The Boer Hospital at Rietfontein 25 Ocotber 1899-28 Febraury 1900 by J Hawkesbury


Having spent three years collecting accounts of soldiers and journalists who fought and reported on the battle of Rietfontein, which eventually saw the light of day in ‘A little bicker with the Boers’ (unpublished account, J Hawkesbury and R Smith), I then decided to make a second attempt at writing an article and ‘Witness to Rietfontein’, which required a further year’s work, was published in two parts in Military History Journal Volume 15 No 5, June 2012 and Volume 15 No 6, December 2012 respectively. I was therefore very surprised and pleased that this third article, ‘The Boer Hospital at Rietfontein, 25 October 1899 to 28 February 1900’ should have been so quick and easy to compile. On 25 September 2010, Rietfontein was visited by thirty or so members of the Friends of the Bloemfontein Museum, who included Prof J C (Kay) de Villiers, author of Healers, Helpers and Hospitals, a definitive account of the provision of medical services to the sick and wounded of the Boer armies during the Anglo-Boer War. I was aware that Rietfontein had been used as a hospital during the siege, but Prof de Villiers’ work came as a revelation in terms of detail of its use. From the tragic death of Dr Hohls, to the short tenure of Drs Bleksley and Lillpopp, to the final arrival of the First Dutch Red Cross Ambulance in December 1899, we now had a fairly comprehensive understanding of this part of Rietfontein’s history. A pamphlet was distributed to the visiting group, which described the sites to be visited and included, in the margins, quite a number of photographs unknown to me at the time, which showed the day-to-day running of the hospital. With the assistance of Mr Johan Wolfhardt and Mr Gert Theart, these photographs were tracked down and appear in this article. The author’s grateful thanks go to Prof de Villiers, Messrs Wolfhardt and Theart, and the Friends of the Bloemfontein Museum for making this account possible, and to Ms Coetzee for her much appreciated typing.


In the days following the battle of Rietfontein (24 October 1899) in the vicinity of Ladysmith, the Boers slowly began to encamp at Rietfontein farm and it is believed that Gen Joubert and his immediate staff spent a couple of nights in the farmhouse. The main Boer laager, which had been located on the other side of Intintanyoni prior to the battle, slowly filtered down to the low-veld and the farm was proclaimed ‘Hooflaager’ by Joubert. Shortly after this, realising the potential of the farm as a hospital, Joubert moved out to make way for Dr Johan Otto Hohls. According to de Villiers (Vol I, 2008, p344), ‘when war was declared, Dr O Hohls, medical officer of the Staatsartillerie, was placed in charge of all ZAR ambulances and responsibilities for which the government paid him an allowance of £500. Dr Hohls had a thorough understanding of the many difficulties to be overcome in the process of providing an adequate medical service for the burgher of the ZAR’.

Dr J O Hohls, Medical Officer of the Transvaal Staatsartillerie,
who was also in charge of all ZAR ambulances until his death on 30 October 1899.
There were a number of very sound reasons why Rietfontein would be suitable as a hospital, not least of which was its location. At six miles [9,6km] from Ladysmith, it was beyond effective artillery range from guns in and around the town. Although it is claimed that the farm had been looted, this did not mean wanton destruction. Deneys Reitz recalls in Commando (1929, p30) that ‘[t]owards eleven in the morning [probably referring to Sunday, 29 October 1899] Piet Joubert, the Commandant-General and his staff rode up to address us. He started by scolding the men for having looted a farm close by (Rietfontein) and got so worked up that he forgot to tell what the real object of his visit had been’.

There was adequate accommodation on the farm; for example, there was also a villa recently built by Messrs Pepworth and Reid, which consisted of six large rooms, a ‘fortified’ kitchen, numerous outbuildings plus a large barn. The many streams and brooks on the farm ensured an adequate supply of water. Most importantly, however, Rietfontein was located close to Modderspruit Railway Station. During the battle leading up to the occupation, the line had been cut at a number of places between the farm and Elandslaagte, including the Modderspruit bridge itself, three miles [4,8km] north of the station towards Dundee. These disruptions in the line were quickly repaired, which allowed the farm free access to the station, with a small siding to the north and parallel to the main line, and thereby an uninterrupted railway connection to Pretoria itself.

