Many of our wounded lay on the ground from early morning till seven or eight in the evening, exposed all day to the scorching rays of an almost tropical sun. Some of the men brought away in the ambulances were, in fact, suffering from sunstroke, in addition to their wounds, and, as was said above, the bare legs of the three kilted battalions were terribly burnt. The Boers were very kind to our wounded. They came out of the trenches and gave them water. They did not in any case shoot at our wounded men, but frequently shot at any one who came forward during the fight to bandage the wounded. The slightest movement, however, of the bonâ-fide combatants in our ranks drew a hail of bullets from the trenches. A Scotch sergeant, Gilham by name, a most kindly and courageous man, noticed that a comrade near him had been shot through the abdomen. He raised himself up from his recumbent position and began to bandage the wounded man. "Lie down you —— fool," said the friend; "can't you see you are drawing the fire?" As he spoke a bullet passed between Gilham's knees and struck the wounded man. Soon afterwards an officer called out for a stretcher, so Gilham jumped up and put on his best "hundred" pace in a slanting run towards the ambulance waggons. Several other wounded men leapt up and joined him. One of them was immediately shot through the shoulder, and the good sergeant again stopped and bandaged him. The Boers had been watching him, and as he recommenced his devious course they sent two bullets through a bush two feet in front of him. These small bushes formed very inadequate cover, and the enemy, taking for granted that men were lying concealed behind them, fired repeatedly into the shrubs. In one case no less than eight Highlanders were shot behind one bush.
I have made no attempt to give a detailed account of the day's fighting. If I did I should naturally speak of the excellent work done by the Guards on the right, where the Scandinavian contingent was almost annihilated, and, later on in the day, by the Gordons, who left their convoy work on the left and advanced gallantly towards the Boer position. No praise can be too high for our artillery. It was their excellent shooting that helped our men to rally after the first shock, and which ultimately succeeded in driving the Boers from their first line of trenches. These trenches were admirably constructed in long deep parallel lines connected at the ends so that a force could advance or withdraw from any point without being noticed by ourselves. Shell fire could do little against troops so splendidly entrenched. The Boers, like the Turks at Plevna, crept under their épaulements while the shells screamed overhead or swept the parapets with shrapnel bullets, and then, when this tyranny was overpast, crept out and poured in one of the most terrific fusilades of the century's warfare.
When we returned to Modder River with our carriages ready for a fresh load we found all our troops and guns back again in camp. The trenches, however, were manned, and every one on the alert. The armistice to bury the dead expired on the 13th, and a Boer commando had been sighted to the west. In a brief interval of leisure I took a short stroll, and I noticed how much more plentiful tobacco was now than a month ago when a Mauser rifle was offered for a sixpenny packet of cigarettes. One soldier told me that he had actually paid three shillings for a single cigarette.
We loaded up with 120 fresh cases and steamed off for Capetown. The armoured train was moving fitfully about as we left, but the poor thing's energies were rather cramped as the line disappeared about 300 yards north of the station.
Just before we crossed the river we saw the two war-balloons floating above the camp, and our cook informed us with a great show of expert knowledge that these balloons were absolutely proof against bullets or even shells, "for," said he, "if anything hits them it rebounds from them like my fist does from this 'ere pillow". A rather similar story was told me by a wounded Highlander. He declared that a pal of his had been struck in the stomach by a shell at the Modder River fight. "Oh," said I, "there wasn't much of your poor friend left, I suppose?" "He wasn't much hurt," was the reply, "though he did spit blood for a few hours." "Great Scot! what became of the shell?" "Oh," said my informant, "I didn't notice, but it must have bounced off Bill's stomach." The soldier quite believed that this marvellous incident had occurred. What had happened was probably this: a shell had passed so close to the man that the concussion of the air had "taken his wind" and ruptured some small blood-vessels. I remember at the capture of Malaxa in Crete that three insurgents were hurled to the ground by the air pressure of a Turkish shell which passed within a yard or two of their heads.
Several of our cases on this downward journey were interesting. Corporal Anderson of the Black Watch lay in our ward, struck deaf and dumb from the bursting of a Boer shell, though he was otherwise uninjured by the explosion. Wounds through the intestines were to be found here and there. Such injuries in the larger intestines, if left to themselves and not operated on, have—when inflicted by the humane Mauser bullet—a fairly good chance, and that is all that can be said. One man had been shot through the elbow as he lay at the "present". The bullet had shattered the bone, but there was every prospect of the arm being saved. How different would have been the probable effects, in such a case, of the big Martini bullet!
