The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 1 No 1 - December 1967

Military Medical Services During the Old Transvaal Republic

by Comdt. D.O. STRATFORD

Ever since the establishment of the "Staats Artillerie" in 1874 - the first permanent soldiers of the old Republic - the question of providing some form of medical cover was discussed at various times. At first there was neither need nor justification for a medical branch or unit, or for that matter even full-time medical officers. The small number of personnel were effectively catered for by part-time doctors, and a Dr. Lillipot was appointed to act in this capacity.

Despite intensified agitation from about 1890 onwards, it was only as a result of the unfortunate and misdirected Jameson Raid of Old Year's Day, 1895, that an ambulance unit was formed. This disastrous and abortive raid provided the incentive for an intensification of action to ensure maximum preparedness. In this general awakening the need for a trained medical service was a minor, albeit necessary, part.

Once the need had been so forcibly demonstrated, little time was lost. After a meeting, Drs. G.W.S. Lingbeek, H.P. Veale, J.W. Stroud and J.B. Knobel, all of Pretoria, recommended the formation of a medical unit. It was further recommended that 100 volunteers be called up for training, and that the Government make available an amount of 500 for the acquisition of medical panniers, stretchers and other miscellaneous medical stores.

The recommendations made on the last day of 1895 were accepted by Commandant-General Piet Joubert the same day and approved by the Government on New Year's Day, 1896.

The unit thus formed was known as the "Pretoria Ambulance Corps." There is, however, also certain evidence to indicate that small medical detachments were soon formed in other main towns, and that the whole came to be known as the "Transvaal Ambulance Society (Z.A.R.)". There remains some measure of doubt concerning the latter point for some sources, otherwise considered reliable, almost invariably make mention of the Pretoria Ambulance Corps only.

Whatever the ultimate designation it was short-lived, for the name was changed during the latter part of the same year to "Het Transvaalsche Roode Kruis", as a result of negotiations which followed the acceptance of membership to the Geneva Convention by the Transvaal Republic. As before, the stated purpose was the care of sick and wounded in time of war, and the provision of the necessary training to its members in peace time.

"Het Transvaalsche Roode Kruis" Ambulance Wagon at Outspan 1899-1902.

A constitution comprising 10 main "artikels" and officially termed the "Statuten van Vereeniging" was drawn up. Embodied therein were a further 25 sub-sections which dealt exclusively with administration and general activities. The signatories were all the elected executive officials, viz., Drs. Lingbeek and Knobel (Chairman and Vice-Chairman respectively), Dr. Veale (Treasurer), Dr. Stroud (Adminstrator of Stores) and Mr. J.G. Kreyenbroek (Secretary).

President Paul Kruger accepted an invitation to Honorary Presidency, while the honorary Vice-presidents were Commandant-General Joubert and State Secretary Reitz. The organisations headquarters were established in a building in Pretorius Street, Pretoria.

Section 11 of the constitution states the prime purpose:
,,Die Versending heeft ten doel:
In tijd van Oorlog - Het lot van den gekwesten en zieken Krijgsman door persoonlijke diensten en stoffelijke hulpmiddelen te helpen verzachten, ook dan wanneer de Z.A.R. in den oorlog met betrokken is.

In tijd van Vrede - Zich uitsluitend tot die taak voor te bereiden om daarvoor steeds gereed te zijn."

In the following words quoted from Section IV, provision was made for the formation of branches, "Tien of meer personen kunnen eene afdeeling vormen." The movement, however, did not spread beyond Pretoria until immediately before or just after the outbreak of war, when sections (branches) sprang up in Johannesburg, Krugersdorp, Lichtenburg, Klerksdorp, Potchefstroom, Pietersburg, Belfast, Utrecht, Newcastle, Barberton, as well as other parts of the Republic. Several new branches were also established in Pretoria.

Those officially formed were known as "Afdelings van het Transvaalsche Roode Kruis" but, many other privately formed units also came into being. These were not recognised by headquarters and, despite the good service rendered, ultimately resulted in much confusion, overlapping of effort and friction - all of which combined to adversely affect the totally inadequate combined medical effort of the Boer forces.

