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Boeke | Books > Boekartikels | Articles on books > English

JC (Kay) de Villiers, author of Healers, helpers and hospitals in conversation


Paul Murray - 2011-08-17

Untitled Document

Healers, helpers and Hospitals – A History of Military Medicine in the Anglo-Boer War Volumes I and Volume II

Author: JC (Kay) de Villiers
Publisher: Protea Book House, Pretoria
ISBN: 9781869192777
Price: R600.95
Order: proteaboek@mweb.co.za

Click here to buy a copy from Kalahari.net!


Paul Murray recently interviewed JC de Villiers for LitNet. De Villiers recently won the UCT Book Award for Healers, helpers and hospitals, a book with a medical focus on the Anglo-Boer War. The interview was conducted electronically.

In the Preface of your book you say that your idea of writing a history of the medical aspects of the Anglo-Boer War evolved so slowly and so many factors contributed to its ultimate fruition that you would be hard pressed to pinpoint any one decisive event in this process. Your early experiences of exposure to the stories of veterans of the Anglo-Boer War include one of the factors, and you admit of the agency of good stories enabling a hearsay acquaintance with significant role-players and major events of the war in that region. Please can you elaborate on this, especially, as you say, referring to the stories you were told, “with all that story-telling as a source of historical fact implies”. Another factor you mention is an early recollection, specifically of the visit to Jacobsdal, the birthplace of your mother. While you admit it can be hard for a small boy as you were at the time to link up the idea of a church also being a hospital you nevertheless created the awareness in your mind of the treatment of wounds and diseases as a component of warfare. Please can you elaborate on these early experiences?

As I was ten years old in 1938, 36 years after the war had ended, the people who told about their experiences of the war were well over 50 years of age and I remember them as “old”. I distinctly remember two speeches during the festivities of the 1938 symbolic trek: one by General Wynand Malan and the other by Captain Slegtkamp, the master train saboteur during the war. All the oudstryders mostly seemed to remember the adventure of battle, narrow escapes and exceptional bravery displayed by fellow burghers. As this was in the then Western Transvaal the names of Generals De la Rey, Kemp, Liebenberg, Beyers and other Boer officers frequently recurred and became familiar. There was little bitterness against British soldiers in these stories, but what bitterness was expressed, was directed mainly at burghers who had forsaken the cause – the hands-uppers and joiners.

In the years before World War II, children universally respected their elders and implicitly believed what they said. On what basis could we criticise or question them? Stories were accepted with whatever embellishment and defects they may have carried with them. It was only much later that one had to learn (sometimes with a mild sense of loss!) that these stories that had come our way were not all historical truths. In their unique way these stories did, however, lead one to the historical event, but the final search for truth or fact was the privilege or predicament of each individual listener who cared to do so. One had to grow much older to realise the truth of Milan Kundera’s statement, “Our remembering and our forgetting are creative processes.”

The memory of my mother telling me about the church in Jacobsdal serving as a hospital is very distinct. At the time my idea of what a hospital was, was based on a night spent in hospital when I had my tonsils removed! A hospital had rigidly made-up, high beds and was pervaded by a peculiar odour that I later discovered to be a mixture of phenol disinfectants and anaesthetic ether. A church, with its hallowed atmosphere, whispered conversations and the church organ, were well known to me as a boy brought up in strict Calvinist tradition. I could just not imagine a church with beds and smelling like a hospital! People being in hospital as a result of illness and accident I could understand, and the thought that war also provided a need for hospitals was another barrier to cross.

The 1940s for you, you say, gave you a further important awareness of formal military medical histories, but you soon discovered there was little or no official documentation about military medicine of wars of the 19th century. How did you set about verifying what happened and how did you decide what really took place at the time?

I entered medical school in 1946 and a number of our lecturers, particularly in surgery, had been surgeons with the medical services of the SA Army in North Africa. At times they would recall clinical features of particular war wounds and could also tell about a surgical service in time of war. We learnt about some non-surgical disease in time of war from physicians and bacteriologists. In later years, when I deliberately searched for a formal medical history of the South African War, all I could find was a volume on epidemiology of infectious diseases in the British army.

On the British side organisational aspects of the medical care during the Anglo-Boer War were fairly comprehensively covered in standard military histories such as The Times History of the War in South Africa. Fortunately, the immense number of publications on that war included memoirs of doctors and nurses, letters, official reports and articles on specific diseases and procedures written by doctors who had worked in South Africa.

On the Boer side it was more difficult to obtain valid information. Reports of the Red Cross Societies of the Transvaal Republic and Orange Free State were most useful for the formal stage of the war. Memoirs and diaries of Boer doctors and nurses proved helpful, but official reports and memoirs of doctors and nurses belonging to the foreign ambulances on the Boer side were of the greatest value.