Medical arrangements

Should a burgher on commando become sick or wounded, care and medication would initially come from the unit itself prior to evacuation to a field hospital such as Rietfontein, which covered the area to the north and around Ladysmith. At the hospital, more sophisticated treatment could be provided, including amputation, removal of shrapnel and bullets and other major surgery, in addition to treatment of serious illness, such as typhoid and malaria. Wounded burghers who were expected to recover quickly and re-join their colleagues in the field could convalesce on the farm. Those deemed no longer able to serve in the war or requiring further or prolonged care were transported by horse-drawn ambulance to the station, fifteen minutes away, for transfer to the base hospital at Pretoria.

The administration of the field hospitals, base hospitals and the hospital trains in service with the Transvaal’s burgher forces came under the auspices of the Transvaal Red Cross (TRK) and its guiding committee, the ‘Hoofdbestuur’. Some Boer units, most importantly the StaatsartiIIerie, ran their own field hospital, but most others had to fill this gap using field ambulances provided by the Red Cross branches of foreign countries. Not surprisingly, the Dutch provided three Red Cross ambulances, and there was one each from Germany, Russia, Switzerland, Belgium and the United States. These, of course, varied greatly in number and skill, which sometimes had an impact on their deployment in the field. There were, in addition, ambulance sections raised, operated and paid for by individual citizens. One example, which carried the name of the sponsor, was the Bourke Section, which was also based at Rietfontein.

The Netherlands Ambulance wagon that carried wounded Boer soldiers
to Modderspruit Station, fifteen minutes away from Rietfontein.
Replacement for Dr Hohls

Sadly, poor Dr Hohls was tragically killed on Pepworth Hill during the battle of Lombard’s Kop (known as ‘Modderspruit’ by the Boers) on Monday, 30 October 1899, while attending to a wounded comrade. He was initially buried at Rietfontein prior to exhumation and transport to Pretoria followed by full military burial and interment at Church Street Cemetery. Apart from the personal tragedy of his death, Dr Hohls’ demise had little direct effect on the Staatsartillerie, but, as chief medical officer for the Transvaal armed forces, his vacancy needed to be filled with some urgency. With little regard for efficiency or opinion and despite reservations about his choice, Gen Joubert appointed Captain A Bleksley. According to de Villiers’ biographical notes on the man (Vol II, 2008, p222), Bleksley was a ‘Sanitary Inspector in Johannesburg and a head of the St John Ambulance Society in that city, and was a driving force in establishing a Johannesburg Section of the TRK.’

Rietfontein at the time of the occupation. Dr Hohls’ grave can be seen in the foreground.

Dr Hohls’ grave in Church Street Cemetery, Pretoria, in a sad state of neglect.
What it was about Bleksley’s character that many found so disagreeable remains a mystery, but his lack of qualifications and the fact that he was not a member of the TRK, certainly seems to have contributed to this. Having been given an opportunity to prove his skills at Rietfontein, Bleksley remained a source of irritation to his detractors. The Volksstem issued the following statement in late October 1899: ‘The Executive Committee of the Red Cross wants to notify the public that Captain Bleksley and his staff are not attached to the Red Cross; they do not have the right to wear the insignia of the Red Cross’ (De Villiers, Vol II, 2008, P 222). Whatever the case, he could not have remained in charge at Rietfontein for long. It was probably only a matter of days before Joubert, under pressure from the medical fraternity, reversed his decision and Bleksley was relieved of his post. He was succeeded by the German, Dr Peter Anton Heinrich Lillpopp, who had been educated at Leipzig University. What qualified him for the part is again a mystery, but his selection would prove just as unacceptable as that of his predecessor. De Villiers provides us this insight (Vol I, 2008, p567): ‘Dr Lillpopp’s inability to handle a task of this magnitude and of which he had no experience very soon became apparent as the military medical services of the ZAR in Natal went from bad to worse. Dr M S Lingbeek even had to take him to task for not responding to standard official correspondence in an acceptable and reasonable way. Matters deteriorated until Dr Lillpopp eventually had the Government, the commandant-general and Hoofdbestuur in battle array against him but they could not get rid of him. The Second German Red Cross Ambulance was on its way to South Africa when Dr Lillpopp advised the German consul not to direct them to Natal as doctors were so badly treated on this front. This was the final straw for ZAR Government, who regarded this incident as treasonable and summarily terminated Dr Lillpopp’s services. Lillpopp’s dismissal solved one problem but it could not save the ailing Boer medical services’.