While Section 10 of Act No 20 of 1898 actually made provision for a Government medical service in time of war, the law was never effectively implemented. Although Dr. Lillipot (medical officer to the Staatsartillerie) was officially recognised as head of the military medical service, which comprised a number of Field Ambulances(2) - those commanded by Drs. Ramsey, Welez, Visser, Tren and Shaw, and also those which saw service at Newcastle and Standerton being examples if not the total complement - he was totally unconnected with "Het Transvaalsche Roode Kruis."

The fact is that the small official Government Medical Service was ineffective, and no improvement was made until after the establishment of a Medical Commission in the early months of 1900. Meanwhile it fell to the Red Cross to fill the breach as far as was possible by furnishing the bulk of the medical duties on a semi-official basis. Considering the many privately formed units in the field, entirely independent of either of the above, it is surprising that the inevitable friction and confusion did not assume even greater proportions.

Details of dress, etc., are, to say the least, extremely vague, and there is no evidence to lead one to suppose that a specific uniform was worn. A white bone "button", with red cross painted thereon, was worn on the right lapel - if not at the beginning, then certainly at a later stage. The same applies to the wearing of a white band on the left upper arm and a hat with the red cross symbol. Those holding executive posts in the Republican service wore a distinguishing badge, in the form of a star, on the left lapel of the jackets, while doctors wore two such stars. Naturally too, nurses wore uniforms, but there appears to have been no standardisation.

Incidentally the female element, both qualified nurses and others with some or even no first aid knowledge, seem to have been accepted only after the designation was changed to "Het Transvaalsche Roode Kruis". Understandably, qualified nurses were in great demand, but it was only after war had actually been declared that some of these volunteered. Although there were exceptions (3), service was generally given free.

Reliable statistical information regarding the actual strength of the Boer medical element seems to be non-existent, although it is known that the number serving in the "Roode Kruis" never at any one time exceeded 1,000, and probably was considerably less. When it is considered that this organisation was numerically far the larger, it is quite obvious that an effective service was impossible.

The decline of "Het Transvaalsche Roode Kruis commenced during the early months of 1900, with the setting up of the Medical Commission in Pretoria, the address being "Kantoor Staats Procureur". The Commission gradually took over many of the duties formerly exclusively carried out by the Red Cross Committee and, being the official Government body, it was naturally the more powerfully equipped to, belatedly as it was, assert itself.

With the occupation of Pretoria by the British, the three groups which comprised the Boer medical service in the field were inevitably destined to disappear. In April, 1901, the head committee wrote on the following lines to the military Governor: "Further I have to inform you that my office in Pretorius Street, which building was given to us years ago by the Government of the Z.A.R. as a sign of respect and appreciation, and where I used to keep the books and materials, is taken in use by the Police without my consent or even knowledge. The furniture has been removed, my books put aside on shelves, and what happened to the Roentgen Ray apparatus is unknown to me. As the Red Cross flag has been hauled down, you will understand that I have nothing more to say in that place." The only branch which effectively remained in operation for some time, was the Information Bureau which had been set up towards the end of October, 1899.

It is general knowledge that despite appreciable foreign assistance in both equipment and manpower, the medical service of the Republic was never at any time in a position to adequately cope. This was particularly so in the latter stages of the war. The unfortunate division of medical authority; the uncertainty and understandable friction which consequently resulted, combined with the lack of foresight and training of personnel by the Government, did not conduce to a good service. A certain measure of consolation can however be derived from the knowledge that the Royal Army Medical Corps, unified, well equipped and much stronger, did not emerge from the struggle with a reputation unsullied.

In conclusion, there are various random historical facts well worthy of record, and perhaps the foremost of these, is that the first active assistance by the Transvaal Red Cross to the Republic occurred some two years after its formation following a request by the Government for medical coverage during the Magato expedition of 1898. A certain Dr. Bensusan of Johannesburg volunteered and was accepted on his conditions, namely payment of 3 per day, and that he be afforded full citizenship after the expedition, and provided with a horse, saddle and rifle.

