Would we Churchmen had more enthusiasm and courage in our teaching and our methods! This was the quality that enabled the infant church to emerge from its obscure dwelling in a Syrian town and spread all the world over. It is this warmth of conviction which lent fortitude to the martyrs of old time, and at this moment breathes valour into our brave enemies. But where is such vital enthusiasm to be found in the Church of England? In one of our cathedrals we read the epitaph of a certain ecclesiastic: "He was noticeable for many virtues, and sternly repressed all forms of religious enthusiasm". History repeats itself, and for manly outspeaking on great questions of social and political importance the laity are learning to look elsewhere than to the pulpit. Oh! for one day in our National Church of Paul and Athanasius and Luther, men who spoke what they felt, unchecked by thoughts about promotion and popularity and respectability. Enthusiastic independence is as unpopular in religion as it is in politics; and the fight against prejudice and unfairness is often exceeding bitter to the man who dares to run his tilt against the opinion of the many. The struggle sometimes robs life of much that renders it sweet; nevertheless it may help to make history and will bring a man peace at the last, for he will have done what he could to leave the world a little better than he found it. These good mission-folk looked after our physical as well as our spiritual necessities. They had annexed a small house and garden just opposite their tent, and here we could buy an excellent cup of tea or lemonade for one penny, as well as a variety of delectable buns, much in request. So pressing was the demand for these light and cheap refreshments that the supply of cups and glasses gave out, and the lemonade was usually served out in old salmon or jam tins. Very often, after a couple of hymns and, perhaps, a prayer, we went across and finished up the evening with a couple of buns and a cup of tea. One of my ambulance comrades, an ex-baker from Johannesburg, was extremely good in helping on the success of the refreshment bar, and frequently stood for hours together at the receipt of custom. The returns were very large. One day, I remember, they amounted to £22 in pennies: this would mean, I think, on a low estimate, that something like 1,500 soldiers used the temperance canteen on that evening. Apart from this enterprising work, private gifts in the way of fruit occasionally arrived on the scene, and I well remember one day when almost every "Tommy" one met carried a pine apple in his hands. In addition to such pleasures of realised satisfaction we enjoyed the pleasures of anticipation; for was not her Gracious Majesty's chocolate en route for South Africa? The amount of interest exhibited in the arrival of these chocolate boxes was amazing. Men continually discussed them, and a stranger would have thought that chocolate was some essential factor in a soldier's life, from which we had, by the exigencies of camp life, been long deprived! As a matter of fact, portable forms of cocoa are extremely valuable in cases where normal supplies of food are cut off. Every soldier on a campaign carries in his haversack a small tin labelled "emergency rations". This cannot be opened unless by order from a commanding officer and any infraction of the rule is severely punished. At one end of the oblong tin are "beef rations," at the other "chocolate rations," enough to sustain a man amid hard and exhausting work for thirty-six hours. The chocolate rations consist of three cubes and can be eaten in the dry state; once, however, I came across a spare emergency tin, and found that with boiling water a single cube made enough liquid chocolate for ten men, a cup each. People make a great fuss in England if they don't get three or four meals a day, but a healthy man can easily fight with much less nourishment than this. I have seen Turkish troops during the Cretan insurrection live on practically nothing else than a few beans and a little bread, and on this meagre and precarious diet they fought like heroes. In the Sudan a few bunches of raisins will keep one going all day. At the same time, these things are to some extent relative to the individual. I have known huge athletic men curl up in no time because they couldn't get three meals a day on a campaign, whereas others, of half their build and muscle, may bear privations infinitely better. It is annoying to find here and there in the newspapers querulous letters from men at the front complaining that plum puddings and sweetmeats haven't reached them, and that their Christmas fare was only a bit of bully beef and a pint of beer. These men don't represent the rank and file of the army a bit. The English soldier is better fed and clothed and looked after than any other fighting man in the world, except possibly the American, and the manly soldier is not in the habit of whining after the fashion of these letters because he doesn't get quite as good a dinner on the veldt as he does in the depôt at home.