There is an interesting contemporary photograph of the time, which bears the caption, ‘TAB31696 Ambulance at Modderspruit’. [‘Modderspruit’ was the Boer name for Rietfontein, which was also sometimes referred to as Pepworth’s or Reid’s Farm]. The exact location shown in the photograph is unknown, but it is safe to say that the thatched building in the background no longer exists. The seated figure at centre right may be Dr Lillpopp; the fact that he is seated suggests a position of authority. The man is unlikely to be Dr Hohls, who was only at Rietfontein for a few days. The ambulance to the left is not of the type used by either the Staatsartillerie or the First Dutch Red Cross Ambulance. As Bleksley and his staff were forbidden to wear the Red Cross on their forearms, Lillpopp makes a reasonable candidate.

The First Dutch Red Cross Ambulance arrives in South Africa

The story of the hospital and ambulance at Rietfontein is inextricably linked to two very forward-thinking brothers, Dutch nationals who were both highly trained and acclaimed doctors. Dr G W S Lingbeek (18601939) was the elder of the two, educated in Groningen and Amsterdam, and had immigrated to the Transvaal in 1888 and become a founder of the TRK and the first chairman of the Hoofdbestuur. After a short visit to Holland in 1898, he had returned to the ZAR as a leader of the First Dutch Red Cross Ambulance. His younger brother, Meinhart S Lingbeek (18641954), was also educated at Groningen and came to the ZAR around 1896 and was elected to the Hoofdbestuur as Vice-Chairman in 1898. In August 1899, just prior to the outbreak of hostilities, Miss A E Adriani, head-mistress of the Staats Meisjesschool Pretoria (State Girls’ School) offered the recently constructed school building to the Hoofdbestuur for adaptation as an auxiliary base hospital. After some hesitation, Dr M S Lingbeek, assisted by Dr G M R Heymens, realized the potential benefits and quickly agreed. Miss Adriani and six of her teachers, having quickly undergone medical training, provided the nursing staff. The accommodation included beds for sixty patients and a wellequipped operating theatre.

Meanwhile, in Holland, Dr G W S Lingbeek, through the Netherlands Red Cross Society (NRCS), approached the ZAR with an offer to provide an ambulance for the forthcoming conflict. This was readily accepted, but a request for ‘materials not staff’ was partly ignored and a proviso was made that the ambulance would not depart for the ZAR until after hostilities had commenced.

Dr G W S Lingbeek (right) with his younger brother,
Dr M S Lingbeek (left)

An unidentified group of medical personnel at the farm,
possibly Dr Lillpopp and colleagues.
The First Dutch Ambulance left Amsterdam on 28 October 1899 and was joined at Naples by Dr Lingbeek and some of the medical staff who had gone ahead by train. As fellow passengers they had the personnel of the First German Red Cross Ambulance also on their way to Pretoria, and together the two ambulances had to endure the rather miserable accommodation provided by the German East Africa Line ship, the Konig. To relieve the tedium of the cruise, the medical staff lectured to the other ambulance personnel on topics relevant to the work they could expect to be doing in the ZAR. A break in the monotony was provided by two British battleships, one of which trailed the Konig through the Red Sea, and the other of which temporarily apprehended the German ship just before it arrived in Lourengo Marques, but allowed it to pass after it had been inspected and approved. From Lourengo Marques, where they arrived on 6 December, they travelled by train through the eastern Transvaal to Pretoria – a journey that turned into extended welcoming festivity arranged by the local population at railway stations along the way. The arrival of the first two foreign ambulances in the ZAR on 8 December was seen in the ZAR as a clear demonstration of foreign support and was celebrated by much wining and dining. The Germans almost immediately left for Bloemfontein, but the Dutch unit remained to sort out their supplies and find a suitable hospital.

