Talana Museum South Africa  

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The Diary of Major J. F. Donegan

Account by Major J. F. Donegan, RAMC

Transcribed and notated by Pat Rundgren

This account by Major Donegan is taken from a hand-written document relating to the battle and a short period afterwards. The account is difficult to read in several places and best guesses have had to be used in the transcription. The document is from the archives of the Talana Museum.

Donegan mentioned the work of the two Field Hospitals at Talana, the 18th and 26th. Both came from India with the 18th being mobilised in Bangalore in early September. Donegan himself was in charge of the 18th which was attached to the Cavalry Brigade, with Donegan as Senior Medical Officer. Major Kerin83 was the Senior Medical Officer of the Brigade Division Field Artillery.

Friday 20th October 1899

Camp shelled at 6 a.m. Three shells smashed into hospital. Troops received orders and marched out but no orders whatever were given to the medical officers. In consultation with Major Kerin we agreed to march down the Bearer Companies to the town. Major Kerin formed a dressing station near a store 84 and ordered me to go to the firing line and tell the medical officers in charge of [the] corps where the dressing station was.

The infantry advanced towards the position about 9.30 under heavy fire.

As the regimental stretcher bearers of the RIF under their medical officer 85 showed signs of remaining at the dressing station I marched A and B sections of the 18th up to the fighting line under very heavy fire. While advancing one man was shot but with the assistance of the NCOs and Warrant Officers I got the Kahars 86 to advance to a bit of cover near a river where we found three wounded men. These were dressed and returned to [the] dressing station.

I then ordered the dhoolies to advance and relieve the regimental bearers as near the fighting line as possible and I must say that they worked splendidly. I then returned to [the] dressing station and fetched out two more sections and gave orders to Captain McDermott 87 to continue while I returned to get more field dressings. He also worked the men under heavy fire assisted by Assistant Surgeon Green88 and Duckworth89, Sgt. Turner90, Pte. Alexander91, Pte. Willcocks92, and Atkins93, 4th Hussars.

Having visited the dressing station I galloped to [the] Field Hospital to see if it was ready to receive the wounded.

I found that Capt. Erskine94 assisted by Mr. Moore95 and Tocher96 had made the most perfect arrangement and had every thing in readiness. I again returned to the fighting line and saw all was correct and that the wounded were being relieved and removed. In my second advance I was accompanied by Capt. Milner97 who extended to the left and worked his men to the far ends of the farm in rear of the attacking infantry. As the dhoolies were not advancing quickly, I again returned to dressing station and found that Gen. Symonds (sic) had been wounded. I galloped to the Hospital to get his tent ready and on arrival of General I remained there relieving Capt. Erskine who wished to see the fight and render assistance in the field. As each case arrived I had it put in a tent and issued warm tea and stimulants. I redressed all cases put up with temporary dressings and I consider that the dressing of the dressing station and in the field was absolutely splendid. By 3 p.m. my Hospital was full and I then loaded up No. 26. I noticed that assistant surgeons [blank - author removed the names] 2 of were drunk and absolutely useless requiring the work to be done by my staff. By night time every wounded man was succoured and attended to. All Bearers did not finish till after 11 p.m. In many cases these Bearers brought the wounded from the fighting line all the way to Hospital.

Maj. Kerin who was at the dressing station speaks highly of the civilian assistance rendered. I have to report most favourably on No. 792 M. Daniel, an ex Madras Sepoy of 4th Madras, right wing dhoolie bearers.

Before the engagement he drilled the Kahars and in action his courage and cool-headedness was marvellous. He helped the officers with maintaining strict discipline and urging the Bearers on. He worked in the most exposed positions and set a most magnificent example to the other Kahars and ward servants. I attribute the success of the work done by the 18th FH to having each dhoolie accompanied by an assistant surgeon, NCO or man of the Regt. attached. Capt. Erskine told me that later on in the day when I was not present and this system suffered in that the Bearers were inclined to take cover in nullas and remain there. I consider that every Officer, Warrant Officer, NCO and man of the Hospital under my command did excellent service and all officers of other corps were loud in the praises of the Kahars. These men were an undisciplined mob at Bangalore, were sent anyhow in different ships to Durban, were moved about Ladysmith and ordered to do garrison fatigues. They arrived at Dundee on 13th and since that date have been drilled and trained in company and support drill. On Thursday morning for the first time they practiced bearer company drill and the next day they were doing it in reality in action under fire without any transport98.