The military authorities at De Aar exercised the utmost stringency in refusing permission to unauthorised civilians to stay in the camp or pass through it. These regulations were absolutely necessary. The country round De Aar was full of Dutchmen, who were, with scarcely an exception, thoroughly in sympathy with the enemy, and throughout the campaign, at Modder River, Stormberg, the Tugela, and even inside Ladysmith and Mafeking spies have been repeatedly captured and shot. Some of the attempts by civilians to get through De Aar without adequate authorisation were quite amusing. I remember a particularly nice Swedish officer arriving one night, equipped after the most approved fashion of military accoutrements—Stohwasser leggings, spurs, gloves, etc., but his papers were not sufficient for his purpose, and charm he never so wisely, the camp commandant politely but firmly compelled him to return to Richmond Road, which lay just outside the pale of military law. Another gentleman, well known in England, failed in his first effort to penetrate the camp on his way northwards, but succeeded finally in reaching De Aar by going up as an officer's servant!
The run from De Aar to Belmont is about 100 miles. The ambulance train arrived there on the evening of the battle, and the staff on board found plenty of work ready for them. The wounded men were all placed together in a large goods' shed at the station. They lay as they were taken from the field by the stretcher-bearers. Lint and bandages had been applied, but, of course, uniforms, bodies and even the floor were saturated with blood. Such spectacles are not pleasing, but nobody ever thinks about the unaesthetic side of the picture when busily engaged in helping the wounded. "The gentleman in khaki," poor fellow, has often precious little khaki left on him by the time he reaches the base hospital. When the femoral artery is shot through one does not waste time by thinking of the integrity of a pair of trousers—a few rips of the knife and away goes a yard or two of khaki. If the cases had not been so sad we should often have laughed at the extraordinary appearance of some of the men. One soldier, for example, was brought into our train with absolutely nothing on him except one sleeve, which he seemed to treasure for the sake of comparative respectability! Wounded men frequently lose so much blood before they are found that their clothes become quite stiff, and the best thing to do is to cut the whole uniform off them and wrap them in blankets.
Perhaps it is worth while writing a few words about the general method pursued in the collection and treatment of our wounded men. In a frontal attack upon a position held in force by the enemy, our men advance in "quarter column," or other close formation, till they get within range of the enemy's fire. They then "extend," i.e., every man takes up his position a few paces away from his neighbour, and in all probability lies or stoops down behind whatever he can find, at the same time keeping up an incessant riflefire on the enemy. Far behind him, and usually on his right or left, the artillerymen are hard at work sending shell after shell upon the trenches in front. Every now and then the infantrymen run or crawl forward fifty or sixty yards, and thus gradually forge ahead till within two hundred yards of the enemy, when with loud cheers and fixed bayonets they leap up and rush forward to finish off the fight with cold steel.
Even from this skeleton outline it is easy to see that the wounded in a battle like Belmont and Graspan are all over the place, though the motionless forms grow more numerous the nearer we get to the enemy's lines. Now, strictly speaking, stretcher-bearers ought not to move forward to the aid of the wounded during the battle. The proper period for this work is two hours after the cessation of hostilities. But in almost every engagement of the present campaign our stretcher-bearers with their officers have gallantly advanced during the progress of the fighting and attended to the wounded under fire. Such plucky conduct as this merits the warmest praise. In the non-combatant, who has none of the excitement bred of actual fighting to sustain him, it requires a high decree of courage to kneel or stoop when every one else is lying down, and in this exposed position first to find the tiny bullet puncture, and then bandage the wound satisfactorily. Many and many a life has been saved by this conduct on the part of our medical staff, for if an important artery is severed by a bullet or shell-splinter a man may easily bleed to death in ten minutes. I have myself on one occasion in Crete seen jets of blood escaping from the femoral artery of a Turkish soldier, without being able to render him any assistance. In short, it is believed that quite three-fifths of those who perish on a battle-field die from loss of blood. In some cases a soldier may, by digital pressure or by improvising a rough tourniquet, check the flow of blood from a wound, but the nervous prostration which accompanies a wound inflicted by a bullet travelling nearly 2,000 feet a second is so great, that most men seriously wounded are physically incapable of rendering such assistance to themselves, even if they understand the elementary amount of anatomy requisite for the treatment.
At the same time it is only fair to point out that stretcher-bearers who advance during an engagement and render this gallant assistance to the wounded do so entirely at their own risk and must take their chance of getting hit. Complaints have been from time to time made, by persons who did not know the circumstances, that our stretcher-bearers have been shot by the Boers. If this took place during an action no blame can fairly attach to the enemy, for in repelling an attack they cannot of course be expected to cease fire because stretcher-bearers show themselves in front. The hail of bullets comes whistling along—ispt, ispt, ispt—and everywhere little jets of sand are spurting up. Can we wonder if now and then a stretcher-bearer is struck down? To put the case frankly—he is doing a brave work, but he has no business to be where he is. It is easy to see why the usages of war do not permit the presence of ambulance men in the firing line. Quite apart from the serious losses incurred by so valuable a corps, advantage might be taken by an unscrupulous enemy to bring up ammunition under cover of the Red Cross.
