At a dinner party in 1715, in the Duke of Ormond's residence at Richmond, the conversation happened to turn upon 'short prayers.' Among the distinguished guests was Dr. Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester, who listened with special interest. 'I, too,' said the Bishop, 'can tell you a short prayer I heard recently, which had been offered up by a common soldier just before the battle of Blenheim, a better one than any of you have yet quoted: "O God, if in this day of battle I forget Thee, do Thou not forget me."'
Years have gone by. On December 10, 1899, when so many of our brave men had to face death in South Africa, immediately before going into action at Modder River, the gallant officer commanding the 65th Howitzer Battery gathered his gunners around him, and offered up the very prayer of the poor Blenheim soldier: 'Almighty God, if this day we forget Thee, do Thou not forget us.'
[Footnote 2: This, as the reader will probably note, is but a variant of a still older story.]
Prayer before Battle.
So begins a tiny booklet issued by the South African General Mission. The picture it presents to us is one beautiful in the extreme. It reminds us of the Covenanters of long ago. We have heard a great deal of Boer prayer-meetings. Who is there to record for us the prayer-meetings held in the British camp? But this artillery officer and his short prayer will not be forgotten, and will remain as the most touching expression of a soldier's need and a soldier's hope.
And, surely, if such a prayer as this were needed at any time, it was before the battle of Magersfontein. All was so sudden, so unexpected! In a moment death was upon them! All unlooked-for that deadly hail of bullets! No time for confession of sin! No time even for a whispered prayer! A few brief moments, and the flower of the British army lay prone to rise no more!
It was the Highland Brigade that suffered most severely--the brigade of which every true Britisher is so justly proud. Who that has not seen these Highlanders march can have any idea of their perfect bearing and splendid condition? The faultless line, the measured rising and falling of the white gaiters, until you almost forget they are men who are marching there, and fancy it must be the rising and falling of the crank in some gigantic piece of machinery.
And the individual men. What splendid fellows they are! of what fine physique, of what firm character! It is an honour, surely, to command such men as these. And as General Wauchope marches at their head to his death, with stern, sad face and purpose fixed, what wonder that his heart is racked with pain, as he fears, not for himself, but for his men. A fine Christian was Andrew Wauchope. Quiet and reserved with regard to his religion, as most Scotchmen are, but, if we are to believe the reports that come to us on all hands, a man who lived near to God.
A Scotch Chaplain.
There was another notable man with the Highland Brigade that day; and, as there are few to tell the story of our chaplains, while there are many to tell the story of our soldiers, we make no apology for introducing to our readers in more than a few words one of the finest of our chaplains--the Rev. James Robertson, of the Church of Scotland.
By the courtesy of Dr. Theodore Marshall, we cull from St. Andrew the following particulars: 'Mr. Robertson is a native of Grantown, and, after finishing his university course at Edinburgh, was licensed by the Presbytery of Abernethy. He is a soldier's son, and very early in his ministry determined to devote his life to soldiers. His first military appointment was the acting-chaplaincy at Dover. In 1885 he was transferred to Cairo, and accompanied the Cameron Highlanders on the march to Abri, thence on the return journey to Wady Halfa. All the way through, the men were loud in his praises. He spared himself no toil, cheerfully shared the men's privations and dangers, and became to them almost more than a friend. The May Record tells how Robertson was specially reported by his Church for bringing in Lieutenant Cameron, who had been mortally wounded in the previous December; how, in the absence of a second doctor, he had volunteered to go out with a stretcher party under heavy fire, and look after the wounded; and, as Lieutenant Cameron had got hit while apart from the others, he had to be brought in at all risks. For his services he was mentioned in despatches, and received the medal and Khedival star.'
Shortly after the close of the Egyptian War, Mr. Robertson received his commission. He served for some time as junior chaplain in London, and then was removed to Dublin. From Dublin he went to Edinburgh, and remained there until he was ordered to South Africa, as a member of General Wauchope's staff and chaplain to the Highland Brigade. In South Africa he has greatly distinguished himself, and it goes for saying that 'Padre' Robertson, as he is affectionately called, is one of the most honoured and best-loved men in Her Majesty's army.