Saturday 21st October

Wounded doing well.

5 a.m. All officers and staff up all night assisting wounded.

8 a.m. Hearing an officer had been left in farm house near position I rode out to see if it were true. There were no wounded officers but I saw 7 officers and 28 men lying dead near the farm house. Hearing that a wounded Boer was on top of hill I went to see him in the interests of humanity. I found him under charge of a Boer sentry who said he had orders to remove him to the Boer Hospital. I arranged his dressings. I, with the assistance of Capt. Sanders99 and Major Wickham100 ISC, got supplies for the wounded in town. I offer these officers my hearty thanks for the assistance they rendered me both on Saturday and Friday. Without their help the work would not have been as successful as it was. I got back to camp at 9 a.m. when I heard the troops were going out again. I ordered two sections under Capt. Erskine and Capt. Milner to march out with troops. About 1.30 shelling commenced from the hill, many shells bursting in the vicinity of Hospital. The troops, horse, foot and artillery stampeded and ran out of camp. I ran to try and get transport to remove wounded as the Hospital was so much fired on with cannon shells bursting between tents but fortunately doing no harm. I found it impossible to bring back the Bearers so returned to camp where I found that nearly all the Hospital staff with the following exceptions had joined in the stampede:

Assistant Surgeon Moore, Mr. Tocher, Capt. McDermott, De Santos101, Hart102, Thomas103, the other assistant surgeons and now being on duty 503 2nd Grade Ward Servant Anthony, 861 3rd Grade Ward Servant Samuel, 301 2nd Grade Ward Servant Anthony, 211 1st Grade Ward Sweeper Ragoo Nath.

All others except those on duty with Bearer Company joined in general stampede and ran for shelter to Dundee and elsewhere. Also many of the slightly wounded and sick.

Sunday 22nd October

Staff up all night attending wounded. About 8.30 some guns returned to camp when shelling commenced again which was subsequently directed towards Dundee. I regret to have to say that guns and troops persistently passed in front of Hospital and attracted fire on it. The Kahars and ward servants who returned on this occasion remain in camp having been paraded by sections. At 2 p.m. received orders to tend to sections with the troops who were going to occupy the position taken on Friday. The orders were to parade at 11 p.m. Detained Capt. McDermott in relieving of Capt. Erskine. About 10.30 Maj. Kerin called me out to speak to Capt. Valancey104, a staff officer. He delivered to me the following message from General Yule. Tell General Symonds [sic] that General Yule is sorry he could not see him before he left, that he was returning to Ladysmith and that he had been promoted to Major General. Capt. Valancey said that Sir George White had ordered that the sick and wounded were to be deserted as they could not be taken. Maj. Kerin and I explained that we had no rations or means of getting water for the wounded as we were not even supplied with a water cart.

Capt. Valancey said I can’t help it, get what you can from the stores before the Boers come and they probably won’t take Hospital stores. Maj. Kerin and I had a consultation with the officers and they unanimously decided to stay with the wounded and take their chances. At midnight I summoned Mr. Tocher and told him my position. He volunteered to come over to camp with me and get stores. I fell in A Section and Maj. Kerin came also. We worked all night at removing stores for each Hospital. For all Mr. Tocher knew this camp was infested with Boers and I consider the way he worked and volunteered for this duty is worthy of special mention.

None of the other staff were told that the force had marched off and left the Hospital.

Monday 23rd October

Two Privates of Lincoln Regt. turned up in camp.

From day break was an anxious time and at 10.30 as natives were seen about the Hospital it was shelled again. Bhistie Mohamed Khan was wounded by shell in left foot. As the Red Cross flag appeared to be of no use I saw Maj. Kerin and we agreed to hoist the white flag. Capt. Milner rode alone to the Boer Camp with the flag of truce and my orderly Daniel volunteered to go also. Capt. Milner was of special service to the town and wounded as the

Boers explained that they did not see the white flag and would have continued firing till they saw the flag of truce. On returning Capt. Milner proceeded unarmed to the town and compelled the magistrate to deliver it over to the Transvaal Free State. The British magistrate at first refused and said he would not do so but Capt. Milner in the interest of the wounded compelled him to do so. Capt. Milner related his experiences in the Boer camp which were as follows. They stated that they could not see the Red Cross flag verified by Maj. Kerin who went to breakfast with the General next morning and told me that he particularly looked but could not see the flag. When the shelling commenced some natives and patients again left Camp but they returned to their tents when I ordered them to do so and stated that I would myself shoot the first man who moved a yard from his tent.