One incident which seemed to amuse the men very much was this. During the Modder River battle a bullet struck a corporal on the back; it glanced superficially across his shoulder and then piercing his canteen-tin remained inside. The corporal, imagining himself in extremis, fell to the ground and called for the ambulance. Somebody ran up to the prostrate man, and after a diligent but fruitless search for the wound at length discovered the bullet in the canteen-tin. The apparently moribund corporal, seeing this, instantly recovered, and leaping briskly to his feet told them to countermand the stretcher-bearers and pressed forward to the attack with renewed vigour.
Just as we left De Aar a train full of Queensland Mounted Infantry was entering the station en route for the front. The occupants were in the highest spirits and cheered loudly. "Ah!" said some of our poor fellows, "we were like that when we went up!" The contrast between the two trains—there, life and vigour: here, weakness and death—was very striking.
So far from being "absent-minded" about their people at home, the wounded soldiers were continually thinking about their sweethearts, wives and families. Several soldiers in my ward, e.g., had lined their helmets with ostrich feathers. "My eye," said they, "won't the missus look fine in these!" One of the reservists asked me: "Do you think I shall lose my thigh? You see, I want to do the best I can for my family, and if I do lose my leg I shall be useless, as I work in the pits in Fife." Another Scotchman, a shoemaker, was full of anxiety about the future support of his wife and children. "If only my wound," he said dejectedly, "had been below my knee instead of above it! Because this"—pointing to the wounded spot—"is just the place I use for my work."
Yes! to mix with the rank and file of an army as one of themselves is a great privilege. One understands them in this way far better than through the medium of books. Many little acts of unostentatious heroism are casually spoken of—noble deeds done by humble soldiers who live without a history and often perish without a memorial—as, for instance, the devotion of a private at Modder River who applied digital pressure to the severed artery of a comrade for hours under fire and so saved his life. Again, the soldier's religion, where it exists, is often very genuine indeed. Just after the Magersfontein reverse a wounded Highlander entreated me to find his rosary for him which was hidden under a pile of accoutrements. On another occasion we picked up on the floor of the train a piece of paper which proved to be the will of a poor private, a Roman Catholic, who left "all he possessed" to the Church. I need not say that this will was forwarded to the proper quarter. The wounded men too were frequently very grateful for any little services one could render them, and made us odd little presents by way of return. One H.L.I. man gave me the badges from his ruined khaki jacket, and an Argyll and Sutherland Highlander bestowed upon me a pair of goggles he had taken from the face of a dead Boer.
By the time we reached Richmond Road the usual influx of private offerings for the wounded had, as usual, begun. We always left the front with the ordinary comforts of an ambulance train; by the time we reached Capetown we looked like a sort of cross between a green-grocer's stall and a confectioner's shop. We simply didn't know what to do with the masses of fruit and flowers, puddings and jellies, which the people along the line forced upon us. These kindly folk—men, women and children—thrust their various offerings through the windows; then they peeped through themselves, and the women would say "poor dear" to some six-foot guardsman, who smiled his thanks or told them how he got hit. As I say, the train was, by the time we reached Wynberg, simply choked with luxuries—some of them quite unsuitable for wounded men—a veritable embarras de richesses. We used to begin the journey with moderation and end it with a species of debauch! But it was most kind and thoughtful of these colonists all the same.
By the time we reached Wynberg on 16th December it was quite dark. A row of ambulance waggons stood ready beyond the platform, and in front of them a line of St. John's Ambulance men, fresh from England, looking very spruce and neat. The wounded were speedily conveyed to the waggons and safely lodged in the hospital. On a former occasion one poor fellow died at the moment he was being lifted out of the train. My comrades and myself had had about six hours' sleep in three consecutive nights, and after we had remade the beds and swept the train we slept soundly. Next morning we were on duty till twelve, when we were allowed a few hours' leave. A warm bath and a lunch at the Royal Hotel with a good bottle of wine was very welcome, and we were all in excellent spirits when the whistle sounded and we steamed away once more to the north with 600 miles before us.