We will, however, allow the head of the military work in the Presbyterian Church (the Rev. Dr. Marshall) to tell himself of Mr. Robertson's work in South Africa. We quote from an article published by him in the Home and Foreign Mission Record:--
'Of the work of the Rev. J. Robertson in the field, it is unnecessary to write, as the newspaper correspondents have referred so often to his bravery and splendid services. One correspondent writes to me: "It is no exaggeration to say that the whole of Methuen's army, and especially the Highland Brigade, deem his bravery worthy of the V.C. Everywhere, in train or camp, officers' mess or soldiers' tent, Padre Robertson is proclaimed a hero." I was pleased to notice in the Record (the Church of England weekly), the other day, a letter from the Church of England chaplain who is with Lord Methuen. After describing the battle of Magersfontein, he refers to the Highland Brigade: "Being chiefly Highlanders, they were in Robertson's charge. He, good-hearted fellow, was risking his life in the trenches and under fire to find General Wauchope's body. Why he was not killed in his fearless efforts I cannot say." In one of the latest telegrams I see reference to him at the battle of Koodoosberg, whither he had accompanied General Macdonald and the Highland Brigade. "One interesting feature of the fighting was the activity of Chaplain Robertson. He acted in turns as a galloper, as a water-carrier, and as a stretcher-bearer. Wherever a ready hand was wanted, the chaplain was always to the fore, and won golden opinions from officers and men alike."
'You must not, however, suppose Mr. Robertson's exertions are altogether in the field or connected with matters which lie outside his duty as a minister of Christ. While employed by his general as a despatch rider and intermediary with the Boers, and in many other ways in which as "non-combatant" he could be useful to the army, and especially to his own Highlanders, he has given his chief thought and work to their spiritual concerns. We have all noticed his name in connection with the pathetic funeral of his much-loved chief, General Wauchope; but for days after each of the battles of Modder River and Magersfontein he was busy identifying and burying the dead. Being, as a Presbyterian minister, a persona grata to the Boers, he was allowed nearer to their lines than any one else, in the discharge of those sad duties, and conducted many funerals both of Boer and Briton. Speaking of his feelings in the field hospital and alongside the burying trench he says: "War seems devil's work. But all the same, war has its better side, and out of evil has come good. Hearts have been softened. We have frequent meetings of an evening. Hundreds attend. I've never been at heart so touched myself, nor so evangelical. I seem to hear repeated, 'Woe is me if I preach not the Gospel.' I thank God the Gospel at Modder is proving in not a few cases the power of God unto salvation."'
In another letter to a mutual friend, Mr. Robertson speaks of his services on the last Sunday of the year, and as showing how deep is the spiritual impression produced, he wished me to be informed that at the close of the short service he asked all who desired to partake of the Holy Communion to remain. To his joy some 250 officers and men came and took their places at the Lord's Table. To any one who knows how difficult it is to get soldiers to come to the Communion, that fact speaks volumes for the extent and depth of the religious movement among our men. They have had much to make them serious. The death of their beloved General Wauchope and of so many of their comrades must have greatly affected them. Mr. Robertson says, 'There is only one heart in the Highland Brigade, and it is sad and sore. But good is being brought out of evil.'
At the meeting of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, held this year, the Moderator said he wished to read the following letter from Scottish soldiers at the front, which had just been put into his hands:--
'WINBURG, May 7th, 1900.
'From the warrant officers, non-commissioned officers, and men of the Highland Brigade, to the Moderator of the General Assembly, Church of Scotland.
'Sir,--We, the undersigned, as representatives of the regiments now forming the Highland Brigade at present serving in South Africa under General Hector Macdonald, do hereby desire to express our appreciation of the untiring energy and praise-worthy zeal of Major J. Robertson, our chaplain, not only in camp, but also on the field. He is invariably among the first to succour our wounded, and many a Scottish mother's heart will be gladdened by the knowledge that her lad's last moments were brightened by our chaplain's kind administrations. At Magersfontein, Paardeberg, and other engagements, he was always to be found in the firing line, with a cheerful word or a kindly nod of encouragement, and on many occasions has acted as A.D.C. to our generals. Sir, soldiers are proverbially bad speakers, but we venture to request that this short note may be read aloud on the occasion of the meeting of the General Assembly at Edinburgh during May, 1900.'
The letter bore twenty-five signatures, including that of the sergeant-major and sergeants and corporals in the Black Watch, the Highland Light Infantry, the Seaforths, and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
[Footnote 3: St. Andrew.]
Mr. Lowry at Magersfontein.
