It will be a relief to turn from this sad record and give a sketch of Thomas Atkins upon the veldt as he appears to Christian workers. Nowhere else have we been able to see him apart from the fierce temptations which particularly assail him. Untrained, except in so far as military discipline is concerned, he is a child of nature, and nature not always of the best.
But the South African veldt has witnessed the remarkable spectacle of a sober army. No intoxicating drink was to be got, and the cup that cheers but not inebriates has been Tommy's only stimulant.
A further fact must be borne in mind. War has a sobering effect even among the most reckless. A man is face to face with eternal things, and though after a little while the influence of this to some extent passes off, and either an unhealthy excitement or an equally unhealthy callousness takes its place, it never wholly goes, and any serious battle suffices to bring the man to his senses again.
The Soldier's Temptations.
The consequence of these things has been that we have seen the soldier at his best in South Africa--and that best has often been of a very high order. It is no kindness to him to make light of his vices, and they have been sufficiently pronounced even there.
We are afraid, to begin with, that we must confess to an army of swearers. It seems natural to the soldier to swear. He intersperses his conversation with words and phrases altogether unmeaning and anything but elegant. It is his habit so to do, and even the Christian soldier who has belonged to this swearing set often finds it a great difficulty to break away from his old habits.
'Old Praise the Lord.'
An amusing and pathetic instance of this comes to our mind. A soldier who worked at the forge was soundly converted to God, and as usual had to go through the ordinary course of persecution. It was astonishing how many pieces of iron fell upon his feet, and how often a rod was thrust into his back! At such occurrences prior to his conversion he would have sworn dreadfully, and he had to guard himself with the greatest care lest some ungodly word should escape his lips. And so when any extra cruelty in the shape of a red-hot piece of iron came too near, or a heavy weight was dropped upon his toes, he used to cry, 'Praise the Lord.' 'Old Praise the Lord' they called him, and truly he often had sufficient reason for some such exclamation. He came to the Soldiers' Fellowship Meeting one night, and told how he had been tested to the limit. He had taken his money out of the Savings Bank, and locked it in his box; but the box had been broken open, and the money taken away. He stood and looked at it, hands clenched, teeth set. For a moment the fire of anger flashed in his eyes, and words that belonged only to the long ago sprang to his lips. A year's savings had gone. The promised trip to the old home could not be taken. And a vision of the old mother waiting for her boy, and waiting in vain, brought a big lump in his throat which it was difficult to choke down. The lads stood and looked at him. What would he do? And then that strange fire died out of his eyes, and his hands relaxed their grasp, and with the light of love shining out from his face he said, 'Praise the Lord,' and came into the meeting to tell how God was flooding his soul with His love.
But the number of such as he in comparison with those who still pollute the air with their oaths is small indeed, and we have sorrowfully to admit that ours has been a swearing army upon the veldt.
Gambling, too, has been very rife, and if there was a penny to spin Tommy would spin it. This, of course, is not by any means true of all regiments, and as one of French's cavalry naively put it, 'You see, sir, we had not even time to gamble!'
There are some brutes even among our British soldiers, and sad stories reach us of men who have robbed the sick in hospital, and stripped the dead upon the battlefield. But swearing and gambling apart, and these horrible exceptions left out of the reckoning, what noble fellows our soldiers have proved themselves!
The Patience of our Soldiers.
Their patience has been wonderful. We have all heard of the patient ox, and away there on the veldt he has patiently toiled at his yoke until he has laid down and died. But the patience of the private soldier has exceeded the patience of the ox. He has undergone some of the severest marches in history. He has endured privations such as we can hardly imagine. He has lain wounded upon the veldt sometimes for three or, at any rate in one case, for four days. He has in his wounded state borne the terrible jolting of the ox-waggon day after day. If you talk to him about it, he will not complain of any one, but will make light of all his dreadful sufferings and merely remark that you cannot expect to be comfortable in time of war!
And how much he has endured! The difficulties of transport have made it impossible for him to receive more than half rations, and sometimes not more than a quarter rations for days together. On the march to Kimberley, for instance, General French's troops for four days had nothing to eat but what they could pick upon the hungry veldt. Stealing has been abolished in South Africa--it is all commandeering now!
'Where did you get that chicken, my lad?' asks the officer in angry tones.
'Commandeered it, sir,' says Tommy, and the officer is appeased.
And there was plenty of commandeering done during that dreadful march, or the men would have died of starvation. A strange spectacle he must have presented as he rode along. His kettle slung across his saddle, a bundle of sticks somewhere else, a packet of Quaker oats fastened to his belt, and a tin of golden syrup dangling from it. These he had provided for himself from the last dry canteen he had visited, and often even these could not be obtained.