The personnel of the First Dutch Red Cross Ambulance comprised Dr G W S Lingbeek (in command), Prof JA Korteweg, and Doctors D Romeyn, A Oidtmann, J C J Bierens de Haan and C W Vinckhujze. Miss G J Beijnen (head sister) and Sisters J Dijkstra, M F Smit, S G Smit, M W Schreuders, A M Geenen, A E Schipper, L I Metelerkamp, A van Stockum and F Wigersma (all from Amsterdam), with male nurses M Bos, I Bowiers, H Jeltes and R C Leonhard, formed the nursing contingent (De Villiers, Vol I , 2008, p415).

Wrongly captioned, ‘German Ambulance at Rietfontein Farm’,
this photograph shows the First Nederlands Ambulance.
No doubt the two Lingbeek brothers were overjoyed to be reunited and full of anticipation for the challenges that lay ahead. Sadly, the x-ray equipment, then referred to as a ‘Rontgen Apparatus’ had been damaged beyond repair during the long sea journey from Europe and had been discarded at Lourengo Marques. Not to be deterred, the ambulance teams began to organize themselves and their supplies and equipment. Ladysmith had by then been under siege for nearly five weeks.

When the Staats Meisjeschool was graciously offered to the Dutch Ambulance as their base hospital, they readily accepted the offer. Dr M S Lingbeek took charge, assisted by Prof Korteweg and Dr Vinckhuijze and Sisters Metelerkamp, Wigersma and van Stockum. Dr Heymens, as mentioned above, was already in situ along with Miss Adriani and her newly trained ex-teaching staff.

On to Rietfontein

Having established their Base Hospital in Pretoria, the remaining staff entrained, along with their equipment and supplies, for the two-day journey to Modderspruit (Rietfontein), arriving there on 16 December 1899. Although the photograph may not depict the actual arrival, its opfficial caption, ‘German Ambulance at Riefontein Farm’ is clearly incorrect, as the Nederlands Ambulance logo is just visible on the side of the first wagon. As far as is known the German Ambulance was never stationed at Rietfontein, although a number of German doctors did visit the facility.

According to Prof de Villiers (Vol 1, 2008, p569), ‘When the First Dutch Red Cross took over Dr Lillpopp’s hospital at Rietfontein in December 1899, they found it in a state of neglect. The ambulance’s sisters, however, moved in and, with characteristic Dutch thoroughness, rapidly converted the existing disorganized muddle into a clean and effectively functioning hospital. One of the six large rooms in the house was converted into an operating theatre, another served as a pharmacy and office while a third provided accommodation for the staff. The remaining three rooms and the extensive veranda could accommodate about 40 beds and the garden was converted into a camp where ten tents provided space for about another 40 patients. Additional accommodation for staff was arranged in surrounding buildings and tents.’

Staff of the First Dutch Ambulance on the stoep at Rietfontein.
Dr G W S Lingbeek can be seen right, back row.
Dr Oidtman and one of the nurses, Sister Dijkstra or Smit, took over the management of the hospital train while everyone else took extra effort to get the place in good order, no doubt considering the time of year with some thought of the forthcoming Christmas celebrations. The photograph seen above, ‘TAR 10651 Dutch Ambulance at Modderspruit’, clearly marked bottom left, shows Dr G W S Lingbeek in his characteristic bowtie, along with the nursing staff at the main entrance to the villa at Rietfontein. The other individuals in the photograph are unidentified.

Rietfontein as a base hospital for the region

After the arrival of the Dutch Ambulance, Rietfontein became a landmark base hospital for the region to the north of Ladysmith, treating the sick and wounded. Most patients admitted to the hospital in the midsummer suffered serious illness such as typhoid, dysentery and malaria, wounded patients predominating only with nearby military activity associated with the Boer retreat. Serious cases were evacuated by ambulance train every three to four days to the Dutch Base Hospital at the Staats Meisjesschool in Pretoria, to make space for escalating numbers of new patients.

