J W Aldred Boer War diary

Scope and Content

Contents: John White Aldred kept a diary of his service as medic in the South African War from 26 April to 23 October 1900. This covers the period when British forces were conducting an offensive, apparently successfully, which culminated in the fall of Pretoria on 5 June 1900. However, this was followed by a renewed Boer insurgency using guerrilla tactics, which the British countered with a controversial 'scorched earth' policy until peace was finally agreed in May 1902.

As a civilian surgeon, Aldred was not involved in combat and he spent most of his time in South Africa working behind-the-lines in the town of Kroonstad, in the newly annexed Orange Free State. Kroonstad had been the temporary capital of the Free State from 13 March to 11 May 1900, following the fall of Bloemfontein. It was a strategically important settlement because of its location on the rail line from Cape Town to Johannesburg, which was critical to the British campaign to conquer Transvaal during May-June 1900. The railway was a single track, vulnerable to enemy attack, which proved unsuitable for moving the large quantities of supplies, including medicines, required by the British. Aldred had opportunity to witness the movements of British troops, and encountered their commanders including Kitchener, Lord Roberts' chief-of-staff, as they passed through the town. He also saw or heard accounts of Boer guerrilla activity, including sabotage, in the vicinity of the town (The British later built a concentration camp at Kroonstad).

The diary opens on 26 April with his account of embarkation on the Dominion Line steamer Englishman , at Royal Albert Dock, London. This is followed by a description of the voyage, passing through the Cape Verde Islands, until they landed at Cape Town on 23 May 1900. Very shortly afterwards, Aldred left by train passing through Bloemfontein on 30 May, where he observed "the place is full of enteric and dysentery", and arrived at Kroonstad on the 31st. At Kroonstad, Aldred was part of the 3rd General Hospital, based in a former Dutch Reformed Church building, The diary describes the difficulties of dealing with wounded and the sick, many of whom were suffering from the enteric fever which ultimately killed Aldred (this resulted in part from inadequate rations of fresh drinking water). Most sick were looked after in inadequate buildings or tents, and there was a lack of nursing staff.

Most of the diary describes Aldred's routines, along with his descriptions of occasional forays into the neighbouring countryside to sight-see and hunt. Aldred provides little detail of the medical care provided. He mentions various rumours of Boer counter-offensives, and the effects of British counter-insurgency measures: "Every evening the veldt is set on fire and lights up the country for miles around" (entry for 4th June 1900).

Aldred met several former Owens' men in South Africa, including Jack Stephens, C S Goldsmith, Hugh Llewellyn Jenkins, and he notes the unexpected death on June 24 of Professor Thomas Jones, professor of surgery at Owens College, who contracted typhoid while serving at the Welsh Hospital: "he was the kindliest of men and has been a very good friend to me." The last entry is for 23 October, written after a significant hiatus, when he describes events during September and October, including a brief trip to Cape Town escorting two lunatics who were to be sent back to Britain. The diary includes no information about Aldred's final illness.

Administrative / Biographical History

John White Aldred was born in 1876 at Little Hulton, Lancashire, the son of Bold and Isabel Aldred. The family later moved to Altrincham, Cheshire. Aldred was educated at Manchester Grammar School, before going to Owens College, Manchester to study medicine. After qualifying in 1899 he was a house surgeon at Barrow Infirmary until March 1900, when he volunteered for service in the South African War and was appointed as a civil surgeon. He arrived in South Africa in May 1900 and was posted to the 3rd General Hospital, Kroonstadt in the Orange Free State, which had just fallen to British forces. While serving here, Aldred contracted enteric fever and died on 1st January 1901. He is buried at Kroonstadt North Road cemetery.

Aldred was one of a handful of Owens College alumni to volunteer for service in the South African War. Most volunteers were civilian medics, much in demand due to the lack of military surgeons. One other notable Owens casualty of the War was Thomas Jones, professor of surgery at Owens College, who also died of enteric fever in June 1900, and whose death Aldred mentions in his diary.

Access Information

The manuscript is available for consultation by any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

The diary was donated to the Library by a descendant, Mr John Aldred, in July 2007.

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