It is no easy task in the dark or in a fading light to find the khaki-clad figures lying prone upon the brown sand. But when the wounded are discovered the ambulance man finds out as quickly as he can the position and nature of the wound, and a "first aid" bandage or a rough splint is applied. The sufferer is raised carefully upon a stretcher or carried off in an ambulance waggon to a "dressing-station" somewhere in the rear. If there are not enough stretchers, or the wound is merely a slight one, the disabled soldier is borne away on a seat made of the joined hands of two bearers. A second row of ambulance waggons is loaded from the dressing-station—each waggon holds nine—and goes lumbering off to the field hospital. Here the men are laid on the ground with perhaps a waterproof sheet under them and a blanket over them. The R.A.M.C. officers come round, select certain cases for operation, and see to the bandaging and dressing of the others. Finally one of the ambulance trains arrives, about 120 men are packed in it and it steams off rapidly to some base hospital at Orange River, De Aar, Wynberg or Rondebosch.
Any detailed account of Lord Methuen's battles lies outside the scope of this little volume, and the British public know already practically all that can be known about the general plan of such engagements as Belmont, Graspan and Modder River.
Belmont is an insignificant railway station lying in the middle of as dreary a bit of veldt as can well be imagined. A clump of low kopjes run almost parallel to the railway on the right, and to ascend these hills our men had to advance over an absolutely level plain devoid of any cover save an occasional big stone or an anthill (precarious rampart!) or the still feebler shelter of a bush two feet high. In their transverse march our men had to cross the railway, and lost considerably during the delay occasioned by cutting the wire fences on either side to clear a way for themselves and the guns.
The Boers did not apparently intend to make any serious stand against Lord Methuen's column at Belmont. The fight was little else than an "affair of outposts" on their side and it seems very doubtful if more than 800 of the enemy had been left for the defence of the position. Their horses were all ready, as usual, behind the kopjes, and when our gallant men jumped up with a cheer and for the last 100 yards dashed up the rough stony slope in front, very few Boers remained. Most of them were already in the saddle, galloping off to Graspan, their next position. The unwounded Boers who did remain remained—nearly all of them—for good; rifle bullets and shrapnel and shell splinters are deadly enough, but deadliest of all is the bayonet thrust. So much tissue is severed by the broad blade of the Lee-Metford bayonet that the chances of recovery are often very slight. As volunteer recruits know sometimes to their cost, the mere mishandling of a bayonet at the end of a heavy rifle may, even amid the peaceful evolutions of squad drill, inflict a painful wound. When the weapon is used scientifically with the momentum of a heavy man behind it, its effects are terrible. Private St. John of the Grenadiers thrust at a Boer in front of him with such force that he drove not only the bayonet, but the muzzle of the rifle clean through the Dutchman. St. John was immediately afterwards shot through the head and lay dead on the top of the kopje, side by side with the man he had killed.
When our train, after its journey to Capetown, next returned to Belmont, few signs of the recent engagement were visible. The strands of wire fencing on either side the line were cut through here and there, and twisted back several yards where our fifteen-pounders had been galloped through to shell the retreating Boers. Now and again the eye was caught by little heaps of cartridge cases marking the spot where some soldier had lain down.
Less pleasant reminiscences were furnished by the decomposing bodies of several mules, and four or five vultures wheeling over the plain. Some enthusiasts on our train had on the previous journey cut off several hoofs from the dead mules as relics of the fight. Our under-cook had secured a more agreeable souvenir of Belmont in the shape of a small goat found wandering beside the railway. This animal now struts about a garden in Capetown with a collar suitably inscribed around its neck, and the proud owner has refused a £10 note for it. Before their abandonment of the position the enemy had hurriedly buried a few of their dead, but it is very difficult to dig amongst the stones and boulders, and the interment was so inadequate that hands and feet were protruding from the soil. In fact several of our men whose patrol-beat covered this ground told me it was terribly trying to walk among these rough and ready graves in the heat of the day.
