previous
next



  ― 157 ―

Chapter X The Hospital (Continued)

THE train ran through the hills between two of the silent forts, which had cost so much money and had been of so little use to their builders, and out from the valley of Pretoria into the open veldt. The track of the invading army still lay beside the line. The traffic of the convoys had worn the grass away, and the road was mile-stoned by the parched hides and whitened bones of horses, mules, and oxen, and, less frequently, by the red-mounded, final resting-places of men. Many had remained to ‘settle on the land,’ but the tenure of their occupation was probably more permanent and abiding than most of the poor fellows had expected it to be.

Past the little wayside stations of Kaalfontein, Zuurfontein, and various other fonteins—and about three o'clock we arrived at Elandsfontein, the junction of the Cape and Natal lines to Pretoria and of the short six-mile one which ran into Johannesburg.

The train waited ten minutes, twenty minutes—an hour. Coffee was brought to us in the carriages—drunk—the


  ― 158 ―
bucket taken away again by a Kaffir, and still we moved not—no one knowing why.

At length we went on. Somehow it seemed to us all wrong. We should have been rolling across the open veldt again, but we were instead passing through the suburbs of a great city, and every moment the houses grew larger and denser. It was like coming into Melbourne in the afternoon—except for the tall smoke-stacks of occasional mines, and the stampers, and the big cyanide vats. Past little suburban stations—as ‘Zimmer and Jack’ and Jeppestown—in through gardens, and trees, and pretty suburban streets, along a cutting and below a bridge, and we ran in under a high domed roof of glass, and came to a standstill beside one of the platforms of a great railway station, much larger and finer than Redfern, or Flinders Street, or the North Terrace.

It was Park Station—and then we remembered having seen it before, when the illustrated papers made pictures of the refugees crowding into open trucks, in the mad rush of September to get away. And we remembered another picture of a commando going to the Front, and wondered vaguely where all those bandoliered and booted warriors were now. They were in graves, and at Simon's Bay and St. Helena, and in the veldt still; and we held their towns and railway systems—but had we finished yet? How long was it to be before those silent streets of


  ― 159 ―
the outskirts should fill again, before this great station should hum with the busy life of the resurrected city, before the black smoke lifted above the chimneys of the mines, and the great town should have recovered from the paralysis of war?

As we waited there we heard the wherefore of our waiting. The line had again been blown up, just beyond the Vaal. Popular rumour credited Christian De Wet with the deed, and probably rumour, for once, was right. Most of us had a sneaking regard for De Wet, and looked upon him as a great, though sometimes inconvenient man—but this afternoon upon that train he was exceedingly unpopular.

By-and-bye they shunted us into a siding, and commanded us to ‘get out,’ and so we alighted as well as we could, and sat upon our kits beside the carriages and trucks. As dusk settled down over the town, ambulance-waggons came and carried us away to the Amblers’ Club, where was located Number ‘K General Hospital. There they put us into bell-tents, pitched on the football-ground—four in a tent—and they fed us on bovril and bread, and we slept upon stretchers, which was the nearest approach we had made to sleeping in beds for nearly a year, and was a decided improvement upon the litter and dust of our late quarters in the horse-stalls. It was dark when we arrived, and beyond the fact that great buildings within high trees and park-like grounds loomed vaguely in the blackness, and the faint white showing


  ― 160 ―
of many marquees and bell-tents glimmered obscurely about us, we could make little of our situation and environment.

Next morning was beautifully cold, and clear, and fresh. No wind stirred the tops of the tall blue gums that, hedge-like, surrounded all the enclosure. The buildings of the Club stood up amidst them, picturesque in their setting of green leaves. Part was unfinished, with the scaffold poles and ladders still erected about its raw and new-looking brick walls. There had been a fire before the war, and the outbreak of hostilities had left the work of restoration incomplete.

