The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging


by Felicia Fourie

Using a top class "Power Point" production, Felicia treated us to the stories of a most interesting quartet of 19th century women. Avoiding the obvious choices such as, say, Emily Hobhouse, she focused on lesser-known figures who had also played an outstanding role in the Second Anglo-Boer War.

The first was Lady Sarah Wilson, the sister of Randolph Churchill and Winston Churchill's aunt. She became known for her role in Mafeking during the Siege and also as the first woman to be appointed a war correspondent. Her husband, Gordon Wilson of the Royal Horse Guards, was appointed ADC to Baden-Powell In Mafeking Sarah found herself swept up by the preparations for war and the general air of excitement. Unable to take an active part in the siege, she started writing of her experiences for the Daily Mail, who promptly enrolled her as a Special War Correspondent. After he received news of the Ultimatum, Baden-Powell, concerned for her safety, ordered her to the nearby town of Setlagole, 46 miles South of Mafeking but, fearing being taken as a prisoner of war, she moved again, this time to the African village of Mosita.

Lady Sarah Wilson at her bunker inside besieged Kimberley

While there she started passing on information to the besieged forces in Mafeking. The Boers became wise to her activities and it looked as though she would spend the rest of the war under house arrest. However, she was exchanged for a Boer horse thief by the name of Petrus Viljoen and found herself back in Mafeking as a heroine. She then excelled herself in the role of "the good genius of the siege". The London society hostess who had never lifted a finger for herself in domestic duties became the big mover and shaker in caring for the wounded, ill and homeless, while at the same time continuing in her role of war correspondent. At the close of the war she was probably the most celebrated woman in England, a country to which she had returned once the siege was lifted.

The second woman of the quartet was Sophia Izedinova, a person about whom very little is actually known. She was one of 12 young Russian and Dutch nurses who volunteered to accompany a Russian/Dutch ambulance brigade to nurse the Boer forces. They arrived in Pretoria in February 1900.

Dutch and Russian volunteers who crewed the ambulances to help the Boers

For the next four months Sophia served in field hospitals in several theatres. Starting at Poplar Grove and Brandfort her group was an integral front line force and suffered great hardship from a lack of proper victuals, poor transport arrangements and, in many cases, incompetence on the part of the Boer generals. She served in Christiana, Winburg, Kroonstad, Elandsfontein outside Germiston and finally Fourteen Streams on the Vaal River. Frequently under fire and suffering hardship shared with the civilian population, they were at one time left behind when general Du Toit retreated without informing the hospital. Because of the danger the nurse were exposed to he ordered the nurses' evacuation and Sarah returned to Pretoria, which was then in disarray in the face of the advancing British forces. There the ambulance group was disbanded and Sophia returned to Russia. At the urging of ZAR State Secretary Reitz, she resolved to bring the Boer cause to the notice of more of her countrymen and in 1903 published a book in Russian entitled A few Months with the Boers, which was translated into English in 1976.

The third woman was Millicent Fawcett, a redoubtable lady of quality who devoted her life to the Suffrage movement in England, being active for sixty years in obtaining the right to vote for women. Following Emily Hobhouse's report on the British concentration camps in South Africa, the War Office appointed a Commission of Enquiry under the leadership of Millicent and entitled the Fawcett Commission to investigate and report back on the state of the camps. The Fawcett Commission was the first in England to consist entirely of women and was supposed to be completely impartial, but in fact all five ladies on the Commission believed the war to be a just one, and two, including Millicent, were anti- Boer. The Commission spent five months in South Africa and the members proved to be fair with their report, substantiating most of Emily Hobhouse's claims. They travelled extensively, questioned both camp staff and inmates and implemented wide-ranging changes. Millicent was as hard as steel and had no time for incompetence. Her criticism was outspoken and the Commission rapidly became a force to be reckoned with by camp commandants. Conditions in the camps improved dramatically, the mortality rate fell, but history has not given Millicent Fawcett the credit she deserved for this. She is more widely remembered for her suffragist activities that resulted in women being given the vote in the United Kingdom, while the Fawcett Society is still to this day very active in gender issues.

Millicent Fawcett in her better known role as a suffragist.

The last of the quartet, Sarah Raal, deserves to have had a film made of her life. Born into a prosperous farming family in the Southern Free State outside Jagersfontein, with the outbreak of war her father and four brothers immediately enlisted leaving Sarah, her mother and two younger children alone on the farm. Her father, unable for health reasons to remain on commando, was sent to a concentration camp. Her mother and Sarah's younger siblings were also placed in a concentration camp as punishment for feeding passing Boers. This left Sarah alone on the farm with her farm workers. To escape the British forces, she moved from farm to farm for several months but inevitably her luck ran out and she was taken to the concentration camp at Springfontein from which she managed to escape.

As the countryside was palpably unsafe for a woman alone, she was allowed to join her brothers on commando under command of a Commandant Nieuwoudt. There she took part in a number of guerrilla engagements, coming under both rifle and shell fire several times and displaying considerable bravery during the course of these actions. On more than one occasion she was in actual physical combat with the enemy, narrowly escaping injury, death or capture. She was eventually captured and placed in a camp until the end of the war. She later wrote a book entitled Met Die Boere In Die Veld, which was published in 1936 and re-published in English in 2000.

Felicia was thanked by Chairman, Bob Smith for an excellent talk, which was most appropriate for Women's Month.

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