guthrie for the use of our hospital, and we found it very useful for getting about the town. A good many people who have never been to South Africa wonder what a Cape cart is like. It is peculiar to the place, and peculiar in bruising your legs in places as you get in and out. A Cape cart is a two-wheeled chaise, with a hood to it, driven by a pair of horses. It has seating accommodation for four people, three besides the driver; I should say, perhaps, in addition to the driver, as only one sits beside the driver. To get to the back seat one-half of the front seat turns up, which is grasped by the driver, whilst the two back-seat passengers get in. The front seat then drops into its place to receive the third passenger. It is rather a puzzle to explain as it is to get in it or out, at all events without knocking your head or tearing your clothes or barking your shins. There are in Cape Town a few jinrickshaws, drawn by running Kaffirs. I was courageous enough to ride in one, although I felt like a member of a hippodrome, for my horse looked like Beelzebub the Prince of the Devils, with a pair of buffalo horns fastened on his head, and with bells and fur trappings hung about his body.

Being in the city of diamonds, one naturally wished to see one in the rough, and to visit the famous diamond mines of De Beers. A rough diamond is very much like a piece of gum arabic. Properly equipped in an old slouch hat, and a long miner’s coat to protect our clothes from the mud and wet, we descended the shaft of the De Beers mine. It was quite cold going down after leaving the hot weather above ground. The depth of the mine is 1,720 feet. The narrow cage took us first of all to the 1,200 feet level in twenty seconds. This cage, capable of holding ten or twelve persons, is worked alongside of the double up and down shoot, which brings up the blue mould containing the diamonds. It was rather like a descent into the infernal regions, from the number of black people working down there. They do eight hours’ duty at a time, and have sixteen hours off. It was by means of this cage that over a thousand women and children were taken during the siege, ten or twelve at a time, down into the mine, some never to return, as many young children and babies died down there, from want of proper food and absence of milk. The extent of the mine even above ground is very large, because the blue mould, when brought above ground, has to remain some months on the surface exposed to the air to soften before washing and pounding. The final process, where the earth passes with the running water over greased paddles, was very interesting, as one could see the diamonds adhering to the grease. Great precautions are adopted to prevent the negroes, many of whom are convicts, from stealing. the diamonds. The native compound was covered with netting to prevent them throwing anything to the outside world. The best time to visit them in this their home is on Sunday afternoon, when they sing, dance, swim, play cards, and generally amuse themselves. To steal diamonds they will pop them into all sorts of places. One man made a wound in his leg, and tried to hide them there, and the doctor could not make out why it would not heal, and it was only on probing the wound that the diamonds were found at the bottom. Sometimes they swallow them. So to be even with them in this way, before they are allowed out for a holiday they are shut up in a room in solitary confinement for a week. I was very desirous of procuring a champagne-coloured diamond, which are somewhat rare. It was perhaps as well I did not, as the regulations about buying diamonds in the town are so rigorous that great trouble and many legal formalities are necessary to effect a purchase. Before leaving the mine I had one of the shells used during the siege, and marked “With compliments, C. J. Rhodes,” given me, and which is now serving the purpose of a door-weigh.

We drove over one day to visit the battlefield of Moddersfontein [Magersfontein] and a more interesting and agreeable day I have never spent. Standing on the top of the main kopje, where a large gun had been placed, it was quite evident that the place was impregnable to any frontal attack, and that the situation could only have been taken by turning either right or left flank. The trenches in front, protected by thorn bushes, and ranged tier above tier, fully accounted for the lines of fire described by our men. How heroically they fought was evident by the marks upon almost every boulder and rock, each having some six or eight white blots on them from the hail of bullets which must have fallen in that direction. In one place, where the smell was too terrible for words, were lying some hundreds of horses in heaps of tens, one on the top of another. As they were killed in so confined a space I concluded it must have been lyddite which was the cause of this wholesale slaughter. I picked up several mementoes of my visit, the saddest of all being a blood-stained cartridge case which had belonged to some poor fellow of the Highland Brigade, and which I found near the spot where General Wauchope fell. Plenty of leaden shot and pieces of shell strewed the ground, and some excellent tin boxes and trunks were still lying about on the site of the old Boer laager. Some sheets from illustrated German papers and some leaves from a Dutch Bible, 2 Sam., chap, xi., containing the history of Uriah the Hittite, I also brought away with me.
Dr David Biggins