The tents we occupied were pitched upon a grassless square of recreation ground. Tiers of wooden seats surrounded the enclosure. Below it was another square, and, in the front of the building, an excellent cycling track and cricket ground, and still more excellent tennis courts. The great concert hall of the Club was used as a ward for the more serious cases. It contained beds with real sheets and real pillows. They struck one as being useless, unnecessary adjuncts of an effete civilisation, after so many months of doing without them. Even the loose-boxes at Pretoria had seemed at first to be commodious residences. It is only afterwards that you look back and shudder. Comfort is a matter of comparison. To the sick soldier lying in the veldt on a wet night a hollow log, or the lee of a paling fence, would seem


  ― 161 ―
the very acme of luxury. But when you get to civilisation again the reputation of necessary insecticide will hopelessly damn an hotel in your estimation, and you will quite easily turn up your nose at food for which, in bivouac or on outpost, you would have bartered your last ‘fill’ of tobacco.

On the whole, the hospital in the Amblers' Club was an improvement upon that of the Pretorian Racecourse. In the first place, the condition and location of the buildings and grounds were in every way suitable for an hospital. Centrally situated as to the city, not fifty yards from the principal railway station, amply large in its grounds for the exercising of convalescent patients, surrounded on all sides by wide streets, and with a high galvanised-iron fence having but two main entrances—both from the points of view of its administration and of its patients no site or arrangements could possibly have been better adapted for the successful treatment of sick and wounded and the maintenance of necessary discipline than were those of the one in question.

We were more comfortable in the little tents, though it was strange how full four stretchers and their occupants made them seem, even after the usual dozen or fifteen human beings who smothered in them in the ordinary standing camps. The food, although practically the same as supplied to us at the Racecourse, was better cooked and better served, but in this bracing climate of cold, clear, winter weather, to


  ― 162 ―
men whose naturally fine appetites were in no wise impaired by their physical injuries, the ration scale was wofully insufficient.

A very excellent thing was the fact that for the most part the hospital, or at least the division of it in which we were, was served by orderlies of the St. John's Ambulance Association.

There is no branch of the Imperial Army so generally unpopular with all other branches as the Royal Army Medical Corps. This is a large, loose statement apparently, but it is unfortunately none the less perfectly true. Were one to account for it by stories heard in and out of the hospital one might possibly be merely repeating calumnious untruths, but there is much, apart from hearsay, that one has seen oneself, and which all Colonial soldiers have seen also, to render fairly evident Tommy Atkins' dislike as a class to the privates and non-commissioned officers of the corps. He seems to regard the men of the R.A.M.C. as being essentially on a lower plane than himself. He has bestowed upon them contemptuously the appellations of ‘Poultice Wallopers,’ ‘Linseed Lancers,’ and other insulting and more ribald designations too Atkinesque to mention. As a primary reason for having incurred Tommy's bitter dislike it may be that the rank and file of the R.A.M.C., being technically non-combatants, are unreasonably looked down upon by men who are. And, when he ‘goes sick,’ Tommy has to do just what he is told by these despised beings—which


  ― 163 ―
is, doubtless, very galling to Tommy. “So,” says he, “w'en we meets the swine artside, we breaks their bleedin' 'eads. If they sees yer comin' darn the street, w'y they bloomin' well dodges hup a halley.”

Personally, one is almost ready to excuse many of the shortcomings of the much-abused orderlies, by consideration of the fact that you cannot expect the services of a perfect being when you pay him something that comes to a little more than a shilling a day. If a good personnel is required, then it will have to be paid for. And you won't get ‘much of a man’ to do the kind of work the R.A.M.C. are called upon to do under five.

Now the men of the St. John's Ambulance Association were volunteers and enthusiasts, besides being, in ordinary life, men of a very much higher social grade than the class from which the private regular soldier is usually drawn. They therefore took more interest in their work than did the men of the R.A.M.C. They may not, perhaps, have been quite so well trained and disciplined, but they were certainly kinder, gentler, and more sympathetic in their treatment of patients than were the regular orderlies. And so they incurred Tommy's gratitude and esteem—since Tommy is a gentleman who is nothing if not just in his estimate of superiors and equals.

The routine is much the same as at the Racecourse. ‘Reveille’ sounds early, and presently there comes the ward-master, usually a sergeant, to turn you out.


