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The Imperial Yeomanry Hospital... A place ahead of its time...

Updated: Jul 8, 2021


Imperial Yeomanry Hospital

Deelfontein is a long-forgotten place somewhere in the dusty Karoo, but for those that are willing to venture off the beaten path, it holds a story of the past that needs to be told. I first heard about Deelfontein from a local antique dealer in Richmond while I was scouting routes for our Karoo is Calling off-road tours. "You must go and see the hospital. You must include it on your tour. No one ever goes there. It's only 60kms away", he said. Intrigued at the thought of getting to travel along some more Karoo gravel roads, I hastily punched Deelfontein into the GPS and headed out...

There is no coffee shop or local dealer in Deelfontein as you would expect of your typical small Karoo town. No roosterkoek or lamb chops either. In fact, there is nothing in Deelfontein except for some broken-down old buildings and a railway signboard next to the tracks. However, if you take some time to explore and do a little research you will find that this abandoned place was once home to one of the most incredible hospitals in the world...

In the latter part of the 1800s, as war raged across South Africa, an amazing story unfolded on the plains of the Great Karoo. The Anglo-Boer war was a conflict that captured the attention of the world. It was during this time that a unique hospital sprung up from the dust of this so-called wasteland right alongside a tiny railway station. Nothing like it had ever been seen before, and nothing similar has ever been seen again...

The establishment of this hospital made medical history. The exclusive hospital that occupied this spot was the largest surgical and convalescent facility ever used by the British army. It was also the most expensive.

The war in which it came to serve was considered a non-starter. Newspaper editors laughed when they heard that an insignificant, unsophisticated republic, "a bunch of farmers", had dared to issue an ultimatum to the worlds mightiest empire. This war would not last. But they were forced to eat their words. It lasted for three years, and it was the costliest war, in terms of both money and human life that Britain had ever fought.


Deelfontein soldier graves at Yeomanry Hospital

From the outset, the war did not go well for Britain. Boer commandos rode against the war-hardened soldiers of the Empire and bloodied the imperial nose. All too soon it became apparent that Britain’s common soldier would not do. Volunteers were needed...

Highly emotive posters were strung up all over Great Britain with the words "Your Country Needs You". Designed to stir up the emotion in British men to take up the "Sword of Justice" and fight for the Empire. Thousands enlisted and the ships sailed daily carrying troops to places they had never heard of to "teach those farmers a lesson"...

This turn of events prompted two British socialites to take action. Men of a different class, men who were a cut above the common soldier were now heading off to war. They would be wounded. They would need care. This prompted two high society women into action. They scrapped their social calendars, and with their friends got together to raise funds for a new private hospital designed to serve Britain's new fighting force- The Imperial Yeomanry...

Their imperious attitudes speedily cut through all the red tape and melted all opposition. Together with doctors, they set up a "medical city" in huts and tents at a never before heard of place in the Karoo, called Deelfontein...

The reality was that a war of a different kind raged at Deelfontein. A never-ending battle against disease was waged in the torrid conditions. Casualties of the war and injured men bombarded the hospital daily. Above all this the climate alone was challenging, and so was fatigue. At the hospital, each life saved was a triumph, and each life lost was a tragedy. The hospital was also the first in pioneering the use of x-ray diagnosis technology, and it was used to detect bullets in soldiers that had been shot on the battlefield. There were times when stress was great when home was too far away and the tentacles of war seemed to be reaching beyond the hospital gate...

Imperial Yeomanry Hospital Deelfontein

When I found the site of the hospital I didn’t quite feel like Hiram Bingham uncovering Machu Picchu in 1911, but I was overwhelmed with a sense of what had happened here all those years ago. I walked through the cemetery, where 130 graves with crosses neatly displaying rank and names of the soldiers that had died here, “For King and Empire”, cast onto each one. I wondered if their families even knew that they were buried here, I wondered what it must have been like to leave your comfortable life in Britain, your family, your wife, your children, to be shipped off to a God-forsaken place you had never heard of to fight a war you probably didn’t even know what was been fought for. Good men lost their lives here, I don’t think they knew what for…

The Imperial Yeomanry Hospital saga, like a fine piece of embroidery, is a fascinating tale of courage, bravery, adventure, discovery, medical breakthroughs, minor miracles, and merciful acts, spliced with a kaleidoscope

of pride, passion and undying love. It is a rich, colourful story, with a tweak at the end. The mix includes hints of the Nobel Prize, an unsolved murder and fairies…

The Imperial Yeomanry Hospital and Deelfontein

If you would like to hear the end of the story and learn more about the Imperial Yeomanry Hospital, and even visit it for yourself, join us on our September 2021 Karoo is Calling Off-Road Adventure.




“At first encounter, the Karoo may seem arid, desolate and unforgiving, but to those who know it, it is a land of secret beauty and infinite variety.” ― Eve Palmer


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Extracts in this blog have been taken from the book, 'Yeomen of the Karoo'.

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