Such was the man whom General Wauchope chose for his companion on that fateful day. Rumour says that the General had a presentiment that he would be killed, and certainly he asked Mr. Robertson to keep near him, perhaps longing for Christian society at the last. What really happened, perhaps we shall never know with any degree of certainty. All seems to have been confusion. Perhaps the best and most connected account that has come to us is from the pen of the Rev. E.P. Lowry, who was present during the battle. We quote from the Methodist Times:--
'Our second Sunday on the Modder River commenced so peacefully that we were actually able to carry out in detail the various arrangements for voluntary parade services in different parts of this wide camp. Just a little this side of the great railway bridge, that lies shattered by dynamite, is an excellent day-school building, which Messrs. Huskisson and Darroll, of the South African General Mission, succeeded in requisitioning for the purposes of a Soldiers' Home, and excellent work is being done in it, though necessarily on a small scale. Here, at seven o'clock in the morning, my first service was held and was gracious in its influence as well as cheering, by reason of the numbers present, including not a few whose faces had grown familiar to me in the homeland long, long ago. Amid the stir and strain of actual war we sang of a "day of rest and gladness"; and turned our thoughts to the Saviour who knows each man "by name." I then hurried back to the camp of the Guards' Brigade for a similar service in the open air at eight o'clock; but here a common type of confusion occurred. I had arranged to hold it in front of the Scots Guards' camp, but in one battalion it was announced that it would take place precisely where the Church of England service had just been held, and in another precisely where the Roman Catholic service had just been held. So before my service could begin, the shepherd had to seek his sheep and the sheep their shepherd. Finally, by several instalments, we got together, forming a circle, seated on the sand; and then we gave ourselves to prayer and praise, followed by a brief sacramental service of glad remembrance and renewed consecration. A camp mug and a camp plate placed on the bare sand for table betokened a ritual of more than primitive simplicity; but thus on the eve of battle did a band of godly soldiers give themselves afresh to God in Christ.
'A similar open-air service was fixed for the evening, but never came off. It may have been one of the sad necessities of war time, but was a fact, nevertheless, deeply to be deplored, that at four o'clock on Sunday afternoon our guns, which had been silent for a fortnight, again opened fire and shelled the Boers with lyddite. As I listened to the thunder and the thud of them I could not quite repress a wonder whether that was quite the best possible way of propitiating the God of battle. At eight o'clock, under cover of the darkness, we marched silently out of camp, confident and strong, and bivouacked till midnight just beyond the river. Nearly every other night since we came upon this ground had been brightened by starlight, but on this occasion rain had fallen during the day, and dense darkness covered us at night. So, with my mackintosh wrapped around me, I lay for hours among the troops on the damp ground awaiting the order to resume our midnight march. Soon after one o'clock we were again on the move; but our only light was the tell-tale searchlight from Kimberley, and many a vivid flash of lightning, which only served to make the darkness visible. It was not long, therefore, before the whole brigade hopelessly lost its way, and had to halt by the hour, while the persistent rain drenched almost every man, standing grimly silent, to the skin.
'Precisely at earliest dawn the splendid Highland Brigade appears to have stumbled into a horrible snare, and in such close formation as to render them absolutely helpless against their foes. Instantly their general fell, mortally wounded; for a moment the whole Brigade seemed in a double sense to have lost its head, and, in spite of the fierce and terribly effective fire of our artillery, there followed, not indeed an actual defeat, but none the less a grave disaster, involving further delay in the relief of Kimberley and the loss of over 700 brave men killed and wounded.
War's Terrible Harvest.
'The incoming of the wounded to the hospital camp was the most pitiful sight my life has thus far brought me; but I scarce know which to admire most--the patient endurance of the sufferers or the skilled devotion of the army doctors, whose outspoken hatred of war was still more intensified by the gruesome tasks assigned them.
'That night I slept on the floor of a captured Boer ambulance van, fitted up as a physic shop with shelves fitted with bottles mostly labelled poison. It was for me, even thus sheltered, a bitterly cold night, much more for the scores of wounded who lay all night upon the field of battle. Early next morning I buried two, the first-fruits of a large harvest, and later on learned that among the killed was the Marquis of Winchester, who a fortnight ago invited me to conduct the funeral of his friend, Colonel Stopford. To-day I visited the two graves side by side in the same war-wasted garden, and thought of the tearful Christmas awaiting thousands in the mountains.'
Mr. Robertson at Magersfontein.