Statement of Capt. Milner RAMC.

“On arrival in the Boer camp. I was met by two officers and told to write to General Commanding as follows:

Sir. We surrender our Hospital and ask for your protection as we are likely to run short of dressings if we remain here long. We ask you to facilitate the wounded being removed by a Hospital train. We are not an armed corps but we have arms of patients who were involved in the field in Hospital. We wish to carry out the conditions of Convention and we do not wish to give up arms unless compelled to do so. In camp there are men of different regiments attached to Hospital but they are non combatant. Signed A. E. Milner, Capt. RAMC and J. Schorder.

The reply was as follows:

To Capt. Milner - Sir - If you lay down the arms which are at present in your possession I will be willing to discuss the other points brought forward by you. I remain your obedient servant. Erasmus, Ast. Gen. 23.10.99 12.15 p.m.”

There was a delay of nearly two hours from the time of Capt. Milner’s departure to this return during which time all in Hospital were very anxious as to the development of affairs.

About 12.30 two Boer officers rode into camp and the letters above were handed over. Maj. Kerin and I agreed to hand over arms. We were then asked to answer the following question in writing. Is it a fact that the Boers wounded on Friday were tied to your gun carriages and dragged round the field. We answered in the negative to this question. One of the officers then produced a 98 Mark 4 bullet and asked us why we used dum dum bullets105. I explained the difference and brought him to a Regimental officer who verified my statement.

Neither of these officers appeared to understand the general conversation and told us that everything of value we had would be taken except our clothes. They immediately took my two chargers with two saddles and regimental harness complete also the chargers of Capt. Milner, Erskine and McDermott with saddles complete. They took my field glasses, sword and belts with pocketcase attached. Also the swords and small arms of all officers, WO & NCOs and men in camp. Also minor articles of personal property which were lying about. They were civil in the demeanour towards the men and except in the case of those drunk all were well behaved. It was trying to have two drunken Boers trying to shoot each other at each side of a tent full of helpless wounded. I discovered afterwards that the person representing himself to be an officer by name Schoder was a fraud but as none of the Boers wore uniform it was impossible to tell who was who.

At 3.30 p.m. General Symonds expired and before dying told Capt Milner to write to Sir George White speaking favourably of the work done by myself and Capt. Milner. As Capt. Milner did not like to write recommending himself for consideration the letter was not written by him. General Symonds then sent for Maj. Kerin to dictate a letter but on the arrival of this officer the poor General was too bad to dictate. General Symons’ case will be found in the case book of officers. About 4 p.m. Doctor Holt of the Boer army arrived in camp and did all he could to help myself and staff in attending to the want of the wounded. He ordered Boers to keep out of camp and stop looting and we were thankful in the extreme for his kind assistances. He took the names of those who had looted us and said he would try to have our property returned.

I, acting on the advice of Col. Beckett106 AAG went over the papers of the General and destroyed anything prejudicial to British interest. This was at the time that I expected all articles of value to be taken away from us. In the evening I flogged three Kahars and sentenced one to death for leaving Hospital and looting in camp of Boers. The sentence of death was afterwards commuted. The moral effect of the public flogging of these Kahars was excellent.

Tuesday 24th October

Moved camp.

Arranged for the funeral of General Symonds and had a rough tombstone made in Camp. The body was sewn in Union Jack carried to the Church of England burial ground by the NCO and men of Hospital staff. All officers who could attended and as the body was taken out of camp every man who could stood to attention. Mr. Bailey the Church of England clergyman performed the Burial Service in the orthodox manner partly in church and at the grave side. The funeral was most imposing and all Boers raised their hats as the procession passed to Burial Ground where many of them attended the service being most respectful in their manner. At 4 p.m. a sergeant died in Hospital and I was ordered to bury the 28 NCO and men and 7 officers killed on Friday.