Along the whole line from Belmont northwards and to some distance southwards the telegraph lines had been cut by the Boers. Not content with severing the wires here and there, they had cut down every post for miles along the railway. I wondered what the grinning Kaffirs thought of such a spectacle; here were the white men, the pioneers of enlightenment, engaged in cutting each other's throats and destroying the outward signs of their civilisation! Perhaps it is worth mentioning that native opinion in Cape Colony has, as far as can be judged from the native journal Imvo, been decidedly against us in the present war. This is a factor which must be reckoned with as regards the question whether or no blacks shall be armed and permitted to share in the fighting. Of course it seems at first sight perfectly fair to give the Zulus or Basutos the means of defending themselves from cattle-raiding Boers, but if you once arm a savage there is a very real danger of his getting out of control, and Zulus might make incursions into the Free State or Basutos into Cape Colony. From such things may we be preserved! There is an intensely strong feeling amongst colonial Englishmen as well as Dutchmen—much more intense than anything we feel at home—against the bringing of natives into a quarrel between white men.
The train soon traverses the distance between Belmont and Graspan. None can wish to linger on this journey, for the surrounding region is dreary and forbidding. The everlasting kopje crops up here and there, looking like—what in fact it is—a mere vast heap of boulders and stones from which the earth has been dislodged by the constant attrition of wind and rain. The hillocks in the Graspan district are by no means lofty—none of them seemed to get beyond a few hundred feet—but beyond Modder River the big kopje on the right which was seamed with Boer trenches must be, I should guess, well over six hundred feet from the plain. A large proportion of the kopjes in this part of the country have absolutely flat tops—why, I cannot imagine—and the whole appearance of the country suggests at once the former bed of an ocean. A propos of geology, I once in camp came across a sergeant who was surrounded by a little band of privates, deeply interested in his scientific remarks, which began as follows: "Now, some considerable time before the Flood, Table Mountain was at the bottom of the sea, for sea shells are found there at the present day, etc." It is quite a mistake to suppose that the soldier cares for none of these things. As a "Tommy" myself I had some unique opportunities of learning what they talked about and how they talked, and certainly the subjects discussed sometimes covered a very big field. I have heard a heated discussion as to the position of the port of Hamburg, and was finally called on to decide as arbitrator whether this was a Dutch or German town. Theological discussions were also by no means infrequent. One of my comrades insisted with a fervour almost amounting to ferocity upon the reality of "conversion," and was opposed by another whose tendencies were more Pelagian, and who went so far as to maintain that no one would employ the services of a "converted" man if he could secure one who was "unconverted". The amount of bad language evoked in the course of this theological argument was extraordinary. Such acrimonious discussions as these acted, however, as a mere foil to our general harmony, and a common practice on an evening when we had no wounded on our hands was to start a "sing-song". The general tone of these concerts was decidedly patriotic. "God save the Queen" and "Rule Britannia" were thrown in every now and then, but seldom, if ever, I am glad to say, that wearisome doggerel "The Absent-Minded Beggar". It is quite a mistake, by the way, to suppose that Mr. Kipling's poetry is widely appreciated by the rank and file of the army. From what I have noticed, the less intelligent soldiers know nothing at all about Mr. Kipling's verses, while the more intelligent of them heartily dislike the manner in which they are represented in his poems—as foul-mouthed, godless and utterly careless of their duties to wives and children. I remember a sergeant exclaiming: "Kipling's works, sir! why, we wouldn't have 'em in our depôt library at any price!" Of course it would be ridiculous to maintain that many soldiers do not use offensive language, but the habit is largely the outcome of their social surroundings in earlier life and is also very infectious; it requires quite an effort to refrain from swearing when other people about one are continually doing this, and when such behaviour is no longer viewed as a serious social offence. As to Mr. Atkins' absent-mindedness I shall have a word to say later on.
In addition to the National Anthem and "Rule Britannia," we had, of course, "Soldiers of the Queen," and a variety of other less known ballads which described the superhuman valour of our race, and deplored the folly of any opposition on the part of our enemies even if they outnumbered us by "ten to one". One of our cook's greatest hits was a song entitled "Underneath the Dear Old Flag". In order to furnish a touch of realism the singer had secured a small white flag which floated on the top of our train; but he never seemed to realise the incongruity of waving this peaceful emblem over his head as he thundered out his resolve "to conquer or to die".