Add to this pathetic statement the following letter from the Rev. James Robertson, read by Principal Story to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland on May 25, 1900. The letter was dated Bloemfontein, April 12:--
'I have already buried over 400 men, killed in action or who died of wounds or disease; and our hospitals are full of enteric cases, day by day swelling the total. It goes without saying that--at Magersfontein especially, all alone, no one being allowed with me--it was terribly trying work collecting, identifying, and burying our dead, so many of whom were my own personal friends; but I experienced more than I ever did before how the hour of one's conscious weakness may become the hour of one's greatest strength. Of General Wauchope I won't write further than to say that I was beside him when he fell. I think he wished me to keep near him, but I got knocked down, and in the dark and wild confusion I was borne away, and did not see him again in life, though I spared no effort to find him, in the hope that he might be only wounded. As one of the correspondents wrote of him, he was a man of God, and a man among men--a fitting epithet. Not to mention other warm friends, in my own mess (General Wauchope's) there were seven of us on December 18; when next we sat down there were only two. We were a sad, a very sad, brigade, for though we tried to hide it, we took our losses to heart sorely; for "men of steel are men who feel." But out of evil came good. The depth of latent religious feeling that was evoked in officers and men was a revelation to me; and were it not that confessions, and acknowledgments, and vows were too sacred for repetition, I could tell a tale that would gladden your hearts--not that I put too much stress on what's said or done at such an impressionable solemnising time, but after-proof of sincerity has not been wanting.'
[Footnote 4: Scotsman, May 26, 1900.]
'Prepare to meet your God!'
A few more words may serve to complete the picture.
When all at once the Highland Brigade stumbled upon the Boer trenches, and speedily all the officers of his company was struck down, Colour-Sergeant McMillan (we believe a member of the Salvation Army) found himself in charge, and, waving his arm, shouted to his men, 'Men of A Company, prepare to meet your God! Forward! Charge!' The next moment a bullet went through his brain, and he fell dead. But surely that was not the time to prepare for such a dread meeting. Thank God that he was ready. We have heard him singing for Jesus in the old camp at home, and now he is singing in heaven.
A Christian Hero.
Many hours passed ere the wounded could be relieved. They lay under the fierce rays of the African sun, suffering agonies from thirst, and no succour could reach them. At last there were those who ventured to their help. But the wounded were many, and the helpers were few. The water-bottles were soon exhausted, but there was one soldier who had a few drops left. He saw two lads lying side by side in the agonies of death. He went to the first and offered him the water still remaining in his bottle. The dying man was parched with thirst, and he looked at the water with a strange, sad longing, and then feebly shook his head. 'Nay,' he said, 'give it to the other lad. I have the water of life,' and he turned round to die. That was Christian heroism!
But we will not linger longer over this tragic and pathetic tale. Suffice it, all was done for the wounded that could possibly be done; and that Christian ministers committed reverently to the earth 'until the morning' those who fell so bravely and so suddenly at Magersfontein.
Mr. Robertson shall close the chapter for us, in words as eloquent and as pathetic as any we have read for many years, and with his sad requiem we will let the curtain drop on the tragedy of Magersfontein.
The Scottish Dead at Magersfontein.
'Our dead, our dear Scottish dead! How the corpse-strewn fields of the Modder, Magersfontein, Koodoosberg, and Paardeberg sorrowfully pass before me! Let me picture the scene, sad, yet not without its solace to those whose near and dear ones lie buried there, otherwise I would not paint it or reproduce my comments thereon, even by request. 'Tis only a miniature, with a few details, that I attempt to draw. One field--nay, one corner of the field--is descriptive of the rest, so I lift but a little of the dark-fringed curtain.
'Reverently, tenderly, lovingly handle them, and carefully identify them, for their own brave sakes, and that of the bereaved ones far away. There, you will find the identity card in the side-pocket. No, it's missing. Well, then, what's this? A letter; but the envelope's gone. Let me see the signature at the end. Ah, just as I thought, "Your loving mother!" God help her, poor body! Ah, boys, don't forget the dear mother in the old home. She never forgets you, but morning, noon, and night thinks and prays for her soldier-son. Mindfulness of her brings God's blessing; forgetfulness bitter remorse, when too late--after she's gone. There's something more in the breast-pocket. His parchment probably. No; something better still--a small copy of St. John's Gospel, with his name thereon. Let us hope that its presence there, when every extra ounce carried was a weighty consideration, is more than suggestive of thoughts of higher things. Pass on. No identity card on this body either, but another letter--a sweetheart's one. Oh, the poetry and pathos, the comedy and tragedy of love's young dream! Please see this burnt, sergeant; I don't wish others to read what was meant for his eye alone. Poor lassie! She'll feel it for a while; but Time is the great healer, and the young heart has wonderfully recuperative powers. There are only two kinds of love, men, that last till death and after--your mother's love and your God's--and both are yours, yearning for a return.