We halted again at De Aar, where we remained till Christmas. The weather grew hotter and hotter. The whirling dust, the stony plains, the glaring heat, the evening coolness, the glowing sunsets, the bare rocky hills, how it all recalled the Sudan! Train after train lumbered by with stores and guns and ammunition for the front, the whole of this enormous traffic being run on a single line of rails. Amongst the most troublesome items to deal with were the mules. Sometimes a mule would suddenly produce a violent uproar in a waggon by beginning to kick, his hoof against every mule and every mule's hoof against him. Even if these beasties were taken out of the waggon to be watered their behaviour was unseemly. A soldier would with infinite patience marshal the mules in line with himself, their halters all tied together. The march would then begin, but within half a dozen yards the mules in the centre would press forward till the whole thing looked like a Pyrrhic phalanx. The wearied soldier would then smite the aggressive animals, and, after a few more strides, the centre mules would hang back while the wings would close in, and then, as confusion became worse confounded, some of the restless brutes would commence to roll, and the group finally resembled a sort of mulish "scrum" with the soldier on his back as football.
There were, of course, various camp services on Christmas Day: most of my comrades on the train went to the little Episcopal Church in De Aar. The Church of England community in this out-of-the-way village numbers some fifty all told. Nevertheless these churchmen had contrived to build a pretty little church and their services were very hearty. Officers, men, and two Red Cross sisters formed the bulk of the congregation and we listened to a delightful sermonette written and delivered in excellent style by the good Vicar, an old Corpus man at Oxford. We sang the old familiar hymns, "While shepherds watched" and "Hark, the Herald Angels sing," which took our thoughts away to distant homes and services in England, 7,000 miles away. At the close of the service came that hymn of prayer, "O God of peace, give peace again;" and as we walked back to the train a sergeant said to me: "If there is a God who will listen to prayer, my prayer for peace went straight to Him". I think he spoke for all of us. Most people who love war for war's sake are not soldiers.
Our Christmas dinner was a most gorgeous affair. We were determined to do everything in the best possible style, and everybody helped. We first rigged up a trestle table beside the train and stretched a tarpaulin above it to shelter us from the fierce heat. Three of our number were then despatched to secure all the green stuff they could for decorative purposes, and as the good people of De Aar were quite ready to give us some of their scanty flowers and allow us to dismember their shrubs, our envoys returned with armfuls of material. The outside of the train and the surface of the table were gaily decorated, and two photographs of her Majesty which we had cut out of magazines were framed in leaves and flowers and bits of coloured paper, the very best we could do! We had secured an order for some beer and a couple of bottles of whisky, and when these adjuncts had been duly fetched from the canteen we sat down to our Christmas dinner. Towards the end of it our kind and deservedly popular C.O. Captain Fleming, R.A.M.C., paid us a visit, with a civilian doctor and the two nurses. The Captain made us a little speech and informed us that the Queen had sent her best Christmas wishes to the troops. We then cheered her Majesty, and Captain Fleming and Dr. Waters and the nurses, and our visitors left us to enjoy the rest of the evening as we liked.
After various toasts—the Queen, our General, Absent Friends and so on—several comrades from other corps dropped in and every one was called upon for a song. It is curious to find the extraordinary popularity amongst soldiers of lugubrious and doleful songs. The majority of our songs at that Christmas dinner dealt with graves and the flowers that grew upon them, on the death of soldiers and the grief of parents. One song, I remember, was almost ludicrously sad. It told how a young soldier on active service in the Sudan or some other distant region hears, apparently by telepathic means, that his mother—the conventional grey-haired mother—is in some distress. The soldier at once, without any attempt to secure leave of absence, sets out for "home" on foot. He is brought back, and, as the excuse about his mother is very naturally discredited, the deserter is sentenced to be shot. Just as his lifeless body falls back riddled with bullets the mother arrives—how, it is not explained—so, as the refrain has it, "The Pardon comes too late". There were also several pauses in the conversation for "solos from the band," to wit, a flute and a fiddle.
After dismantling the marquee and dinnertable we started through the darkness for Modder River. We had thoroughly enjoyed our Christmas fare, and K——, a Scotchman, attempted with some success to perform a sword-dance on two crossed sticks, and when we pulled up at some station with a Dutch name his fervid patriotism broke loose in an attempt to address the people on the platform, whom he apostrophised as "rebels" and threatened with dire vengeance. Our cook was equal to the occasion. He dragged K—— back and apologised to the aggrieved colonists, explaining—by a pious fraud—that he was K——'s father and so responsible for bringing him out that evening. Our gleemen now stepped into the breach with "Ye Banks and Braes," and we left the station amid cheers.
