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Chapter IX The Hospital

SO much has been said, so much written in magazines and newspapers upon the hospital arrangements in South Africa during the war that one may well hesitate before venturing to criticise, or even to speak of one's experiences in, the Military Hospitals. Members of the Commons have risen up and made statements, to which Generals and heads of departments have made quite opposite statements in reply. Civilians and Soldiers, Society Women and Clergymen, have all argued so much, in this way and in that, upon the good and bad points of the whole Army Medical organisation, that a mere Cornstalk Tommy may well ask pardon for diffidence in approaching a subject upon which the fierce glare of public criticism has, on the whole, shone so adversely. It is a cowardly thing ‘to kick a man when he is down’. And nothing in the world has ever been so ‘down’ in the public estimation as the medical arrangements in South Africa.

In all matters where sins of omission may be


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charged to the defaulters' sheet of the powers that be, there will always be found ready listeners to any tale of wrong. If you throw enough mud some of it is sure to stick. If you wish to advertise yourself, there is no better or safer way of doing so than by attacking somebody who may not hit back.

One would like best to have written of life in the hospitals as a new experience, as a state of being with which one's readers are not familiar. Life in an hospital ward would present as varied and picturesque sides as in the bivouac and battle. The strange wounds, the queer diseases, the grisly deaths—would all go to form a narrative as interesting, as many-sided, as harrowing or ennobling as the most vividly recounted tale of march and fight. There are stories of as great a heroism amongst the men and women who wrestled with the fierce pestilence of Bloemfontein, Kroonstad and Pretoria, and who laid down their worn-out lives in the disgusting atmosphere of lazarette surroundings, as there are of those who died in open veldt from bullet and shell. There are stories, too, of as great wickedness, as bad and evil affairs as one may ever shudder to hear. Whispered tales, many of them, that you hear as you walk about the lines of marquee tents, in the ships coming home, in divers places where you meet the men who know and have no object in lying. There is good to be told, and evil to be told. There is much that, for the credit of all concerned, should know the light, and


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very much that, for utter shame of telling, should never in all the after time be spoken.

There is a temptation to air one's views, to grow prolix regarding the manner in which men should have been tended—to suggest, to point out, to dabble in matters which none but professional men may properly comprehend. It is ‘cheap’ and easy to criticise; it is difficult to have sympathy with a popularly abused state of affairs—to extenuate, to excuse. One desires, of course, to speak without bias or ill-feeling and to suggest, from experience of the actual working of the system, how it may be improved. But the lay ignorance of cause and effect, of undoubted difficulties in transport and supply, and of the circumstances generally, together with the wanton and ignorant manner in which the law has been laid down by all and sundry compel one, in simple fairness to those who may be responsible, to refrain from all but the most deliberate and well-advised statement.

One would, for instance, have the pleasant feeling of doing a public service were one to propose in print that the Royal Army Medical Corps should be better paid than it is. One might point out that the ranking of doctors according to military usage is a pernicious and ill-advised system. It would be delightful to demonstrate that the scum of England are not the class from which tender and devoted nurses of fever patients can be reasonably expected to be drawn. It would be gratifying to show that the equipment of the


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Peninsular period should give place to that of the finde-siècle, state-aided establishment; that amputations and liver pills are not the justifiable curealls that army doctors might be supposed to consider them to be in all surgical and medical cases. In short, it would be the easiest thing in the world to publish one's own humble opinion as to the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, the wisdom and the foolishness in the organisation, equipment and management of Field, Stationary and Base Hospitals.

But—and this is a very important ‘but,’ which it might have been wise of certain M.P.'s, critical civilians, and correspondents to remember—is it quite fair to do so? Is it right and just to set down an opinion at all about anything, until one knows well and intimately all the details concerning the case under discussion? Is it proper for a mere ‘casual’ to criticise the work—in all its shortcomings and many excellencies—of a system which men of great professional experience and large knowledge have built up in years of practical hard work? One remembers too well that awful period of waiting at Bloemfontein whilst the army rotted inactive, and the little cemetery under the old fort filled and overflowed; when officer, and comrade, and inferior went down alike before the sickle of that grim reaper—Enteric. There is too sad a memory of the delirious, dying men who babbled, in the close wards, of far-off places where there were peace and love. There is no forgetting


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the carts that rumbled through the streets loaded with those stiff, blanket-shrouded shapes which had been vigorous men—the dwindling squadrons, the crowded sick-tents, the unfed, unwashed, unhappy men who filled them, will never cease to linger in one's memory. And, if one thinks of all these things, one may be bitter, too, against a system which, rightly or wrongly, has had much of the responsibility of them laid at its door.