'Oh, here's a sad group--seven, eight, nine, close together. Who's that in front? An officer. I thought as much. Noblesse oblige. Yes, I know him. Are we to bring him with the others? did you ask. Certainly. What more appropriate resting-place than with the men he so nobly led, and who so gallantly followed him--all alike faithful to the death, giving their life for Queen and country! Pass on. Here are three, one close after the other, as they moved from the cover of this small donga. I saw them fall, vieing with one another for a foremost place, for here "honour travelled in a strait so narrow that only one could go abreast." All three mere boys, but with the hearts of heroes. A book, did you say, in every one of their pockets? Prayers for Soldiers--well marked, too. My friend was right, dear mothers. There is some comfort in the sadness--a gleam of sunshine showing through the gloom.
'Ah, how thick they lie! What a deadly hail of Mausers must have come from that rock-ribbed clump on the kopje. Three--and--twenty officers and men, promiscuously blent; and fully more on that little rise over there, as they showed in sight. God help their wives and mothers, and strengthen me for this sacred duty! Nay, men, don't turn away to hide the rising sob and tear. I'm past that. I've got a new ordination in blood and tears. It's nothing to be ashamed of--so far the opposite, it does you honour, for "men of finest steel are men who keenest feel." Look at this man with the field-dressing in his hand, shot while necessarily exposing himself, trying to do what he could for a wounded comrade. Noble, self-sacrificing fellow! Such deeds illumine the dark page of war. Of a truth, some noble qualities grow under war's red rain. Methinks I hear the Master's voice, "Well done, good and faithful servant, inasmuch as ye did it to the least of these, ye did it unto Me." Yes! Get these two groups together; we'll make a trench midway. More Gospels and prayer-books, and friendly words for soldiers, and Christian mottoes! I thank God for that. The sight of them cheers me. Perhaps it should not, but it does. They knew, at least, of the Father's forgiving love, and in their better moments must have thought thereof, otherwise these books would not be there at such a time; and though it does not do to presume too much thereon, who can set a limit to God's mercy? Who can say what passed in those closing moments, while the life-blood was ebbing away? Often in the field I think of Scott's dying soldier--
"Between the saddle and the ground, He mercy sought and mercy found."
Oh, here's an officer I've been expecting to find. I knew he was missing, for I especially asked. He had a presentiment amounting to a preintimation of his coming end. In vain I argued with him. He calmly gave me his last messages. I've known several such. "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy." Thank God, when he said "the hour of my departure's come," he was able to add, "I hear the voice that calls me home" and "is the traveller sad," he asked, "when his face is turned homeward?"
'Who's that you've got next? Oh, I know him well. We rejoiced together. Come here, all of you, and look on his face. I'm not to preach, boys--we have other work to do--but I wish you to lay his case to heart. Some of you know him. You know the stand he took at one of our meetings at the Modder River station, and what proof he afterwards gave of the sincerity of his profession. Look at his face. What a sweet, peaceful expression--what a contrast to his surroundings! Death swift and sudden, in the horrid din of battle stript of all its terrors. As earth's light faded he must have got a glimpse of the glory beyond, for it's reflected in his face. That's what Christ can do, and came to do, for a man.
'Sergeant, get some of the handiest of the men to break up these empty ammunition-boxes and construct a rude cross for the trench. It's the most appropriate "memorial." It signifies self-sacrifice, and did they not, "obedient unto death," give their lives for others; it indicates the cheering hope in which we lay them to rest. By-and-by, we will erect something more permanent, and place a fence around, for 'tis holy ground, consecrated by tearful prayer and by the very fact that the remains of brave men mingle there. Scotland to-day is poorer in men, but richer in heroes?
"Saviour, in Thy gracious keeping, Leave we now our loved ones sleeping."'
[Footnote 5: St. Andrew, June 7, 1900.]