Another of my friends under the excitement of song and mirth frequently clutched my arm and pointed to imaginary batches of Dutchmen standing suspiciously near the line and presumably intent on wrecking the train. These were usually prickly-pear bushes. When we approached Modder River he exclaimed that we were now within range of the Boer guns, and accordingly pulled up the windows as a sort of protection against shells and bullets.
As we steamed into Modder River station the 4.7 gun called "Joe Chamberlain" loosed off a Lyddite shell at the Magersfontein trenches. Some desultory shelling continued on both sides at 7,000 yards, chiefly in the early morning and evening—a kind of "good day" and "good night" exchanged between "Joe Chamberlain" and "Long Tom,". During our stay on this occasion some excellent practice was made on both sides. On the 26th a shell from our gun struck a Boer water-cask and smashed it to bits; next day a Boer shell fell plump into a party of Lancers and killed four horses. On another occasion more than fifty shells—so I heard—fell round the 4.7 gun, and although the gunners were compelled to seek cover the gun was absolutely uninjured.
Apart from this interchange of artillery fire the camp was undisturbed. The trenches were of course manned day and night, but spare time was filled up to some extent by various games. Goal posts were visible here and there, and Lord Methuen had offered a challenge cup for "soccer" football, the ties of which were being keenly contested.
We took on board a fresh load of sick and wounded men—chiefly the former—bound for Wynberg hospital. Just before we left I walked a hundred yards from the line and saw the graves of Colonel Downman, Lieutenant Campbell, Lieutenant Fox, and a Swede called, I think, Olaf Nilsen. The graves were marked by simple wooden crosses: those who were enemies in life lay side by side in the gentle keeping of Death, the Healer of Strife, for so the Greeks of old time loved to call him.
Soon after leaving the Modder the sky grew black with clouds, the birds hid themselves from view and the veldt-cricket ceased from his monotonous chirrup. Then all at once the storm burst upon us. The lightning played incessantly and sheets of rain blotted out the kopjes and the veldt from view. It was in weather like this that our poor fellows advanced through the darkness upon the Magersfontein trenches!
At Orange River we halted for some time, and somebody suggested a snake hunt in the scrub, but no one seemed very keen about this form of sport. The "ringhals" in the veldt are very deadly. I remember speaking to a Kaffir about them and asking him if he had known of any fatal bites. He replied, pathetically enough: "Yes, sah, a brudder of me—two hours, he was dead—mudder and sister and me was there".
Near Enslin a most unhappy accident had occurred. A sentry of the Shropshire had seen two figures advancing in the evening towards his post, had challenged, and, failing to get the prescribed reply, had fired off seven bullets into the two supposed Boers, who turned out to be a sergeant and private of his own regiment. By a miracle both these wounded men ultimately recovered, but while we were at Enslin we heard that the poor sentry was absolutely prostrated by grief and horror over the unfortunate affair.
At a station lower down a lighter incident took place. A corporal from our train, a Johannesburg man, in taking a short stroll came across three Uitlander volunteer recruits. They did not for the moment recognise their quondam acquaintance in his uniform, so he called "Halt!" The recruits became rigid. "Medical inspection," cried the corporal—"Tongues out!" Three tongues were instantly thrust out. "Salute your general," was the next order. This was too much. In the middle of a spasmodic attempt at a salute a dubious look began to spread over the faces of the three victims, which broadened into certainty as with a yell they leapt upon their oppressor and made him stand them a drink.
At Richmond Road we came across a detachment of Cape Volunteers who were practising the capture of kopjes in the neighbourhood of the line. In condoling with one of them on the dreariness of the place, he remarked that they occasionally shot a hare with a Lee-Metford bullet. This is pretty good shooting if the hare is moving. I remember hearing a Boer say with apparent bona fides that he invariably shot birds on the wing with Mauser bullets. Some of his birds must have looked ugly on the table.
As we passed through the Karroo somebody remarked that a Cape newspaper had suggested that our yeomen should ultimately settle in the country and continue their pastoral life in the veldt-farms of South Africa. Evidently the journalist who wrote this article imagines that our gallant yeomen were all tillers of the soil. Even if they were, few Englishmen will care to exchange the green fields and leafy copses of England for the solitude of these dreary, sun-baked plains. Moreover, where is the land to come from for any considerable number of such settlers? Practically all the land which is worth cultivating in the colonies of South Africa and the two Republics is already occupied. Even if we confiscate the farms of those colonial rebels actually and legally proved to be such, I doubt very much whether the land thus obtained would provide for more than three or four hundred settlers. Enthusiasts in England who write to the papers on this topic seem often to take for granted that the farms of the burghers in the two Republics will at the close of the war be presented to any reservist or yeoman who wishes to settle in South Africa. But is there any precedent in modern times for the confiscation of the private property of a conquered people? Are the burghers who survive the struggle to be evicted from their farms and left with their wives and children to starvation? This would be a bad beginning towards that alleviation of race hatred after the war which all good men of every political party earnestly desire. There is, it is true, a certain amount of land owned by the State in the Transvaal, but if we distribute this gratis to a few hundred individuals we shall be depriving ourselves of one of the few sources from which a war-indemnity could accrue to the nation as a whole.