Wednesday 25th October

At 7 a.m. A Section under Captains Erskine and Milner fell in and proceeded to the farm house to bury the dead. The scene was too frightful for description and I myself was an eye witness of the excellent work done by these officers, also by the Kahars and sweepers and ward boys and Sgt. Robinson107 West Riding Regt. Suffice is it to say that all the dead in an advanced stage of decomposition were buried in five large graves, the officers separate. All were identified by marks on their clothes and slight mementoes of all officers were taken from the bodies. The sweepers carried the bodies on stretchers to grave and as there were only six sweepers they had to make 36 journeys from farm house to grave. This was the most disagreeable duty that officers, NCOs and men of this British Service were ever asked to perform and I consider from my own personal experience having been present for some hours that Capt. Erskine, Capt. Milner, Sgt. Robinson and the men of AHC108 noted also the Kahars of A Section did splendid work which is well worthy of notice. The party returned to camp at 6.20 having been occupied on this duty referred to from 7 a.m. without food or anything to drink. In the interests of the wounded I was unwilling to detail attendants on sick call for this duty but I was compelled to do so and the credit of the nation had to be considered at all cost. Clergymen of each denomination read their Burial Services. It was impossible to bury them NCOs and men by Corps.

Thursday 26th October

Mr. Tocher with permission went foraging for the Hospital with excellent results. Wired as follows to the Sec of State Pretorius:

Sir,                                                                                                                                                                                 On behalf of all British officers, NCO and men I wish to offer you my sincere thanks for the kindness showed to the patients in my Hospital by the Boer officers and men. Would you kindly notify the British authorities of the death of General Symonds on the 23rd and also that the wounded are doing splendidly and that no officer under treatment is likely to die.

Handed this form to an officer of artillery who appeared fully pleased.

No. 26 Hospital moved into town. Frightfully wet afternoon and night. Took in and treated two wounded Boers. Mr. Duckworth who went out with a section to find one of our wounded some distance away returned to camp. There was no hesitation on his part or on the part of the Kahars to march out into a foreign country. He was out all night and found his man, a private of Hussars, suffering from a wound of right lung and soon brought him to camp.

Friday 27th October

Moved wounded and stores by hand from Camp to town. Put all wounded officers and serious cases in houses and made them as comfortable as possible was an arduous task and all worked well from 6.30 a.m. to 7 p.m. We had one ambulance cart.

Made prisoner of [blank] for being in the town without leave.

Bedded down all the wounded and attended to professional treatment of same.

Received the following telegram in Dutch from Secretary of State Pretorius.

Your wire of 26th received the facts therein. Will be contributed [sic] to the British Authorities.

Made prisoner of three men for breaking out of Hospital and being found in town without permission.

83 Major William Kerin, RAMC.

84 The store in the town belonged to Oldacre.

85 Major Francis Daly, RAMC.

86 The Kahars people of India were once palanguin bearers, that is they used to transport covered sedan chairs or litters supported by poles and carried on the shoulders. Kahar comes from the words meaning ‘shoulder’ and ‘burden’. Donegan uses the term to refer to the Indians who carried the wounded from the battlefield. Dhooly is another name for the litter used to transport the wounded and Donegan uses Dhoolies to refer to the men or bearers who carried the dhooly.

87 Captain Thomas McDermott, RAMC.

88 Assistant Surgeon Cecil Green, ISMD.

89 Assistant Surgeon P. Duckworth, ISMD.

90 2674 Sergeant S. Turner, 4th Hussars.

91 3985 Private R. Alexander, 4th Hussars.

92 There are 9 men of the 4th Hussars on the medal roll but no one of the name Willcocks.

93 3507 Private J. Atkins, 4th Hussars.

94 Captain William Erskine, RAMC.

95 Assistant Surgeon John Moore, ISMD.

96 Sub Conductor J. Tocher, Supp

98 Donegan reported that about 241 wounded were removed by the dhoolie bearers from the field of action to the field and temporary hospitals.

99 Captain G. Sanders, Supply and Transport Corps.

100 Lieutenant Colonel W. Wickham was serving on the staff at Dundee.

101 Assistant Surgeon Francis De Santos, ISMD.

102 Assistant Surgeon A. Freud-Hart, ISMD.

103 Assistant Surgeon A. Thomas, ISMD.

104 Captain Henry Vallancey, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.97

105 Expanding bullets were given the name Dum-Dum or dumdum after an example produced in the Dum Dum Arsenal near Calcutta, India. The Mark IV bullet was produced in 1897. Dum Dum bullets were made of a soft material which would often flatten on impact and thus produce a larger wound than the original diameter of the bullet. The Hague Convention of 1899 prohibited the use in warfare of bullets that flattened or expanded in the body.

106 Lieutenant Colonel Charles Beckett served as Assistant Adjutant General for General Penn Symons

107 2770 Sergeant T. Robinson had served with the 18th Field Hospital before joining the West Riding Regiment

108 Army Hospital Corps.