Lord Roberts chose the spot, but it was two dynamic English women who ensured that Deelfontein Military Hospital became a reality. Those who have seen Deelfontein wonder why such a far-flung spot was chosen as a site for a major hospital. The Anglo-Boer War was at its height in January, 1900, when Sir Redvers Buller was recalled and Lord Roberts sent to South Africa to replace him as commander-in-chief of the British Forces. (Lord Roberts heard the news of his appointment and of the death of his only son, Freddy, who had been killed at Colenso, almost simultaneously.)
Roberts soon discovered that typhoid (enteric fever) was rife throughout the British Army and realised that a military hospital was urgently required. He chose Deelfontein as the ideal spot. Four major factors influenced his decision. Deelfontein was close to the war zone, which in February, 1900, was in the vicinity of De Aar. The climate in the area was a healthy one, there was plenty of sunshine for convalescing patients to enjoy and there was an excellent supply of fresh drinking water (it was the polluted water that caused the typhoid). Also, the adjacent railway station meant that supplies could be easily brought in and men too badly wounded or too ill to stay in South Africa could be sent to Cape Town by rail and shipped home. Lady Chesham and Lady Georgina Curzon (later Countess Howe), both distressed by the war immediately set about collecting funds for the hospital. They were horrified when they heard of a telegram sent by Sir Redvers Buller to the War Office. He called for 8 000 re-inforcements, but urged that the right kind of men should be sent. “They should be equipped as mounted infantry, be able to shoot as well as possible and ride decently.” George Wyndham, parliamentary under-secretary at the War office saw this as an excellent way of strengthening the Yeomanry, a service which had been considered a sham during the Crimean and Peninsular Wars. (The Yeomanry were volunteer mounted troops, mostly good riders and marksmen, who supplemented the armed forced in times of national emergency.)
Within a week of the arrival of Buller’s telegram the Press were calling for volunteers and the two women had leapt into action. Within a short time they had collected £174 000 – sufficient to equip and staff a hospital. Doctors, nurses and other medical specialists began arriving at Deelfontein on March 3, 1900. Water and electricity was laid on and the hospital opened on March 17, under the command of Colonel A T Sloggert, CMG, RAMC, a man with two years experience of running such a hospital. He found the location a fortunate choice. His staff consisted of Mr HD Fripp, senior surgeon, 19 other doctors, an ophthalmologist, a dentist, 10 surgical dressers, 40 nursing sisters, 10 ward maids, 76 St John’s Ambulance men and 110 orderlies.
Two days later the first ambulance train arrived carrying 101 men. By the end of the month there were 300 patients in prefabricated buildings and tents. Lady Chesham came to visit in May. By the end of the year 6 000 patients had been treated and by the time the hospital closed 134 graves scarred the veld.