It was not the first time in the history of our country that an organisation with the basic ideals of the Red Cross operated in South Africa. In the Zulu War of 1896, the forerunner of the British Red Cross - an organisation known as "The Stafford House Committee" - provided doctors and seven nurses, who gave an excellent account of themselves. Then too, the St. John Ambulance Brigade was already in operation in Johannesburg, for it is recorded that that association, recognising the legality of "Het Transvaalsche Roode Kruis", co-operated fully by tendering its services and equipment for the common cause immediately after the outbreak of war. The first branch of this historical association had been formed in Cape Town on 21st July, 1891, and in January, 1894, Dr. Liebermann of Cape Town persuaded President Kruger to become patron of the Transvaal sections to be started in Pretoria and Johannesburg. Captain von Brandis was elected President of the Johannesburg branch which, by 1895, had already instructed 1,689 people in First Aid.

Several foreign countries appreciably assisted the Boers with either medical supplies and equipment, monetary aid, "Ambulance Corps", or a combination of the aforesaid. In an article of this length it is impossible to give details of these units and their activities.

A record of the unofficial units, and the many prominent medical practitioners who rallied to the Boer cause, is also excluded. Suffice to mention only two - the first of which was involved in an incident constituting a blatant breach(4) of the Geneva Convention. Despite being busy with medical work and in possession of all the necessary identification documents, a portion of Dr. Margold's unit was seized, and the personnel sent to Cape Town under threat of being shot should escape be attempted. Although being released and returned to the Boer lines a week later, the excuse proffered in explanation, namely "the stupidity of a subordinate", was hardly convincing. This unit operated in the Free State, mainly with Gen. Cronje. During the enforced absence of Dr. Margold, Dr. Dyer took charge of the remaining portion of the unit. Perhaps slightly larger than average, it comprised two doctors, 10 nurses (female) and 13 servants. Transport and equipment (reputedly a very well equipped unit) included a "spider", an ambulance, three wagons, 20 tents, 30 beds and 12 stretchers.

The other, the late Dr. Thomas Mulock-Bentley, who died during January, 1960 at the ripe age of 93, was an Irishman who settled in Vrede, O.F.S. Conscripted for service at the outbreak of war, he was instructed by President Steyn to form an ambulance unit. The unit participated with distinction in the Battle of Spioenkop, and was in Bloemfontein when that city fell to the British. Thereupon the doctor joined the R.A.M.C. as a Captain, and was later promoted Major, in which rank he served until peace was declared, having meanwhile been mentioned in dispatches. During World War I he served as a Major in the S.A.M.C. and in the 1939-1945 war as a recruiting officer in Durban.

Without mention of the Ambulance Trains, commonly referred to as "Rydende" or "Vliegende Ambulanse", any history of the Republican Medical Services would be incomplete. Three were originally in use, two for the conveyance of sick and wounded from the Natal front to the Pretoria and other hospitals en route, and one which operated between Bloemfontein and Pretoria. In April, 1900, the newly appointed Medical Commission decided that one was sufficient to meet the need.

Existing hospitals in various towns were either partly or wholly taken over, and new ones opened as and where the need arose and manpower permitted. In Pretoria the first "Staatstehuis", the "Staats Meijen Skool", and the second '"Staatstehuis" were equipped and opened as hospitals within a short time, while a building at the racecourse (now the Show Grounds) served as an Auxiliary Hospital.


(1) Known as "Artikels."

(2) These bore no resemblance to the Field Ambulance units as we know them today, but were more in the nature of small self-contained groups capable of setting up and operating small field hospitals, either under tentage or, as was perhaps more often the case, in small buildings or farmhouses.

(3) Some sections did pay trained nurses from their own funds.

(4) There were a numher of such breaches on both sides.

The author wishes to acknowledge information from the following sources:

(a) ,,Het Transvaalsche Roode Kruis gedurende die Tweede Vryheidsoorlog, 1899-1902". by J.C. Roes.

(b) ,,Unter dem Roten Kreuz" by Dr. Fessler. This German book was loaned from Mr. J.H. Flockemann of Stellenbosch, whose father, the late Dr. H.F.A. Flockemann served with the 2nd German Ambulance unit at Springfontein and Heilbron, O.F.S.

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