South African units

Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps

The following article has been submitted by Donald Press:

‘Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps’[1].

This organization was hurriedly constituted by Colonel T. Gallwey, the Principal Medical Officer of Natal to carry the wounded from the battlefields[2].  It eventually had a strength of over one thousand.  Interestingly, it was supplemented by another 1100 Indians who made up the Natal Indian Ambulance Corps, a separate group led by Mahatma Gandhi.  Even though Ghandi’s sympathies were with the Boers, he realized the political value of contributing to the British cause.  Although his offer was at first refused, increasing casualties persuaded General Buller, the newly arrived British military leader, to concede: The idea was that the NVAC bearers would run onto the battlefield under fire, place the wounded on stretchers and bring them out of the fight.  The Indian Corps would then carry them further to the railhead. On December 14, the Corps left for the front, reaching the field hospital at Chieveley the next day.  It was immediately employed in carrying the wounded from the Battle of Colenso. The bearers were then stationed at Estcourt before being summoned on the eve of the battle of Spion Kop. During the big battle there on 24 January 1900, when British suffered heavy casualties, the Natal Volunteer Corps saved the wounded under fire and the Indian Corps carried them from Spion Kop to the base hospital at Frere, more than twenty miles away.

Thomas Pakenham  has vividly described, based on diary entries and  interviews,  what they will have experienced:

“At sunset, a wild-looking processesion had stumbled into Frere.  They were nearly two thousand strong, dressed in tattered khaki tunics, and a strange assortment of hats: helmets, bowlers and tam-o’shanters.  They were the ‘body-snatchers’: Uitlander refugees and Gandhi’s Indians, recruited as stretcher-bearers.  They brought in the last of the wounded: 150 bad cases, covered in brown blankets, with their special belongings, boots, haversack and perhaps a pot of jam and a lump of tinned meat, carried in the hood of the stretchers.  Most of the wounded were too shocked, or deeply encased in bandages, to speak.  But sometimes a head would peer out of the hood to look at its neighbor.  ‘Fancy you here, Tom? ‘Thought you were stiff.’ Many men were delirious.  One shouted that he was going to ‘chuck it’, and promptly rolled off the stretcher.  Another was babbling about the harvest and the great time he was having at home.   These were the latest installment of the 3,400 casualties the South Natal Field force had suffered in the last three months”[3]

The Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps and the Indian Ambulance Corps were disbanded a month later at the end of February 1900 - when the British, with large reinforcements, were able to take the offensive and relieve Ladysmith[4].



[1] “Attestation of L. Silverman; British subject; not ever served (before) in Her Majesty’s (service); do..swear..that I will …bear all allegiance to …Queen Victoria…and that I will faithfully serve in the Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps for such period as…required...and that I shall receive pay at the rate of 3/s per diem…; Signed L.Silverman 9.12.99; Witness: Captain R Mullins” (WO126/94 British National Archives)

(Reddy, E.S. : India And The Anglo-Boer War, 1999); http://www.mkgandhi.org/articles/boer_war.htm

[3] (Pakenham, Thomas: The Boer War; 1979)

(Reddy, E.S. : India And The Anglo-Boer War, 1999); MKGandhi.org: http://www.mkgandhi.org/articles/boer_war.htm

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