  ― 164 ―
Blankets are folded, and stacked neatly at the head of each stretcher. The walls of the tent are rolled up, and its interior and immediate vicinity swept and cleaned, after breakfast has been served, so that the resultant crumbs may not meet the eye of the visiting medical officer. In the meantime, if you are physically capable of so doing, you go for a wash.

Now here is the worst one has to say of this otherwise—considering the circumstances and the times—exceptionally well-regulated and administered establishment. At one end of the main building of the Club stood a long wooden trough, raised some three feet above the ground on trestles. Each morning it was filled with water from a stand-pipe, and in it scores of men performed their ablutions. One may imagine that the water became fairly ‘thick’ after a little time each morning. Well, that did not matter so much. You cease to be over-particular as to small details of this nature after you have learned what it is to go seven days without any kind of ‘wash’ at all.

This was the thing that mattered—sufficient care was not taken by the authorities to isolate cases of infection or contagion, so that the unrestricted use of this common washing-place might—and in one instance known to the writer actually did—endanger the health of all the inmates of the hospital.

But—to return to our routine. Breakfast over, and the lines garnished as aforesaid, the medical officer in charge of the ward to which you belong goes his


  ― 165 ―
rounds. His advent to each tent is heralded by the sergeant poking his head through the canvas door-flap and thunderously yelling, “Shunmedcalorfcer!”—which use has accustomed you to translate as “Attention! Medical Officer”. So you turn out, and stand with your diet-sheet—a mysterious document whereby you obtain varieties of the scanty rations that are going—one of a row before the tent. You must stand there, even if it be only on one leg and a stick. The sergeant snatches the sheet from your hand, the swift physician glances keenly at you out of the corner of his eye as he initials it, does the same for your three companions, and hurriedly passes on to the next tent, where already the war-cry of his satellite has preceded him.

The inspection over, there remains naught to do but smoke, if you have tobacco; read, if you possess any literature; sleep, if you think you can, or otherwise put in the time until the bugle sounds the dinner-call. Dinner consists of the same boiled cubes of leathery meat floating in thick soup and a few potatoes in their jackets, served up in the little enamelled-tin basins in which you draw your morning and evening tea.

The long afternoon passes monotonously. The best that you may do to while away the hours is to sit still in your own or another tent, and listen to the bloody and hair-raising accounts of side-lights of the war. Many of them, though couched in simple and


  ― 166 ―
profane language, and not for publication, are true and real beyond question—a great many of them are untruly and gloriously sensational enough for the ‘copy’ of the most unveracious correspondent of the average London Daily Shocker.

There was a Cornstalk who came to a marquee in which certain of us were sitting one rainy afternoon. Most of those present were Englishmen and Canadians. One little group of four or five sat in a dark corner, and smoked silently—content for the most part to listen to the stirring tales to which, we felt, we could never hope to approach in interest of adventure and startling detail. Our compatriot was a member of a certain famous Australian corps, which had distinguished itself all through the Western Campaign. It would be unjust to him to say that he was boastful. He was not. He merely told his tale in a dignified and simple manner that took it straight to the hearts of his listeners.

The writer had not the good fortune to share in French's dash to Kimberley. He knows no more about it than what he has been told by men who were there, and what he has since read in the newspapers, and magazines, and books. But he is quite sure that he will never in all his life read such a graphic, nerve-stirring, sympathetic narration of that great cavalry march as he heard from the guileless lips of his gifted fellow-countryman that winter afternoon in the dark interior of the fourth marquee, of


  ― 167 ―
the second row, in the upper football-ground of the Amblers' Club Hospital at Johannesburg.

It was not merely immense; it was ‘epic’. He told us of the gathering of the host at Ramdam; of the organisation; of the setting forth; of the fighting near Klip Drift; of the miles of waterless veldt beyond the Modder. In harrowing manner he recounted the sufferings the men had endured, the awful thirst that killed horses by the hundred, the running fight. Clearly and lucidly he made plain to us the magnificent generalship of Johnny French. We could not but suppose that, in rare occult fashion, the plans of that ‘deep’ customer had been evident to him from the very beginning of the operations, and that for our benefit—there, right there in that humble place—he was letting us peep along the quiet backways where the unseen elements of history walk darkly.