De Villiers (Vol I, 2008, pp 569-70) describes how other medical units continued to operate at the farm after the arrival of the Dutch Ambulance. Dr Lillpopp and the Staatsartillerie’s ambulance moved out of the homestead to make way for the Dutch hospital, and established their hospital in the barn on the farm. The Bourke Ambulance Section, which was later formally attached to the First Dutch Ambulance, was located near the horse stables on the same farm.

There was much coming and going. De Villiers (Vol I, 2008, p417) writes that ‘Prof Korteweg visited Rietfontein in January 1900, did not find the hospital complex particularly attractive and was at most lukewarm in his description of the building and its environment. Reluctantly, Korteweg had to admit that the Dutch nurses had created order out of chaos. The professor also had to acknowledge that the hospital was functional but noted the standard problem with flies and the absence of sophisticated accommodation for the medical staff. Despite Korteweg’s minor key praise, the staff, by virtue of the quality of their work, did not merely establish a front-line clearing station but created a base hospital that effectively served the region to the north of Ladysmith. Every doctor who visited this sector of the front made a point of calling on the staff, and inspecting their hospital – and all commented favourably.

Things must have changed after Prof Korteweg’s visit for Dr van der Goot, who visited Rietfontein Hospital early in February, saw the world through a different lens. To him, the Dutch ambulance wagon standing outside, the Red Cross Flag flying over the conglomerate of buildings and the cleanliness and order were impressive. At that time, most of the patients were suffering from typhoid and malaria and very few from war wounds. Despite this state of affairs, the number of hospital admissions steadily increased and required that patients be evacuated to Pretoria by ambulance train every three to four days to make space for new patients.’

A wounded Boer receives treatment at Rietfontein.
Dr Romeyn had already left Rietfontein when Prof Korteweg arrived to assist General Erasmus’ medical staff where he remained until the evacuation. By then, Dr Bierens de Haan, having successfully managed the hospital pharmacy based in the drawing room of the villa, became Chief Medical Officer, leaving Dr G W S Lingbeek along with male nurses Leonhard and Bos, to join Dr Romeyn. Once the hospital was up and running, there was a constant interchange of staff.

Following the battles of Spion Kop (23-24 January 1900) and Vaalkrans (5-7 February 1900) the number of patients increased dramatically as the Boer hold on Ladysmith began to loosen. The photograph above shows a Boer soldier shot just below the left nipple with the exit wound slightly to the left of the spine, very fortunate to have escaped paralysis. The dressings in both exit and entrance wounds would need to have been changed on a daily basis in order to effect healing. In addition to battle wounds, dysentery, typhoid and malaria abounded in the summer heat. As the final battle of the siege got underway at Tugela Heights (12-28 February 1900) something approaching panic began to set in.

‘By about the middle of January the Boer medical services in Natal had deteriorated to the degree that the need for an orderly and integrated ambulance system became painfully apparent even to the ZAR Government. They sent Dr M S Lingbeek, a member of the Medical Commission, on an inspection tour of the ZAR’s medical services in Natal with the explicit instruction that he should rectify the errors in the system. Dr G W S Lingbeek was offered the post of director of the Boer ambulance services in Natal, but he turned it down. He did not find it an attractive proposition to manage the large number of small, substandard ambulances, all wanting to function independently despite their lack of supplies, basic equipment and expertise.

Drs Oidtman and Janssen, with two male nurses, arrived at Modderspruit on 6 February while Dr Bierens de Haan took over the direction of the Staats Meisjesschool in Pretoria. Dr Janssen described how the numbers of wounded at Modderspruit steadily increased during February and how panic spread in the Boer camp on about 20 February. Although the sick and wounded were evacuated by ambulance train from Modderspruit on 24, 25 and 26 February, the continuous stream of wounded increased in volume and kept the hospital overfull. By 28 February the Boers were retreating en masse and on 1 March the First Dutch Red Cross Hospital at Rietfontein had to be evacuated in great haste. Despite the fact that a number of Dutch doctors were due to return to the Netherlands as their contracts had expired, the turmoil existing in the Boer force in Natal caused them to extend their service periods.

