Private L. Tarlton of Somercotes wrote an extraordinary letter from South Africa to his family during the Boer War. An extract was published in the Nottingham Evening Post on Friday 23 February 1900, a transcript of which is below.
Although censorship had been introduced during the Boer War, at the time, letters from soldiers were not subject to the same stringent rules as civilian censorship. Officers could even self-censor their own letters.
The letter from Private Tarlton contains graphic descriptions of injuries, and is undoubtedly patriotic in its tone. He also refers to “Tommy Atkins” in the letter. This is slang for a common soldier in the British Army, more often shortened to the word “Tommy” and used extensively during the First World War. Although its origins are not well known, it has been in use since the 18th century.
The town of De Aar, from where Private Tarlton sent his letter, is situated in the Northern Cape, and was an important railway junction between Cape Town and Kimberley. The name derives from the Afrikaans for “The Artery”, a reference to an underground water supply.
Luther Tarlton was born at Sleetmoor, Somercotes about 1879. He was the son of Walter and Elizabeth Tarlton, and before he volunteered to serve in South Africa he was employed as a “Train Runner” at Birchwood Colliery (this job entailed fetching trains of loaded tubs from the coal face to the pit shaft and taking empty tubs back to be filled).
Read the transcript below:
LETTER FROM A SOMERCOTES AMBULANCE MAN
The following is an extract from a letter received from Private L. Tarlton of Somercotes, of the Birchwood Corps of the St. John Ambulance Brigade, who volunteered for service in South Africa, and who writes from De Aar under date January 26th.
When we got to Cape Town we got fresh orders; we had to come here (De Aar) because they had too many patients. We are not going to stop here, but you can write here, and they will forward your letter to where I am. The hospital is really a schoolroom, and we are staying in tents outside. We are in proper campaign order now. I would that every Englishman could come and see what there is to be seen here. If they did Tommy Atkins would be valued more than is. Some have arms off, others legs etc. in fact, I could not possibly find words for what I have seen. One poor old chap got hit with a piece of shell, and it took a part of his chest off and all of his face. It would be a blessing if he were to drop off, but the doctor thinks he will live. Another got a bullet in the chest and made him fall, but as soon as he was falling one of his spurs caught in the stirrup, and he was dragged three quarters of a mile, so you can imagine what kind of head he has. I am in the enteric fever ward. We have 20 patients at the time of writing, and two of us to look after them (that is two at night and two at day), and we who are in bed, or rather on the floor, are very often called out, either to go on the hospital train, or to carry in the wounded when it comes in. It took 40 hours to come up country, and a jolly time we had. At every station we stopped at the loyal people were waiting for us with bread, fruit etc. When we got to a place called Beaufort some lady gave all the fellows belonging to the S.J.A.B. a good hot dinner, and didn’t we just shift it! The country is just splendid, hills and dales etc. English scenery is not in it. De Aar is considered a big town, but it is not a quarter the size of Somercotes. It is surrounded with kopjes, and all along the top are British guns, so you may guess how safe it is. The Boers are about on the outside, and the outposts keep bringing in prisoners, and an uglier set of brutes you never saw. There are about 2,000 troops in the De Aar camp. I hope by the time you get this I shall be where the bullets are cheap. I really do want to see what war is like. I have been where we could see it at a distance you know (two miles), but that is not enough for me. I would like to get up to Kimberley, for there is an extra medal from Cecil Rhodes. We had a military funeral yesterday. It was Captain Mackenzie. He died with fever and I am told his wife is on her way out to nurse him. It will be rather hard when she hears, but it cannot be helped. We have a graveyard here, and the part that is used is much bigger than at home. We have a good show for food here. We get fresh meat every day. It is driven into camp in the morning and we eat it at one o’clock. Fancy me downing an ox! You would laugh if you were to see now. I don one of these big felt hats, and my face is tawny. I have never shaved since I left England. The inhabitants are alright here. I went out the other night, and got talking to a native. He asked me to go into the hut (they don’t call them homes). I went in and they gave me a hot supper, and as many peaches as I could carry. They grow here almost as common as hawthorn does there. I’ll make another start now. We have to write letters here by bits. We can get plenty of good old beer. It’s awfully hot here in the day, and quite opposite at night. We get sand storms nearly every day. They last two hours (or thereabouts) and it is thicker than any fog I have ever seen in England, but the rain season is coming on, so I suppose they will be a thing of the past."
For his service in the Boer War, Luther was awarded the Queens South Africa medal and the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade Bronze medal.
A copy from the Campaign & Award Rolls from the Boer War, listing Luther Tarlton (courtesy of the National Archives).
PHOTO: The medals that would have been awarded to Luther Tarlton.