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Samuel Osborn of the Van Alen American Field Hospital 1 month 19 hours ago #64387

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Part III of Osborn's account. From The Graphic, 11 August 1900.


I had been looking after some of the wounded soldiers in the Undenominational School buildings until our own field hospital was ready at Newton camp but now that it was ready, I moved out there, and commenced my life under canvas, about a couple of miles outside the town of Kimberley. Our camp certainly looked very pretty, with three marquee or tortoise tents all spotlessly white and with the smaller ones for officers, mess-tents, &c., in orthodox lines. Two flagstaff's denoted our position, both carrying a red-cross flag of the Geneva Convention at the top, one with a Union Jack at the bottom, and on the other the American Stars and Stripes. On one of these at dusk were hung two swinging lanterns on a horizontal bar, so that by night the hospital whereabouts could be found — truly a guiding light when returning to the camp late in the evening. We began to take in patients at once, and a little visitor fastened himself upon us, in the shape of a fox-terrier dog. He was called ‘Rations’ because he was such a good hand at eating them, and although only a pup would not let any other dog or cat come inside our camping ground. Several camps had their canine pets, and where these stray dogs came from was a wonder. Some dogs are undoubtedly born soldiers, and if I ever occupy another sphere of life in another creature, by the transmigration of souls, I am certain it will be in such an animal. When we received orders to get ready and proceed on the march northwards with Lord Methuen’s column, an order appeared that no dogs were to accompany us en route. Our commanding officer rigidly obeyed this order, although many others did not, and poor ‘Rations’ was driven off after many futile attempts to return to his faithless friends. He attached himself elsewhere, and many days later passed our camp with a soldier friend, turning upon us as he passed a withering glance of scorn.

Everything was now bustle for our departure to Boshof, distant about-thirty-two miles and we were not sorry to be off, as there was a large amount of sickness in Kimberley. I personally had an attack of the fashionable complaint, the ‘Modders,’ so called from the Modder River, which, through its muddy, water with dead bodies in it — horses as well as Boers — gave a very large amount of this disease. In the hurry of packing up some one in a neighbouring camp left behind an old Madeira wickerwork arm-chair, much the worse for wear, in fact kept together in places, by pieces of string and soda-water bottle-wire. But it was ‘the chair’ of our mess throughout the whole campaign, although its beauty was somewhat marred by drops of ink, and its life threatened by the removal of portions to supply requisitioned toothpicks. We believed that this chair was really the property of a certain Scotch Professor. He was on more than one occasion a visitor at our mess but if he recognised his own property, he ‘discrately’ held his tongue.

Early rising was now for the future to be the order of the day. So as we had to be up at 3 a.m. and my tent was already struck, I spent the night on the floor of the ambulance waggon. This getting up early in the cold mornings, with from half to three-quarters of an inch of ice on the water in the washing bucket outside one’s tent was a bit of a trial. The cold at night time was so great that we generally slept in our boots and putties, and in a Jaeger sleeping sack, with a rug and great-coat over that, we were none too warm. The sleeves of my great-boat touching the ground on either side of my bed were pinked by the ants kindly eating their edges. So cold was it, especially just before dawn, that, in addition to my greatcoat, I copied the soldiers’ example and kept on my knitted woollen helmet which I had been wearing all night underneath my sun-hat, then, as the day got warmer, I gradually shed portions of my attire, because the heat in the middle of the day became intense. We generally managed to get a cup of cocoa, over the camp fire before we started, and with a slab of Cadbury’s, chocolate in our pockets we began the day well. Riding on horseback in the dark and in the cold was anything but agreeable. Luckily my first horse was a colonial one and accustomed to a country like the top of a colander. The ground was full of holes, as well as dotted with innumerable anthills, or if not, by boulders of uncertain dimensions. So thickly is the country studded with ant-hills that you might fancy the fields had been regularly strewn with what might be manure heaps. They afforded one useful purpose, as with a hole to windward and another at the back they make excellent camp fires, and will keep alight for sometime. Many an accident was occasioned, by a horse in the dark putting his foot into one of these holes made by the ant-bears.