So, all things considered, it is not well to write as one would perhaps have done unthinkingly, to venture too emphatic opinions as to men and methods, lest one do unwitting injustice to those to whom all the credit they can claim will not come amiss. Wherefore, the writer proposes to merely recount some of his own personal experiences as a patient in various military hospitals between Pretoria and the Cape, and to leave the reader of these pages to form his own opinion as to the right and wrong, the folly and the wisdom of it all.

We were nine miles from Pretoria when it happened—almost north-east. The Brigade was hurriedly saddling-up in the cold darkness before the dawn of a July day. The carts were being loaded. Some one had sent the writer to the top of one of them to assist in the stowing of oat-sacks and biscuit-boxes. The work finished, an eight feet jump from the top had been rashly negotiated. There had been a little stone, that rolled beneath one's foot upon the ground.


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And the little stone was responsible for a damaged ankle that prevented one from walking, and pained enough for two broken legs. And then, because orders were hurried and imperative, the squadron had ridden away and left one lying upon one's kit in the open veldt.

The long and the short of it was that there was no ambulance van to carry us into Pretoria. Beside the writer there were two sick men of his own corps and some twenty of the three English regiments that made up the Brigade. An old ‘spider’—a four-wheeled waggonette, commandeered from some farm — had been left behind, and, with a couple of debilitated mules as motive power, the various kits and possessions of the dismounted men who remained were to be carried into Pretoria on it. Kindly arms lifted the writer to the top of the piled-up baggage, and by dint of prodding with naked swords, butts of carbines, and other impromptu goads the worn out animals were induced to commence their unsteady trek into the Transvaal capital.

But the rolled kits fell off at intervals, the waggonette jolted mercilessly, and the ride was so comfortless and painful that, after half a mile had been traversed and the roadside that led into town from Kamiel Drift reached, we were constrained to beg our conductors to leave us there, on the faint chance of being conveyed into Pretoria by some Army Service waggon going in to get supplies for the troops that held the


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hills by Derdepoort. And so we were left lying on the grass—and there seemed to be every likelihood of our staying there indefinitely.

The red road stretched out to the gap in the hills where the infantry camp was, and, in the other direction, round the end of an intermediate ridge, to Pretoria. Men came by on horseback and in Cape carts, and there was one on a bicycle; but that day the Army Service Corps seemed to be resting. The sun went up into the deep blue, and the beautiful day grew older by two hours. Specklike on the sky-line one could see the black dots of pickets who were watching Louis Botha from the hills.

From seven until eleven we lay by the roadside, and no good Samaritan passed by. Once there came a mule-cart with a Kaffir driving, and one of the two who were able to walk begged him for a ride into Pretoria and the hospitals.

“Nie, baas,” he replied; “mule too tire. No can carry some more.”

“You black beast!” remarked his interlocutor; “you black swine!—if I felt a bit stronger I'd commandeer your dam team and make you walk!”

Nevertheless, the Kaffir was quite in the right. The welfare of his team should have been, and was, his first consideration. He merely smiled, and passed on.

It grew to be dreary waiting for what might never come. Had we had any rations and not been ill


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and crippled, to stay there would not have troubled us overmuch, but as it was—far from water, one of us seeming to sicken for fever, another hardly able to walk, and the third quite incapable of standing and whose only means of locomotion lay in what he could do by hopping, the outlook was alarming and miserable enough.

But at length, in a cloud of red dust, there came a slate-coloured empty waggon along the road. A brick-faced sergeant with a flaxen beard sat upon the box beside the black driver. Languidly the prospective enteric case shuffled into the road, and took up a position in such a place that the team of mules must either run over him or stop. They stopped.

“Now then, laad,” said the sergeant, “what for be ye blockin' t' road? Doan't y' know we be in a dom hurry t' git some bre'd from P'toria? Stan' a won soide—there's a good laad!”

Wearily our envoy explained the situation.

“Who be ye?” asked the sergeant.

“'Stralian Horse,” said the sick man.

