A VICTORIOUS AND HELPLESS MOB—A BREAK-NECK HILLSIDE—BRINGING DOWN THE WOUNDED—A HARD-WORKED DOCTOR—BOER PRISONERS—INDIAN BEARERS—AN IRISH HIGHLANDER IN TROUBLE.
Ladysmith, Oct. 23.
Pursuing cavalry and pursued enemy faded out of our sight; abruptly we realised that it was night. A mob of unassorted soldiers stood on the rock-sown, man-sown hillside, victorious and helpless.
Out of every quarter of the blackness leaped rough voices. "G Company!" "Devons here!" "Imperial Light Horse?" "Over here!" "Over where?" Then a trip and a heavy stumble and an oath. "Doctor wanted 'ere! 'Elp for a wounded orficer! Damn you there! who are you fallin' up against? This is the Gordon 'Ighlanders—what's left of 'em."
Here and there an inkier blackness moving showed a unit that had begun to find itself again.
But for half an hour the hillside was still a maze—a maze of bodies of men wandering they knew not whither, crossing and recrossing, circling, stopping and returning on their stumbles, slipping on smooth rock-faces, breaking shins on rough boulders, treading with hobnailed boots on wounded fingers.
At length underfoot twinkled lights, and a strong, clear voice sailed into the confusion, "All wounded men are to be brought down to the Boer camp between the two hills." Towards the lights and the Boer camp we turned down the face of jumbled stumbling-block. A wary kick forward, a feel below—firm rock. Stop—and the firm rock spun and the leg shot into an ankle-wrenching hole. Scramble out and feel again; here is a flat face—forward! And then a tug that jerks you on to your back again: you forgot you had a horse to lead, and he does not like the look of this bit. Climb back again and take him by the head; still he will not budge. Try again to the right. Bang! goes your knee into a boulder. Circle cannily round the horse to the left; here at last is something like a slope. Forward horse—so, gently! Hurrah! Two minutes gone—a yard descended.
By the time we stumbled down that precipice there had already passed a week of nights—and it was not yet eight o'clock. At the bottom were half-a-dozen tents, a couple of lanterns, and a dozen waggons—huge, heavy veldt-ships lumbered up with cargo. It was at least possible to tie a horse up and turn round in the sliding mud to see what next.
What next? Little enough question of that! Off the break-neck hillside still dropped hoarse importunate cries. "Wounded man here! Doctor wanted! Three of 'em here! A stretcher, for God's sake!" "A stretcher there! Is there no stretcher?" There was not one stretcher within voice-shot.
Already the men were bringing down the first of their wounded. Slung in a blanket came a captain, his wet hair matted over his forehead, brow and teeth set, lips twitching as they put him down, gripping his whole soul to keep it from crying out. He turned with the beginning of a smile that would not finish: "Would you mind straightening out my arm?" The arm was bandaged above the elbow, and the forearm was hooked under him. A man bent over—and suddenly it was dark. "Here, bring back that lantern!" But the lantern was staggering up-hill again to fetch the next. "Oh, do straighten out my arm," wailed the voice from the ground. "And cover me up. I'm perishing with cold." "Here's matches!" "And 'ere; I've got a bit of candle." "Where?" "Oh, do straighten out my arm!" "'Ere, 'old out your 'and." "Got it," and the light flickered up again round the broken figure, and the arm was laid straight. As the touch came on to the clammy fingers it met something wet and red, and the prone body quivered all over. "What," said the weak voice—the smile struggled to come out again, but dropped back even sooner than before—"have they got my finger too?" Then they covered up the body with a blanket, wringing wet, and left it to soak and shiver. And that was one out of more than two hundred.
For hours—and by now it was a month of nights—every man with hands and legs toiled up and down, up and down, that ladder of pain. By Heaven's grace the Boers had filled their waggons with the loot of many stores; there were blankets to carry men in and mattresses whereon to lay them. They came down with sprawling bearers, with jolts and groans, with "Oh, put me down; I can't stand it! I'm done anyhow; let me die quiet." And always would come back the cheery voice from doctor or officer or pal,—"Done, colour-sergeant! Nonsense, man! Why, you'll be back to duty in a fortnight." And the answer was another choked groan.