What stories are told us of sticks and Quaker oats! They say that when the troops started with Sir Redvers Buller from Colenso each man had his bundle of sticks and a packet of Quaker oats fastened somewhere upon him. His canteen was as black as coal, but that did not matter. And if he had his sticks and his Quaker oats, and could manage to get a little 'water' that was not more than usually khaki-coloured, he was a happy man. So as he marched along he was always on the look-out for sticks and water. The two together furnished him with all things necessary: the sticks soon made the water boil, and the Quaker oats made--tea!
The Men in Khaki.
As regards dress he was a picture! He started khaki-clad, and no one could tell one regiment from another, but he was only allowed to take the suit he wore to the front, and before long, what with marching and sandstorms and fighting, that suit became unrecognisable as a suit. Bit by bit it went. Tailors of the most amateur description plied their needles and thread upon it in vain. It went! and Tommy's distress occasionally knew no bounds. We hear of one man who at last marched into Ladysmith with two coat sleeves but no coat; of another with not a bit of khaki about him, but garments of one sort and another 'commandeered' as he went along. One of the facts that impressed them most as they marched into Ladysmith was that the garrison were clean and neatly dressed in khaki, but that they--bearded, dirty, ragged--looked rather the rescued than the rescuers!
Mr. Lowry tells how when at last he determined to have his khaki suit washed, and retired to his tent to wait the arrival of his clothes from the amateur laundry on the banks of the Modder, it seemed as though they would never come, and he was fearful lest the order to advance should arrive before his one suit returned from the wash!
But through it all our men kept cheerful. One Christian man who had earned among his comrades the nickname of 'Smiler,' and who was wounded, signs himself, 'Still smiling, with a hole in my back.' And this was typical of all. During that dreadful march to overtake Cronje, the officers of the Guards had as their mess-table on one occasion a rectangular ditch about eighteen inches wide and as many deep. It was dug so as to enclose an oblong piece of ground about sixteen feet by eight, which, flattened as much as possible, served as table. At this earth table, with their feet in the muddy ditch, sat several representatives of England's nobility, but as our soldier lad said, 'Still smiling.' When the rain came down and deluged both officers and men, and sleep was impossible, tentless on the veldt and seated in the mud, the men hour after hour sang defiance to the storm.
How kind they were to one another! How brave to save a fallen comrade or officer! One of our chaplains relates that in the advance to Ladysmith an officer was struck down and could not be moved. When the regiment retired, and his men knew their officer would have to stay there during the night, four of them elected to remain, and one of them lay at his head, another at his feet, and one on each side to shield him from the Boer bullets which were flying around.
But we must not be tempted into stories such as these. They abound, and if the Victoria Cross could be given wherever it was deserved, the sight of it upon the breast would be common indeed!
Their Dread of the 'Pom-pom.'
Of one thing, however, our men were afraid--the dreaded 'pom-pom' of the Boers. Some two hundred one-pound shells a minute these Vickers-Maxim guns are supposed to fire. But as a matter of fact we are told the number rarely reached a score. Still the dull pom-pom-pom of the gun, with the knowledge that shell after shell was coming, always made Tommy shake; and when he got to the camp fire at night, one man would say to another, 'I cannot get used to it. It frightens me nearly out of my life.'
The Christian under Fire.
We have asked many of our Christian soldiers how they felt when they went into fire. All sorts of answers have been given. Most have confessed to a nervous tremor at first. Said a lance-corporal of the 12th Lancers: 'The worst time I ever had was when we were relieving Kimberley. There were Boers in front of us and Boers on our flank. We rode through a perfect hail of bullets. At first I wondered if I should get through it, and then I became utterly oblivious of shells and bullets. I rode steadily on, and the only thing that concerned me as we rode right for the Boer position was to keep my horse out of the ruts.'
Perhaps this is the general experience. No thought of turning back, no particular fear, no great exultation, simply a keeping straight on. No wonder from before such a wall of determination the Boers fled for their lives.
The soldier's great complaint is that he has been kept ill-informed of the progress of events. He has simply been a pawn on the chess-board, or a cog in the great wheel. And he laments that often at the end of a long day's march or fighting he lies down to rest in his wet ragged clothes, not knowing where he is or whether he has accomplished little or much.
This is inevitable, of course, and the officers themselves were, in many cases, but little better informed. But one and all have implicit faith in their generals, and those who added to that faith implicit trust in God could after the most trying days lie down and rest in perfect peace. Even at his worst the British soldier is capable of better things, and out there upon the veldt he has many a time thought of God, and wondered what possibilities for good there were within him. Going to the front has made a new man of Tommy. It remains to be seen whether in the easier times of peace the old man will come back.