You do give an indication of how long it took to write this history, starting in earnest in 1965 when you discovered the discrepancy between the information available about the medical care for the two combatant forces. One of the approaches was to rely on memoirs and private documents. The act of corroboration must have been very difficult. Could you please elaborate on this process in the writing of your book?

The greatest difficulty was experienced with information about the Boer medical services during the guerrilla phase of the war. Fortunately there were a few diaries and the official reports by Boer generals to President Kruger. The quest for medical facts required thorough perusal of books written by people with no particular interest in medical aspects of the guerrilla war. Discovery of a medical fact in such a work would then lead to a renewed search through other publications for confirmation of this chance finding. In this process I serendipitously learnt a great deal (in passing) about the war and made a few unexpected discoveries, such as the medical aid to the Boer Republics from the Western Cape in 1899.

How did you decide which photographs to include? For instance, there are 64 featuring the Anglo-Boer War never before published.

This was the easiest part of the entire exercise. One was more likely to come across an isolated photograph or two in the most unexpected places than a document or a book. The greatest frustration was finding an excellent photograph without any annotation as to the person, place or event depicted! Eventually I had to restrict the number of photographs I could use for publication. One did, however, always know that these illustrations of medical interest would be a novelty for the vast majority of readers. It is not generally appreciated how intense the medical activities had been during the war and how much interest they had attracted from doctors with cameras and independent observers, including professional photographers.

I experienced a remarkable degree of kindness and goodwill from people who, at times, were total strangers, but who made treasured family documents available to me. Medal collectors were particularly useful contacts for providing personal details about doctors and nurses who had received medals and in return I could often supply them with useful information about their working environment from my sources.

Why does the book not cover the medical problems experienced in the concentration camps during the war?

This was a deliberate decision on my part. Much has been written about the concentration camps and much of this is emotionally laden. Virtually nothing has been written about the military medical history of this war and I felt that I should attempt to do justice to this neglected topic.

A complete, dispassionate history of the concentration camps dealing in detail with the British and Boer aspects of the topic still has to be written. It will be an immense task, for which I was not qualified, and if I had incorporated that information with what I had written about the military medical history in one work I would have failed with both.

Please could you comment on the choice of outlay, so wonderfully illustrated, and also the choice of topics by you / the editor(s). 

Staff of private hospitals sent under the aegis of the British Red Cross Society to assist the British Army in South Africa, and the medical staff of ambulances sent from foreign countries to assist the Boers, all had to write official reports to their parent bodies. These reports, often richly illustrated and dealing in detail with the work of the particular unit, provide such a wealth of information that each unit merited a chapter of its own. This was an untapped source of information that was being used extensively for the first time.

The information collected was too much to cram into one volume, as that would have made a clumsy and structurally weak book. The material naturally fell into two categories: the organisational features of medical services of both combatant parties, and the clinical, diagnostic and therapeutic aspect of diseases and wounds. Included in the latter volume is a vital chapter on ballistics which is crucial in understanding the types of wound produced. This was still a novelty in 1900.

The sources used in the book are incredible – for instance to write the first seven pages making up the first chapter, no fewer than 17 works were consulted, of which 12 predate the middle of the previous century, and out of the 12, 11 are pre-1903. This careful research method and trend is maintained throughout the book. As I said, incredible! How on earth did you do it, working at the same time?

A mildly manic disposition with a slight touch of obsessionalism is a combination that can work wonders! In the pre-computer phase of my work I was a great keeper of cards, and any publication usually provides one with its source material. The great difficulty in obtaining information about the psychiatric aspects of this war delayed the publication of this work for several months in the later phase of preparation. It was, for instance, very difficult to find information about the Black Watch, Britain’s most exemplary military unit, after their disastrous experience at Magersfontein. Perseverance and the assistance of a good medical friend in London helping to hunt for relevant documentation won the day.

The most significant opportunity for gaining information about this war that I experienced was at the Wellcome Institute when I visited London for three months with the aid of a Wellcome Travelling Scholarship in 1998. On my way back to South Africa I spent a week in The Hague at the Algemeen Rijksargierf and the Koninklijke Bibliotheek. This very productive visit virtually rounded off my phase of collection of information.

You say that the Information Bureau (Identification Department) of the Transvaal Red Cross identifying combatants in the wake of a large number of casualties more likely than not was the most practical humanitarian innovation to emerge from the war in South Africa. One cannot imagine how hard this must have been. But just thinking about it causes shivers down one’s spine. Reading this in your book brought home to me just how sad the war was. Can you elaborate on the method the Department used to identify the dead, please?