“Oa, aye—ye be t' Orsetrailyans, be ye? Well, kom along, laads. Rackon there's room f' ye, if ye kom from Orsetrailyer. Me brother Dick went there. Whaat!—can't th' laad walk? Bide a bit, naow, an' I'll gie ye a han'.”

So, finally, we came into the Market Square—shaken and tired and sick with pain—and were left upon the pavement by the new hospital in the Law


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Courts. We lay upon our kits on the red tiles, and contemplated the Dutch Church, and the pedestal that had been built to hold Paul Kruger, and the magnificent Raadzaal with the gilt angel soaring from its roof, and the flapping Union Jack mocking it in the breeze. And it seemed that we might lie there also indefinitely. No one came to ask us whom we might be or why we sat there waiting. Generals and Tommies, Colonels and Burghers walked past and hardly looked at us. There was no room for sick men in the world of war.

They had put a square of galvanised iron fencing about the front of the Law Courts, between the high steps and the Church.

“I think we'll go in there,” suggested the man with the headache; “we might have more of a show to get to bed if we go in there.”

So we went in and squatted upon the lowest step, and an orderly came and looked at us, and went away into a corner to smoke. The thought came to one: “And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus … moreover, the dogs came and licked his sores”.

The clock in the Raadzaal front marked the quarter, half, three-quarters—and no one came. Just before the hour was reached a medical officer strolled out on to the terrace above and surveyed us. “What are you men doing theah?” he queried, shaking a surgical knife at us; “why don't you come to attention?”




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He of the aching head and stomachic pains climbed up the steps. He seemed to be trying his best to stand to attention, but it was a dismal failure, to say the most of it. The nonchalant surgeon conversed with him awhile, and the two of them came down to us.

“Er—you men,” he said, “you men, you know, you ought to have gone to a Field Hospital. Why didn't you go to a Field Hospital? What? Can't possibly take you in heah unless they send you from a Field Hospital, you know. 'Gainst all rules. Quite irregular, you know. What? No, we can't possibly admit you. Beds all full, you know. Quite out of the question!”

“We don't want beds, sir. Can't we come in and camp on the floor? We're used to sleeping on the ground.”

“Oh, deah, no! We don't do that kind of thing heah, you know. Don't know what you had better do, I'm suah. Don't ask me. Can't you go to the Rest Camp?” And he strolled inside. We felt that we were the scum of the earth. But our turn was to come.

A man came riding through the iron gate on a fine bay horse, and instantly the orderly sprang to attend him. He alighted as one who knows all about a saddle, and handed the bridle reins to the obsequious ‘Tommy’. It seemed to us that there never could have been so soldierly or so fine a man to look at. ‘Gentleman,’ too, was written all over him. He was


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a tall, dark-complexioned man—well-preserved, and somewhere between fifty and sixty. A black moustache and a tuft of hair upon his chin, after the manner of Lord Roberts, gave him a somewhat foreign aspect. He wore the flat, German-pattern staff-cap of khaki with the red band round it, and the red lapels upon the collar of his tunic that indicated staff rank. As he ran actively up the steps into the hospital he glanced curiously and keenly at us, half-paused, and went on inside. We must have been a picturesque trio enough to turn the gaze of any man who had not a soul enmeshed in red tape. The sick man was gaunt, unshaven, hollow-eyed and pale; the man with the blistered feet was slim, larrikin-like and alert; the writer was minus boot, and spur, and puttee, as regarded his right extremity, and dirtier and more unkempt than he had ever thought he would become. We had been out getting shelled all the day before—on a big reconnaissance—and had come in late, so that there was no chance of washing or shaving before the morning's daylight start. Therefore, it was nearly three days since we had used soap and water.

Twenty minutes, and the handsome staff-colonel was striding down the stone steps. As he came to the bottom one on which we sat forlornly he stopped, and spoke:—

“Well men, what is your trouble? Why don't you go inside? Wounded, eh?”




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“No, sir; twisted ankle—can't walk.”

“And you?”

“I feel very sick, sir. Headache—weak.”

“And you?”

“Skin orf one foot, sir. Can't walk or ride. Blood-pois'nin', I think.”

“Well, why don't you go in and get attended to? Who are you?”

We told him that we were Australians, and that we had sought admission unsuccessfully, and had not the least idea now as to what we should do.

“Oh, you're Australians, are you? Well, your fellows have done some good work. Stop here. I'll go and see what can be done.” And he went up the steps two at a time.