I found it better to walk for the first part of the march with my horse’s bridle thrown over my arm, as it also kept me warm. One morning I allowed my soldier servant to lead or ride my horse as he liked best, but I never found him again that day, for the column was a long one, and as I had to march the whole distance I did not do that again. I lent my horse on more than one occasion to a little bugler, who trudged along manfully, but his little legs, I thought, would soon tire. Helping him to mount I found him still in very dilapidated linen khaki, woollen clothing being still unsupplied. His bare knees were showing through his trousers, and I advised the cutting off of the lower parts to make them into football knickers. Not that he or any, other Tommy thought of complaining. They knew the warm clothing was somewhere — either at the Cape or at Kimberley, and that now they were on the march there was no chance of their getting it.

Leaving our camping-ground at 5 a.m. we would, march until ten, when we would have our breakfasts and outspan the oxen to feed in the middle of the day. At 4 p.m. we would inspan again, and do the remainder of our day’s march. This was the usual routine. Sometimes the second half of the march commenced earlier, which we much preferred, as it was far more comfortable to get to our new camping-ground by daylight than to wander about for one’s resting-place for the night in the pitch darkness. On more than one occasion, separated from my companions, I thought that I and my old horse would have to spend the night out together on the veldt, but after long hunting about fortune favoured me. The above description is applicable to all our marches, some long, some short, according as to where water was to be found.

As to our food. If any department was well. done, it was the work of the Army Service Corps, under Lieutenant Fitzwilliam. The fresh meat was excellent. The Karroo mutton — I think of it even now — could not have been equalled at any West End club. Our larder was further supplied by occasional game shot by some visitor to our mess. One officer, whose shoulder came under my care with very satisfactory results, we had more especially to thank for the several additions he made to our cuisine. Fresh milk was often to begot from the Kaffir kraals. A black milkwoman at Boshof used to come regularly every morning. The first morning that she came announced as the lady with the milk she caught a certain member of our party taking his bath in the open, a representation of Pears’s ‘Happy now he’s got it.’ Boiled pumpkin, tasting like vegetable marrow, was the most usual vegetable. Oh! how we longed for a good salad. We had one given to us on one occasion. On another a certain friend — I won’t give him away by mentioning his name — got over the wall of a farmhouse garden with me and commandeered some lettuces and carrots, which we subsequently sat on the veldt and scraped and cleaned for dinner. The same kind friend would occasionally ride ahead of the column and purchase poultry and eggs for us from the Boer farms en route. The eggs he would bring back inside his helmet, and many an omelette we have to thank him for. The poultry generally occasioned bad language, as the farmers preferred to kill their poultry by cutting off their heads, and when carried on the saddle spoiled many a faultless pair of riding breeches, which, after many hours’ cleaning, never repaid the labour spent over them. Jam was consumed pretty largely. We had a ration served out to every soldier three times a week, and very good jam it was. But this was a drop in the ocean to my surgical dresser, who consumed jam morning, noon, afternoon, and night. He had what you would call, a healthy boy’s growing appetite. The only thing was he never looked any the better for it. When I say that our rations were, supplemented by certain cases from Fortnum and Mason, it is hardly necessary for me to say that we had the reputation in camp of having rather a high-class mess. In these cases were put some bottles of acidulated drops, what for I do not know, perhaps for sore throats or dry ones, on the march of which there were plenty. I generally took some of them with me when I visited-the Kaffir kraals on Sunday afternoons, to give to the little black unclothed children. They were, I found, equally appreciated by the female ones of larger growth. One or two mess dinners at which visitors were present remain as pleasant memories, when laughter rang long and loud over the tales of certain friends. One dinner party we had when ladies were present which was far and away the most successful of all. We had cut flowers to decorate the table, and silver candlesticks we represented by empty whiskey bottles with the candles stuck in them, and decorated with ballet skirts cut out of white note paper.
Dr David Biggins

