Experiences in the trenches during the Siege of Mafikeng
A trench or shelter were 5ft deep, 6ft wide and long enough to accommodate the number of people allocated to each. It was covered with corrugated iron, on which sandbags and clay were heaped. The air and light came in through unglazed openings at the top of the sides. It were used to take cover from enemy fire or the brave could shoot from it on the enemy.
The Sister’s trench.
The trench prepared for the Sisters was in the Hospital grounds, adjoined to the Convent. It was 50 ft long and connected with the convent by an open trench, deep enough to conceal a person walking upright.
Below: The trench between the Convent and Hospital
Part of a letter from sister Stanislaus to her brother
(It is thought that this letter was written early 1900)
“…Trench life was hard on some of the Sisters, others bore it’s inconveniences with no ill effects. Miss Hill, Matron of the Hospital, offered Rev. Mother a room for typhoid fever patients, but it was afterwards decided to house the fever stricken in a down-stairs room in the Convent, which was considered somewhat safe.
On a Saturday evening when the patients were nearly all in the height of fever, very heavy rains fell. As the roof (what is left of it after the shell damage) is quite perforated with bullets, the rains poured through to within a few inches of the beds. After the rains ceased, the African servants dried up the place.
The next excitement was when, on the following Wednesday the big gun was turned on the convent three times. The feelings of the patients, unable to move, can hardly be guessed when the signal from the look-out room sent all active persons rushing to places of safety .
Rev. Mother who was in charge of this section told the patients she was not leaving them. If God willed it, nurses and patients would die together. Then with a fine assumption of prophecy born of her faith and trust in God she said “We shall all be safe”.
Fortunately two of the shells fell in the garden, the other passed over the look-out room taking a piece of the roof.
A few nights after that, the patients were disturbed by volley after volley falling on the roof. The British Maxim got into action. Rev. Mother Teresa was sure the Boers were behind the convent. This was the only occasion she was known to lose her never-failing calm. She feared for the patients and was glad to seek the safety of the Hospital.
Accidents from the shelling were not so frequent as one would imagine.
The look-out room at the Convent had a telephone connection with a redoubt in the center of the town. In the redoubt was placed a church bell( St. Anthony’s Catholic Church) “Nomine Antonia”
The quarters of the town were numbered. When the look-out officer, described with his telescope, that a particular quarter was threatened, word went to the bell ringers who struck out the required number of “Antonia” But the enemy soon became aware of this warning, changed the direction of the gun and “Antonia” pealed it’s notes in vain.
How did we employ ourselves when not on duty in the Hospital . During the day we slept, if we had done night duty in the wards. We slept even if there was bombing, so accustomed we got to it, and so pleased we were to rest, knowing that others have taken over the hard work of the day. If there was time to spare we sewed for the garrison. The only fine work done was point lace. It was difficult to keep it spotless in our clay surroundings. The rest made Red Cross flags pennants, haver sacks etc.
Every morning almost, we were awakened by the click-clack of rifle-fire, followed by the boom of cannon. The faint tinkle of the alarm clock was drowned on the day of its immersion in thetrench flood. It never recovered.
Deprivation of Holy Mass and the customary religious exercises was felt by us. On Sundays, all the Sisters except during the fever epidemic were freed from hospital duty. This heaven sent day of mental relaxation coming every week, preserved the sanity of the whole garrison at least the civilian part of it (soldiers thrive in wars’ alarm, they say). As religious it was to us, truly Heaven sent. So was our work in the Hospital. We were performing one of the works of Mercy, something which seemed to be out of reach in this new country. Seeing Christ in His sick members, that was joy for our souls. There was freedom from the cramped restraint of the narrow trench, when we could walk in the hospital wards and corridors. Out work kept us active, usefully so, and got us beyond the clay walls.
The men used to play cricket and even football on Sundays. Concerts were also held in which Baden Powell took part. Short drives into the country even, were possible. Lady Sarah Wilson ventured too far, once and was held as a prisoner until arrangements were made with the Colonel for an exchange.
“T’was nearly a dear basket of eggs, Mother” This heading was seen in a newspaper. We were surprised to find the Mother was our Mother Teresa. She was described as coming from town after buying the eggs. The facts were these. There were three hens at the Convent, the remainder of the pre-siege fowl-run. These we had decided to keep until the severest pangs of hunger compelled us to sacrifice them. They supplied an egg a day. Mother Theresa knew where their nests were and went to fetch the contents. They were nourishing light food for some invalid. She thought she kept under close cover, walking through the connecting trench. But a sniper saw the moving figure. She was within an ace of being struck. Perhaps the shot was meant for the soldier who passed her at the moment. It was he who called out quite unperturbed, “Twas nearly a dear basket of eggs Mother”.
Some of the scenes in the Hospital will give an idea of how the shell wounded suffered. Often they implored the doctors to take their lives. They tore off the bandages in their frenzy of pain, exposing the maimed limb with its serrated flesh; sometimes gangrened. the odor was often so offensive, that those patients had to be isolated.
One brave man was blinded for life, though everyone was stricken with sorrow for his loss, he bore his ill fortune bravely.
I saw the death of a small boy today, the one who was wounded in the Women’s Laager a few days ago. His parents are inconsolable.
Towards the end of the Siege the garrison suffered from hunger. The flour supply was at an end. The bread, made from a substitute, was so coarse and hard that it could hardly be eaten. Even so, it was rationed. Meat became so scarce, that a helping of horse flesh was welcome. Cooks in the redoubts were few and firewood was difficult to get.
When we returned to the Convent in April (1900), we were able to send whatever could be spared to the warn-out men in the forts not far from us. They were most uncomplaining. When there was nothing solid to send, they were delighted to get an urn of coffee colored slightly with condensed milk. We had been allowed to keep the supplies we had put in, which with economy lasted quite to the end. We were allowed, too, a ration of fresh meat, as nurses. This was a saving of our own store of tinned stuffs which we were pleased to give up when things came to the worst.
When the rainy season was over in March, the Colonel had part of the Convent, three rooms patched up for us. The shelter had become unhealthy, it was thought. “Death by shell fire, or death by fever differed only in the length of suffering”, it was said. The Sisters went to the Hospital for their nursing duties of course, taking care to use the connecting trench.
Though the guns were turned on the town almost daily, the Convent was not again struck.