To be an Australian seemed to be something of a distinction here. But it is curiously true that no matter with whom, if you said you were an Australian you had a much easier time and got what you wanted more readily than before it was known from whence you hailed. Perhaps they made allowance for our ignorance.

Down he came again, followed by three anxious-looking medical officers, chief amongst whom was the tired individual who had been unable to give us room.

“Now,” said that angel in disguise, “now why are these men left here?”

“We really have no room for more, sir. The


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waggons are still at Nitral's Nek, and we expect another convoy in to-night. It is quite impossible to take them in.”

“Well, what are you going to do about it?”

“I really do not see how the matter affects us, sir.”

“Do you not? Ah!—well, sir, it should affect you! And it will affect you. Do you think it a very creditable thing to your Hospital that these men should have been sitting here for nearly two hours without food or water or any apparent chance of ever obtaining any? Do you not consider that, since you have become aware of the case, you would have done rightly if you had passed them on to another Hospital where there might be room for them? I think that you have been very remiss in your duty, sir.

“Now will you kindly write a note to the P.M.O. of some other Hospital where you think they may be taken in—explaining the case to him. Where do you think they would be likely to find room?”

The man who disliked irregularity seemed to have become quite contrite by this time. Evidently the Staff Officer was a great gun, since all stood so much in awe of him.

“I think they might get into the Racecourse Hospital, sir. They can expand their quarters there—plenty of sheds and buildings, you know. We cannot here.”

“Well—give them the note.”




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He strode out of the enclosure, and presently reappeared with a cab.

“Jump in, men,” he said. “Up to the Racecourse, driver. You'll be all right now, eh?”—and he was on to his horse and gone almost before we could thank him.

It is unlikely that that officer will ever see these pages. We never heard his name, nor did we meet him again, but if he be alive and should chance to drop across this book and does not forget the incident, he will know that three sick Cornstalks were very, very grateful to him for his kindness that morning by the Law Courts. His courteous care for the welfare of three dirty vagabonds is one of those things which only the Recording Angel books to a man's credit. He was in this, and doubtless always, following in the steps of his great leader, and ours—the soldier's warmest friend—Lord Roberts.

So down Church Street, past Paul Kruger's lion-fronted dwelling, past his beloved Dopper Church with the unfinished clock in the steeple, up towards the railway, across some open ground, and we came to the Racecourse, which, having been in the early war time a prison, was now an hospital.

It was a good course—one could see that with half an eye—but it made a wofully bad hospital.

Here, also, it seemed that we exhibited the usual bad taste in not applying for admission in the regular and pre-ordained form. A fat sergeant-major of the


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R.A.M.C. was for turning us away again—which would have been awkward, seeing that we had dismissed the cab. But the embryo enteric flared into righteous wrath; wished to know whether we were luridly qualified stray dogs, or what; claimed personal friendship with the P.M.O., and demanded that he should be shown where that officer abided, so that he might himself present our letter of introduction.

Such a queer place for sick men to go in—such a quaint, unconventional, singular kind of hospital—you never saw! What the conditions of life were in the grand stand, or the saddling paddock, or in the big pavilion where the luncheons might have been, none of us could say. We lived in loose-boxes in the stables—and to this day one of us pricks up his ears when he hears corn rattle in a box, or beholds horses feeding out of bins. It was a long galvanised-iron shed. There was a passage down the middle, with a door at either end, presumably for ventilation. Sick Kaffirs dwelt in the passage, and rendered both night and day hideous with their chatter. Widely projecting eaves made a kind of verandah all round the building. The doors of each stall were in two halves, after the kind of stable-doors. In front they looked out across the level ground about which lay the course, and in rear on to a tidy garden shaded by gum and wattle. We were assigned quarters in the front.

Many days we lived there, not getting overmuch


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attention medically, but still living—which was something. If you had good luck you obtained a bag or two to spread out ere you laid your blankets on the ground. This was the ward where slight wounds, rheumatisms, sprains, mild dysenterics, and ripening enterics ‘most did congregate’. Here, also, were the malingerers. It was astonishing, and rather appalling, to note the number of hale beings who lived in hospital. Sad and humiliating as it must seem, any man who has been through the Military Hospitals can quite easily testify to the truth of this. ‘Fed up’ often seemed to be about to assume just as alarming proportions as enteric. How they did it was a mystery. One can only assume that, in many cases, the medical officers, though morally certain that a man might be shamming, were too disgusted to take the necessary steps towards ‘bowling him out’. And, indeed, dealing with the typical ‘old soldier,’ hardly any measures in the world, severely preventive or otherwise, would keep him out of hospital were he desirous of staying in. If a man steadily persist in having a pain in his chest, and be fairly consistent in his symptoms, you cannot, without very great difficulty, prove him a liar. And as the doctors had always very much more to do than time to do it in, they could not afford the almost detective-like vigilance necessary to properly meet the cases of such wily characters.