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Samuel Osborn of the Van Alen American Field Hospital 1 month 18 hours ago #64394

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Osborn mentions that the camp location was defined by the availability of water. This cover picture from The Graphic, 14 July 1900, is entitled 'The difficulty in the way of rapid marching in South Africa: Searching for water'.


Source: The Graphic, Volume 62
Dr David Biggins
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Samuel Osborn of the Van Alen American Field Hospital 3 weeks 3 days ago #64494

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Part IV of Osborn's account. From The Graphic, 18 August 1900.

The town of Boshof was to prove a very eventful place. Our first and constant enemies were the flies, which were awful, and the wonder was where they all came from. The top of the inside of the tent was black with them, and towards evening, becoming stupified or numbed by cold, would drop off. It was no uncommon occurrence to see a visitor as he sat at dinner constantly remove these offenders as they dropped on to the top of his head. We tried Tangle Foot, a sort of American “Catch ’em alive, oh,” with some success, until the papers blew about and tangle-footed the clean knives and forks as well as the temper of our long-suffering mess servant. Someone said try burning paper close under the inside of the tent. This certainly cleared them off for the time, but at the risk of setting fire to the inner lining of the tent, and with the result of burning a hole in the seat of a canvas chair. One of the tortoise tents, did catch fire on one occasion through an officer, after making an elaborate toilet for dinner, leaving his lamp burning inside the waggon, alongside its canvas cover. A big, conflagration soon took place, which I looked as if not only the tortoise waggon but the tent over it would be destroyed also. Luckily I found some water in a bath which had been used just before dinner, and throwing it up into the top of the tent it fell down the sides and the situation was saved. Our digestion at that mess dinner was rudely interfered with.

The position apportioned to our Field Hospital in the Boshof Camp was between the cemetery wall, loopholed for musketry, on the one hand, and a kopje on the other, upon which was the signalling station and an embrasure for a gun. We saw at once on getting our tents pitched that we were in a warm corner should an engagement take place, and to have blamed the Boers for firing upon the Red Cross flag would have been ridiculous, as we were placed undoubtedly in a strategical position. This proved subsequently correct, as in the plan of the night attack found in the possession of General de Villebois Mareuil it was at this point that the attacks was to commence, and on the very night that we took up our position.

Now began work in earnest, and the Imperial Yeomanry received their baptism of fire, and a terribly wet night it was, sufficient to damp any one’s ardour. The enemies’ forces were under the command of that very able and gallant Frenchman, General Villebois, who fell at the head of his gallant band of followers, who were largely composed of Frenchmen; not a Boer amongst them, for they, to the number of several hundreds, had deserted and abandoned their friends when actual fighting began. We lost two officers, Lieutenants Boyle and Williams, and Mrs. Patrick Campbell’s husband, besides having several wounded. Amongst the latter was Mr. A. Little, an old Eton boy, who was shot through the lungs, but who subsequently made a wonderful recovery. The wounded were brought into hospital about twelve o’clock at might, and I was oppressing their wounds until well into the morning. Amongst those brought in wounded were some nine or ten Frenchmen, Monsieur Feissal, a cousin of Count Villebois, amongst the number. It is gratifying to know that they expressed the greatest satisfaction at the manner in which they were treated. In fact, I possess some most gratifying mementoes of their sojourn in our hospital, which they insisted upon my accepting when they bade me farewell; for, not only looking after their necessary requirements, I supplied them with tobacco and cigarettes ad lib., and wrote postcards and letters for them to their relations and friends at home. The funeral of General de Villebois was one of the most impressive spectacles I have ever witnessed. It took place in the dusk of the evening, with thunder reverberating in the distance, and with an occasional flash of lightning across the sky. All the troops were drawn, up in three sides of a square, General Methuen, his staff and the French prisoners being also present. The body was carried between two lines of the soldiers, who saluted as it passed. There was no band in the camp to play the Funeral March from Saul, but, what was far more impressive, all the bugles rang out in unison the call of ‘The Last Post’. Nothing could have been more appropriate nor more in keeping with a soldier’s funeral. Lord Methuen subsequently ordered a tombstone to be erected to the memory of a true and gallant soldier, although ere now an enemy.