Evacuation of the Rietfontein hospital complex

In February 1900, as fighting on the Tugela intensified, Drs Oidtman and Janssen, who took over the management of Rietfontein Hospital in that month, experienced an escalation in the number of wounded admitted, particularly on 24, 25 and 26 February. Within days, the action on the Natal front placed the Boer hospital at Rietfontein in jeopardy.

‘On the morning of 1 March,’ writes De Villiers (Vol I, 2008, pp419-20), ‘Dr G W S Lingbeek was informed by Dr Neethling at the Hoofdlaager that General Joubert had left. Although Neethling thought that there was no need to panic, he personally went to the Dutch Ambulance that same evening and warned them to evacuate. It was a night the personnel of the First Dutch Ambulance would never forget. Dr G W S Lingbeek managed to lay claim to a railway wagon belonging to the Medical Commission and, struggling in the dark through mud and pouring rain, the ambulance staff made several journeys by mule-wagon from their hospital to Modderspruit siding to load their belongings for their return to Pretoria. After about four or five trips their exhausted mules could do no more and the staff had no opportunity to rest as an endless stream of patients continued to arrive at the hospital. The next morning, Dr Lingbeek, to his horror, discovered that the railway wagon had left for Pretoria during the night! The patients pleaded not to be left behind and, with the help of the Bourke Ambulance, all the patients, the Dutch sisters with their possessions and some boxes with equipment were crammed into a goods wagon and dispatched to Pretoria. As the station came under artillery fire, the male personnel loaded the remainder of the ambulance’s equipment onto a wagon and rushed off to Glencoe – only to be captured! They were saddened by the fact that they had to leave their tents behind, but in the panic of the withdrawal, the passing commandos could not or would not help them. The doctors saw no point in waiting for the arrival of the British because they were not certain whether they would be detained or sent to Cape Town as had happened to their colleagues when they were captured. Meanwhile the British bombardment of Rietfontein increased in intensity and with bullets flying around them they passed Modderspruit station for the last time and followed the dynamite train to reach Glencoe station in a rather bedraggled state but without injury or loss of life.’


In the spring of 2010, prior to the visit of Prof De Villiers and company, the author received a phone call from Ms Elizabeth Reid, who was in South Africa, on holiday with friends. She informed me that she was the granddaughter of Mr Frank Reid, who along with Mr Walter Pepworth, had built and managed the farm. After the battle, Mr Pepworth and members of the Legislature (MLA) had retired to another of his farms, while poor Mr Reid was caught up in the siege in Ladysmith. After the siege, he had returned to Rietfontein and, in a typed, eleven page letter that he sent to relatives in Scotland, the country of his birth, he describes the scenes at Rietfontein after the various ambulances had departed: ‘I rode out here the day after the relief. It was later Pepworth got up and during that time the military had cleared away piles and piles of stuff left by the Boers. Their terminal station (Modderspruit) and main camp were on this farm, wagons, tents and stores of all descriptions were lying all over the farm. The house and out buildings were splendidly fitted up with all the latest hospital outfit and appliances and it was only a pity they were not as up to date in their sanitation. The filth and stench were too awful and a nip of whisky every half hour was almost necessary while exploring. When P[epworth] wrote that we had lost so many cattle and sheep he was unaware that I and Brebner (farm manager) got most of them into Ladysmith the day before Rietfontein. That was a good fight on both sides. I was here and saw it all and the Boers were too good for us – they had secured positions on the two high hills at the top of the farm and our men could not dislodge them though our artillery fire was magnificently accurate.’ (Private letter, F Reid, Author’s Collection).


De Villiers, J C, Healers, Helpers and Hospitals: A History of Military Medicine in the Anglo-Boer War, Volume I & II (Protea Book House, Pretoria, 2008).

Reid, F, private letter in author’s collection.

Reitz, D, Commando: A Boer Journal of the Boer War (Faber & Faber, 1929).

South African Military History Society /

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