(n.b. This series will – rest assured – eventually prove to contain some cricket …)
When time is short and inspiration runs low, it helps to be able to call on the services of a guest blogger, so let me introduce my Great-Grandfather (my Mother’s Father’s Father), George Mustin, or, as he was at the time of the above photograph, Cpl. G. E. Mustin of the Leicestershire Infantry Volunteers.
At the time he was (topically) in South Africa, having joined up to fight in the Boer War with some friends from the Hinckley Liberal Club. The Liberals were split into pro- and anti-Boer factions: he cannot, I imagine, have been particularly pro-Boer, given that he had volunteered to try to kill them, but he mainly seems to have joined up in search of more dramatic excitements than Hinckley could offer him.
The first letter dates from 4th April 1900, when he had just arrived in South Africa. The first phase of the war had gone badly for the British, who were, as usual, outnumbered and unprepared. They responded by attempting what we would now call a “surge”, shipping in troops in from other parts of the Empire, calling up the Yeomanry and making a general appeal for volunteers. This usefully revealed that 40% of the would-be recruits were physically unfit for service, due to the appalling condition of (in particular) the urban poor. George Mustin was made a Corporal, partly, I think because he was an excellent shot, but also, perhaps, because he was unusually tall for the time at about 6’3″, and, presumably, in good health.
The Volunteers arrived shortly after the relief of Ladysmith by Sir Redvers Buller (who was widely criticised for the length of time it took him to get there and shortly sacked). The letters were addressed to a Mr. A. Taylor (a “prominent local Liberal”) and published in the ‘Hinckley Times’ under the heading “Correspondence from the War”. What strikes me most is how frank he was able to be about his experiences, which consisted mainly of hunger, thirst, discomfort and boredom, though the tone is leavened with late-Victorian facetiousness. The general impression is of the front-line sections of “Homage to Catalonia”, as re-written by Jerome K. Jerome.
“Mr. A. Taylor, a prominent member of the Hinckley Liberal Club, has just lately received the following letter from Corpl. G.E. Mustin, a member of the Club and who is one of the “L” Company Volunteers at present serving with the colours in South Africa.
Camp, near Ladysmith April 4th 1900
Dear Mr. Taylor, – as I promised to write to the Club, I hope you will pardon me troubling you in addressing this letter to you.
We arrived at Durban after a five weeks voyage, and were very pleased to set foot on land again. … We went by train to Colenso where the regiment was stationed and arrived there just before dark, to find all our kit had gone astray. We received a good welcome from the whole of the troops in camp, and many of the men who had been in the siege of Ladysmith were found to have friends or someone they knew amongst us. There were nearly fifty in camp who were natives of Hinckley or the immediate neighbourhood. The camp was situated near to the Tugela River not far from the place where Col. Long lost the guns. We had to go a good one and a half miles for a wash, so you may guess we did not wash many times each day. … On Sunday the camp was struck and before daylight appeared we were on the way to Modder Spruit about nine miles north of Ladysmith. This was our first taste of active service. The road was all uphill, inches deep in dust and loose stones lying about in all directions. Before we arrived at the camping ground, scores of the men fell out, the King’s Royal Rifles being the greatest sufferers. A great many of the men are suffering from dysentery, and I am sorry to say some of our fellows have the same complaint. I was told off to bring in those of our company who had fallen out, and a lively time I had, and did not reach camp until two hours after the regiment. To improve matters, after dinner a storm set in and for a short time the rain came down in torrents. You may imagine what a storm is in Natal when I tell you that a spruit, which was so dry before the storm we had to dig holes in the sandy bed to obtain water for a wash, was in less than an hour like a rushing river. As we had no tents we lay on the damp ground with one blanket on the ground and the other over us. The next day we were up and off at daybreak and arrived at our present camp by ten o’clock. It was expected we were going on to Mudder Spruit this morning but the order was cancelled at the last minute …
I have often heard men complain of the delay by General Buller in relieving Ladysmith and wish that those who complained could see the country and the difficulties that the transport had to contend with and they would be astounded. It is the general opinion in Natal that General Buller has had the brunt of the work, and has performed it as well, if not better than any other man could do … I may say that our men are in the best of health and spirits. It is very hot here until darkness sets in, which is as soon as the sun sets. We cannot get drinking water and anything wet fetches a good price – one shilling for a quart of poor tea; sixpence for 1/2d bottle of pop. We are now on soldiers’ rations – biscuits and bully beef for breakfast, the same for dinner, and what is left for tea. Please remember me to friends at Club. I should like just one hour there to-night. With best wishes from
G. E. Mustin
P.S. You must excuse writing (pencil) as all my materials are at Pietermaritzburg.
To be continued …