It was after this engagement at Boshof that I first saw a wound inflicted by the so-called explosive bullet, and a ghastly wound of exit it produced. It is wrongly termed explosive, it should be expansive. This is due to the nose of the bullet being removed, making it soft-nosed, as a result of which on reaching its billet it becomes mushroom-shaped. I must here make a few remarks in justice to our enemy. Blame has on several occasions been given to the Boers wrongfully. To commence with these expansive bullets. Every head man of a village had to summon to arms all men from surrounding farms, who had to bring with them their own weapons and ammunition. No service ammunition was regularly supplied, therefore they brought buckshot and soft-nosed bullets, which they were in the habit of using for shooting big game, &c., and which they had by them: hence their use, but without any evil intent. They were also accused of using poisoned copper bullets. This is also untrue. These bullets produced no poisonous wounds, and the wax in which the points had been dipped was to prevent the cartridge suffering from damp, and supplied a hermetical closing between the brass capsule and the bullet, and thus prevented rusting and fouling of the gun barrel. The same thing is familiar to everybody in the green tears of a wax candle on a brass candlestick, which are really carbonate of copper. To shoot at the Red Cross Flag of Geneva has been attributed to them, and if that is placed in a strategical position, as it was at Boshof, I am not surprised at it. Again, after the white flag has been raised they have undoubtedly continued firing, but what is plainly visible to the advancing foe is not so easily seen on the enemy’s side when they are in an extended formation and in the excitement of battle. I do not mean to say that they have not been to blame on some or even many occasions, but we, as true Englishmen, like to give every devil his due. To show the readiness to attribute evil to the Boers we had another example whilst at Boshof. A message came into our camp for the ambulance to go out to a wounded Yeoman, who had been shot in the leg when out scouting. It was verbally reported and subsequently circulated in print in these terms:—

“The Boers stripped him naked, taking even his shirt, and our ambulance picked him up in that condition.”

Whereas the truth was this:- We drove out about five miles, taking with us all necessaries, rugs, bandages, &c.as we heard that not only had he been stripped naked, but that his wound was undressed and that he had been lying exposed to the heat of the sun all day. When we arrived we found that the man had his coat off, which had been rolled up as a pillow for his head. His wound had been dressed, and his leg placed in the most comfortable position possible. Not only that, but the enemy had told him that if the English ambulance did not come to fetch him in before dark they would come out with their own ambulance and take him into their camp. In fact the Boers had done everything they could for him.

In my opinion I do not believe a war was ever before conducted on such amiable principles and with so many pleasantries.

We all know the jocularity of the messages which passed between General Baden-Powell and his besiegers. The same thing occurred with us. At the signalling station close to our camp came the following messages flashed in by heliograph:-

“ We are coming in to-night, so get the whiskey ready.”

“ If you haven’t got any whiskey we will bring it in with us.”

“ How is Doctor Jameson?” And then they ended up with, “God save the Queen.”
Dr David Biggins
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Samuel Osborn of the Van Alen American Field Hospital 1 week 3 days ago #64743

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Part IV ended with a note saying 'to be continued' but no further accounts were found so these appear to be all that were printed in The Graphic.
Dr David Biggins

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