Hour by hour—would day never break? Not yet; it was just twenty minutes to ten—man by man they brought them down. The tent was carpeted now with limp bodies. With breaking backs they heaved some shoulder-high into waggons; others they laid on mattresses on the ground. In the rain-blurred light of the lantern—could it not cease, that piercing drizzle to-night of all nights at least? The doctor, the one doctor, toiled buoyantly on. Cutting up their clothes with scissors, feeling with light firm fingers over torn chest or thigh, cunningly slipping round the bandage, tenderly covering up the crimson ruin of strong men—hour by hour, man by man, he toiled on.
And mark—and remember for the rest of your lives—that Tommy Atkins made no distinction between the wounded enemy and his dearest friend. To the men who in the afternoon were lying down behind rocks with rifles pointed to kill him, who had shot, may be, the comrade of his heart, he gave the last drop of his water, the last drop of his melting strength, the last drop of comfort he could wring out of his seared, gallant soul. In war, they say,—and it is true,—men grow callous: an afternoon of shooting and the loss of your brother hurts you less than a week before did a thorn in your dog's foot. But it is only compassion for the dead that dries up; and as it dries, the spring wells up among good men of sympathy with all the living. A few men had made a fire in the gnawing damp and cold, and round it they sat, even the unwounded Boer prisoners. For themselves they took the outer ring, and not a word did any man say that could mortify the wound of defeat. In the afternoon Tommy was a hero, in the evening he was a gentleman.
Do not forget, either, the doctors of the enemy. We found their wounded with our own, and it was pardonable to be glad that whereas our men set their teeth in silence, some of theirs wept and groaned. Not all, though: we found Mr Kok, father of the Boer general and member of the Transvaal Executive, lying high up on the hill—a massive, white-bearded patriarch, in a black frock-coat and trousers. With simple dignity, with the right of a dying man to command, he said in his strong voice, "Take me down the hill and lay me in a tent; I am wounded by three bullets." It was a bad day for the Kok family: four were on the field, and all were hit. They found Commandant Schiel, too, the German free-lance, lying with a bullet through his thigh, near the two guns which he had served so well, and which no German or Dutchman would ever serve again. Then there were three field-cornets out of four, members of Volksraad, two public prosecutors—Heaven only knows whom! But their own doctors were among them almost as soon as were ours.
Under the Red Cross—under the black sky, too, and the drizzle, and the creeping cold—we stood and kicked numbed feet in the mud, and talked together of the fight. A prisoner or two, allowed out to look for wounded, came and joined in. We were all most friendly, and naturally congratulated each other on having done so well. These Boers were neither sullen nor complaisant. They had fought their best, and lost; they were neither ashamed nor angry. They were manly and courteous, and through their untrimmed beards and rough corduroys a voice said very plainly, "Ruling race." These Boers might be brutal, might be treacherous; but they held their heads like gentlemen. Tommy and the veldt peasant—a comedy of good manners in wet and cold and mud and blood!
And so the long, long night wore on. At midnight came outlandish Indians staggering under the green-curtained palanquins they call doolies: these were filled up and taken away to the Elandslaagte Station. At one o'clock we had the rare sight of a general under a waggon trying to sleep, and two privates on top of it rummaging for loot. One found himself a stock of gent's underwear, and contrived comforters and gloves therewith; one got his fingers into a case and ate cooking raisins. Once, when a few were as near sleep as any were that night, there was a rattle and there was a clash that brought a hundred men springing up and reaching for their rifles. On the ground lay a bucket, a cooking-pot, a couple of tin plates, and knives and forks—all emptied out of a sack. On top of them descended from the waggon on high a flame-coloured shock of hair surmounting a freckled face, a covert coat, a kummerbund, and cloth gaiters. Were we mad? Was it an apparition, or was that under the kummerbund a bit of kilt and an end of sporran? Then said a voice, "Ould Oireland in throuble again! Oi'm an Oirish Highlander; I beg your pardon, sorr—and in throuble again. They tould me there was a box of cigars here; do ye know, sorr, if the bhoys have shmoked them all?"