A résumé of the day's doings in our stable may


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perhaps give the reader some idea of what life in this most rudimentary of hospitals was like. It is well to bear in mind, however, that these were the first months of the British occupation of Pretoria, that De Wet was blowing up the railway every day on the other side of the Vaal, that fever and dysentery were rife in all the camps about the town, and that it was utterly impossible to obtain many of the most essential supplies required by an hospital. When you come to consider these points it is wonderful what the Medical Staff did even so primitively well as they did.

Soon after daylight a bugler sounded the ‘reveille’—most beautiful, if most unwelcome of ‘calls’. Half an hour later an aggressive individual walked hurriedly along the stable front, and rattled a stick against the corrugated-iron doors. If that did not bring your slumbers to an end nothing would do so. If you could stand, or hop, you arose and opened the doors of your compartment, and yawned in the fresh air. There was a pump by the side of the track whereat you might perform your toilet. You folded up your blankets, and tidied the den as well as might be. Then came another orderly with a basket full of cut loaves of bread. You received a piece, supposed to weigh one pound, which was to last you all day. Sometimes he threw it at you—and on those occasions you were not quite certain as to whether your habitation were a loose-box or a kennel. Humourists


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used sometimes to request to be supplied with a bran mash, complaining pathetically that they felt ‘a bit out of condition’.

At half-past seven buckets of tea arrived in the open before the sheds. Cripples, and ill, and shams hobbled, and slouched, and rushed with empty beeftins, mess-cans, jam-pots—anything that would hold water. Eating and drinking utensils were not supplied in that part of the hospital. You somehow got some tea and ate some bread. Every second day a pot of jam was served out to each four men. After breakfast the stalls were still further tidied, the pots polished and hung up on the wooden partitions, and the front of the shed swept and garnished.

And at 9 a.m. there came the P.M.O.—the Great Finality of the establishment. At the Racecourse he was a very popular person—a man with a face that you might trust, the quiet air of one who knew his task, and the kindly sympathy of a good physician, even yet unspoiled by the years of narrowing army service. Everybody liked the Major—we did not hear his name—and he seemed to like every one. In spite of the fact that his hospital was probably as rough and primitive as any you might come to in all Africa, the mere fact of there being so likeable a man at the head of it atoned for very much in which it fell grievously short of perfection. One can still think with affection of the man—his grave, clean-cut, kindly face, with the iron-grey, close-cropped hair


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about the temples; the slightly stooping figure and the pleasant laugh. And the remembrance of his quiet courtesy of speech, and the close attention with which he listened to what you had to say is a gleam of sunshine over a retrospective outlook that is dreary, and sordid, and commonplace enough. He was cruelly handicapped by want of the most necessary things in carrying out his work, but no one left that disreputable place who had not, at least, a good word for the Major.

At noon the buckets brought soup with raggy meat in it. There was milk for those who were nominally on ‘milk diet,’ but as everything was much in common the patients ate, as a rule, what they considered best suited to their tastes, diseases, or constitutions. All the afternoon was a long ‘loaf’. You slept, or read, or wrote letters home, and at 4.30 came more tea, with which you finished the remainder of the bread and jam.

Night came—and you smoked, and yarned, and went to bed in the dust. And by-and-bye, when the long-winded ones had ceased to talk in dialects, and brogues, and twangs, and all—even the vociferous Kaffirs—were asleep and still, rats ran about over your head, and nibbled your hair.

Ten days of this, and the writer was one morning, with some thirty others, conveyed in ambulance-vans to the Pretoria railway station, and started off in a bullet-marked carriage to Cape Town, with five days'


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rations of bread, and bully-beef, and jam. At least, we thought we were being sent to Cape Town—but when you start upon a journey at one end of a military railway which runs through an only partially subjugated hostile territory, you do not really know whether it will be a week, or a month, or a year, or all eternity before you reach your journey's end. This time the journey took two months.

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