Dear Brother, I send these few lines to you hoping to find you well as it leaves me at present, thank God for it ...How many times have I glibly written here "more about that another time" only to subsequently forget? But not this time. As I mentioned not so long ago, "I grew up in a house where old letters positively poured from bureaus and creaky desk drawers. Letters from beaus, from business partners, and from battlefields, notably, one from Isandlwana ...". This is the story of that letter.
Or rather of those letters, because the Isandlwana letter is the last of a bundle of letters. All begin with the words 'Dear Brother' and were written by Private John Hall, 1st Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot, to his brother, Henry Hall. The first is dated January 1877, the last January 1879, all were sent from South Africa to Westbury, Wiltshire, and if you know your history you know how this story ends.
Henry Hall, my great-great-grandfather. In his later years, too frail to live alone, he was taken in by his granddaughter, my maternal grandmother Eva*, and her family. He doted on 'the baby', my mother, who remembers the way his whiskers prickled when he kissed her, and that he smelt of pipe tobacco and peppermints. When he died he bequeathed his writing box to the little girl he had adored and the letters from his brother were discovered inside it.
John Hall, my great-great-great uncle, who took the Queen's shilling, went to be a soldier, and never came home.
Dear Brother ... It is the middle of summer here now and we do wear white linen clothes here and white helmets, it is so very hot ... we can get so many oranges and grapes and peaches and all kinds of fruit as you can carry away for a penny ... Dear brother, the regiment might be coming home this time next year ... they do think that they will embark November next if all things keep square ... tell Mother and Father that I am getting on very well ... and I do hope to see them again soon ... I still remain your ever loving and affectionate brother, 633 Pte John Hall. (Cape Town, January 1877)
As a biographer I often work with old letters. Really old letters, carefully preserved by conservators and archivists. Such letters, more than any transcript of a text or an email can ever be, are valuable historical artefacts. And so are the letters I'm copying from this evening, although these have not been so well cared for and are becoming difficult to decipher**. But think of the journey they have had, travelling over 11,000 miles to reach my great-great grandfather, and over 135 years to reach me. I never cease to be astounded by that.
John Hall, in company with the rest of his battalion, had landed at Cape Town in January 1875. By late 1877 they were stationed in King William's Town, fighting in the last of the 'Kaffir Wars', known today as the Xhosa Wars. One year on and they were in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, on the eve of the Anglo-Zulu War. And on January 22nd 1879, while encamped at Isandlwana, they were attacked by 20,000 Zulu warriors. Outnumbered 10 to 1 the British troops simply didn't stand a chance***, they were annihilated!
Dear Brother ... I have been away from the regiment on the war trail ... the Kaffirs broke out and we was sent to the front to help ... the mounted police and volunteers has had several engagements and we escorted their ammunition and food to them and it was horrible to see such a lot of blacks lying about the field dead. There was two brothers that belonged to the mounted police that was killed by the side of one another and one of them was a chum of mine ... the regiment do think about coming home as soon as it is all over and I have some assegais and spears that they use at war and I will try and bring them home to you ... we burnt about two thousand firearms today that we took away from the Kaffir's ... A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all, 633 Pte John Hall. (King William's Town "or elsewhere", November 1877)
Dear Brother ... I am very sorry I did not write to you before, I could not get any paper ... I expect we shall be coming home soon now and I shall be very glad of it ... I hope that your wife is getting on alright and your little son ... I have put up with a lot of hardships since I been out here travelling about the country ... there is no place like dear old England and I don't care how quick I come back again, ... I send my kindest love to all of you and I still remain your dear brother, 633 Pte John Hall. (King William's Town, September 1878)And from his last letter home, a hurried scrawl on a scrap of paper that somehow, incredibly, reached Henry ... long after John was dead.
We are to ransack through Zulu Land and scour the country though I hope that there won't be much fighting but I am afraid there will ... Love to you, Louisa and the little nephew, your dear brother, 633 Pte John Hall. (Pietermaritzburg, January 1879)
* If you follow the link you will find a photograph of Henry ... third down, on the right. ** My mother cannot bear to part with them so five years or so ago we delivered transcripts to the Regimental Museum in Brecon to ensure that at least the text survives. The originals will pass to the museum on my mother's death. *** More detail of the battle may be found here. The document is of particular interest as Private 633 John Hall was a member of E. Company 1/24 Regiment, under the command of Lieutenant Charles Cavaye. Hall, Jno. 633, appears here in the long list of those who died on that day. He was awarded The South Africa Medal posthumously.