After the battle of Elandslaagte on October 21, 1899, chaos reigned in the Boer camp. Not only had the Boers lost this unauthorised battle, but afterwards they had no clear idea of the numbers of the dead, wounded, missing and those captured by the enemy. Realising that the lack of reliable information about Boer combatants was at the root of the confusion, the Government Geologist of the ZAR, Dr GAF Molengraaff, created an Identification Department for the Boers. This was based on a system that required each burgher to carry a card showing his personal details: name, address, nearest relative, commando affiliation and an identity number. In Pretoria the Identification Department kept separate registers of burghers according to their surnames, commando affiliation and identity numbers. Identity officers attached to each commando collected cards of the dead and wounded after each encounter and sent these by urgent mail to Pretoria. On recovery the wounded were issued with new cards, and if they died, Pretoria was informed with an appropriate card. Burghers of the Orange Free State were included in this scheme; the British military authorities in Cape Town were informed and their co-operation in the scheme obtained.

The sensitive and complex issue of confusing sentiment and divided loyalty, as in the British Cape Colony, where Afrikaners had mixed loyalties and sympathies … Other writers of the Boer War have written about this – one thinks of C Louis Leipoldt, for example. Do you have further thoughts on this point?

This was a very real issue. Religious belief and sentiment were still universal directive forces in the Boer community and one principle to which they adhered in particular was loyalty to the sovereign. Even in my youth I often heard the Biblical injunction quoted: “Then pay Caesar what is due to Caesar and pay God what is due to God.”

It is a measure of the callousness of Sir Alfred Milner that he, insultingly, could not or would not comprehend this when Boer representatives from the Cape Colony tried to assure him of their loyalty to the Queen. It was not an easy matter for them to rebel. This was a fact that President Kruger failed to appreciate, but President Steyn clearly understood.

The most moving demonstration of the problem of divided loyalties can be found in the letters from Dr AM Neethling to his wife who temporarily returned to her people in Scotland with the children while he remained in the field with the Boers. Later during the war she and the children returned to Stellenbosch.

As a medical person yourself, how would you respond to "the doctor's dilemma in a gentleman's war" (maybe this has been touched on about the concentration camps)? 

A good doctor has only one loyalty and that is to the patient in need of care. In time of war this means that the sick and wounded, irrespective of race, creed, nationality or gender, are his concern. If he is partisan, the doctor betrays this position of trust and also sacrifices the support and understanding of his colleagues, even from opposing camps.

In the “gentleman’s war” there undoubtedly were partisan doctors, but they did not really pose a problem, except in the concentration camps. For me the exemplary behaviour of some British doctors towards their Boer colleagues and Boer patients suggests that the term gentlemanly is appropriate. Lord Kitchener had forbidden British assistance to Boer doctors. Despite this edict, Dr Hero Tilemann, a young German doctor with the Boers, wrote how British colleagues supplied him with drugs, bandages, therapeutic agents and other basic necessities to keep his “guerrilla practice” going. A further example would be the diligence with which Dr Turner, a British military doctor, looked after a Boer girl on a farm in the vicinity of his camp. Her hand had been blown off by dynamite caps and he visited her every day until she had recovered. British surgeons visited wounded and sick Boers in their camps and at times took over their care with great dedication – like Dr Orford did with Mr Klasie Havenga.

From available records of Boer medical activities after major battles, there was a similar attitude to the wounded enemy - one gave him the best care available. The prime example of such behaviour occurred during the last major encounter of the war at Tweebosch in the Western Transvaal. General Koos de la Rey treated the wounded Lord Methuen with the greatest courtesy and sent him back to his own people where more sophisticated facilities for treatment were available. The general did this against the will of his own officers, who felt that the British military were meting out punitive measures, including the death sentence, to captured Boer officers and they wanted to keep Lord Methuen as a hostage. General de la Rey would not yield about the way one should treat one’s enemy and sent Lord Methuen to Klerksdorp. Unwittingly, but acting on Christian principles, the general proved the point made by a famous British judge many years later that the quality of justice is determined by its capacity for mercy.

I want to end by congratulating you on your award, Professor! The book deserves the award in every way. It has been a great privilege conducting an interview with you, and good luck with your future ventures.

Thank you for the kind sentiments expressed and for the good wishes with future ventures. I have been in need of these good wishes as I have, in the words of Samuel Johnson, “committed” another book!


  • The latest book from De Villiers, Dwarstrekkers, Dwepers en Dokters, will be
    reviewed on LitNet in due course.

Click here to buy a copy from Kalahari.net!