Nothing, of course, could be more desirable than the planting in South Africa of a large body of honest, hard-working English settlers with their wives and families. But there are many difficulties to be overcome before the idyllic picture of the reservist surrounded by the orchards and cornfields of his upland farm can be realised in actual fact. The Dutch farmers of South Africa are as a rule very poor. They rise up early and take late rest, and eat the bread of carefulness, but their life is one of constant poverty. If we talk of "improvements" we must remember that irrigation in such a country is sometimes difficult and costly, and light railways demand considerable capital. Who is to provide the money for these? I doubt very much if many Englishmen or Australians or New Zealanders who have seen South Africa will exchange their present homes for the dreary and unproductive routine of an African farm.
During the latter part of our run the kindly enthusiasm of the colonists was as much in evidence as ever. Offerings of flowers and delicacies were again showered upon the wounded. It was amusing to notice how truculent some of the ladies were. One of them, as she put her welcome basket through the window, remarked à propos of Kruger, Steyn, etc., "Yes, bury them all, bury them all!"
After our sick men had been duly conveyed to the hospital we stayed in Capetown till the close of the year. A plentiful supply of English newspapers were lying about in the smoking-room of the hotel and it was exceedingly painful to read of the violent criticisms passed upon our Generals. If journalists in England wish to criticise the behaviour of our Generals, let them do so over their own signature when the war is over and these servants of the Government can defend themselves fairly. During the progress of a campaign a General has practically no opportunity of defending himself against newspaper attacks. Military success amid the surroundings of a South African campaign is often so difficult: criticism in Fleet Street is so easy! Very frequently the same man who cheers wildly at Waterloo and labels the outgoing General's luggage "To Pretoria" is the first to vituperate the same officer if amid the vicissitudes of warfare some measure of defeat falls to his lot. Military success does not depend entirely on the devotion or capacity of a commander. How cruel were those of the paragraphs which we read directed against our own General, Lord Methuen—the only British commander who had, if we except Elandslaagte, won any successes up to the present. Let the public wait before they so freely condemn a General who drove back the enemy in three successive engagements. That Magersfontein was a bad reverse is patent to everybody, but the causes of that defeat are not nearly so apparent.[ Cf. Tacitus, Agricola, xxvii.: Iniquissima haec bellorum condicio est; prospera omnes sibi vindicant, adversa uni imputantur.] It is disgraceful that English newspapers should, during the progress of a campaign, print letters from soldiers at the front which asperse the character and conduct of their commanding officers. Publicity of this sort strikes at the root of military discipline and common fairness too, for the public can scarcely expect a British General to reply in the public Press to the letter of a private serving under him!
The bells of the Cathedral tolled mournfully as the old year died. Would that its bitter memories could have perished with it! And then from steeple and steamship, locomotive and factory, a babel of sound burst forth as sirens and bells and whistles welcomed the birth of 1900. Yet, as the shrill greetings died away, one heard the tramp of infantry through the streets. The Capetown Highlanders—a volunteer battalion—were under arms all that night, as a rising of the Dutch had been anticipated on New Year's Day. May the new year see the end of this cruel strife, and the sun of righteousness arise upon this unhappy land with healing in his wings! As one sits in the dimly-lit wards while the train tears through the darkness, and nothing breaks the silence save the groan of a wounded man or the cries of some poor fellow racked with rheumatic fever—at times like these one thinks of many things, past, present and future. An ever-deepening gloom of military disaster seemed to be spreading itself around us—Magersfontein, Stormberg and the latest repulse on the Tugela, a veritable τρικυμία κακων! Of course, in the long run, we shall and must win. But what afterwards? Will the vanquished Dutch submit and live in peace and amity with their conquerors, or will they preserve the memory of their dead from generation to generation, and cherish that unspeakable bitterness which they at present feel for England and her people? Verily all these things lie on the knees of the gods!