We felt elated and triumphant that we—we dozen or so of common soldiery—should learn these things, first-hand and hot, from one who knew. It would be something to talk of through all our uninteresting after-lives. It was a dreadful march, it was a wonderful march, it was the military movement of the ages; it was a soul-stirring and ennobling recital, such as we had never looked to hear from mortal lips. Kinglake might have approached it in stately minuteness, Archibald Forbes or Steevens could not have come near it. What a pity, we thought, that he had not lived


  ― 168 ―
before, so that he might have been with Cæsar in Gaul, or with Napoleon from Moscow or across the Alps into Italy!

As though we saw it all, we rode with him into the shell-battered Diamond City. He showed all the happiness and sadness of the welcome of the lately besieged. We saw the Kaffirs ravenously swooping upon the entrails of the worn-out horses shot at the completion of the march, little white-faced children, and the anæmic women, coming from the mine-shafts. We saw and heard Cecil Rhodes; beheld the wonderful gun Labram the American had built in the De Beers workshops. He took us to the scarred trenches, the littered Boer redoubts and gun emplacements; and next morning we went out with him to rout the remaining Boers by Dronfield. Bill Adams at Waterloo was as a Policeman at a Botany ‘push’ fight compared to this hero.

And when he stopped, and went away to get tea, a man of his own corps, who had gaped with us, unseen, from the darkness of that corner in the marquee, could only gasp brokenly, “Wonderful, wonderful! Oh, dam wonderful!”

And that expressed the feelings of us all.

“Yes,” continued his comrade, “it's the wonderfullest yarn I've ever heard. Why—the blarsted liar!—we went to Kimberley in Febroory, an' he didn't leave Sydney until April!

None the less, it was the finest story ever told—and


  ― 169 ―
although it was sadly true that the narrator had never been to Kimberley in his life, had never seen the Modder (save at the Glen, north of Bloemfontein), had never been under fire during the war, and was ‘a consistent and shameless pom-pom dodger’ all his days—he was gifted with an imagination and power of expression that Virgil or Dante might have coveted. One had the inclination, but not the power, to run after him, as he strolled modestly away, in order to grasp him by the hand and say, “My brother, you are the most gifted and accomplished liar that Australia ever produced!” And, when you come to think of it, that would be saying a great deal.

At night they gave us candles, and we lay upon our stretchers, smoking and reading, until the time came to ‘turn in’; or wondering whether we were to stay for ever in Johannesburg, and what the town might be like; or speculating as to how they must be thinking soon of shearing out at home in Australia. Everything seemed very quiet out in the soldier-ridden city. One could make out, beyond the top of the lower fence and through the straight stems of the bordering eucalypti, the bright globes of incandescent light that shone over the empty streets. Later, there came the far, faint challenges of the sentries about the Market Square—and once, about midnight, we heard a rifle-shot, and a scream of pain, and, turning over drowsily, wondered what the poor devil had done.




  ― 170 ―

There was a week of this—each day exactly a reproduction of the one before it, no evening that differed from the last—and then one mid-day, in the sudden fashion by which things are carried on on active service, the writer was warned amongst others to be ready for the train at one o'clock, in order to start again for Cape Town.

Of the journey down one need not speak at length, although it was the most exciting train journey the writer has ever taken. There was never any chance of being bored for lack of interest in those days between Pretoria and Kroonstadt. Every culvert and bridge over which we passed seemed to have been blown up, at least once. The engine that drew our train was bullet-marked about the cab and boiler; the closed trucks in which we travelled nearly all had little round holes somewhere through their walls. The first night we stayed at Vereeniging, just beside the Vaal, and waited there until morning.

When we had crossed the river, and come to Viljoen's Drift upon the southern side, news came that the line had been again interrupted further down. It was noon before we recommenced our journey, and by the next evening we had not come to Honing Spruit. We had passed the Kopjes Siding where De Wet had nearly caught Lord Kitchener in person; and Roodeval where he had unmistakably caught the Fourth Derbyshires, and had blotted out everything of the station save one shell-torn iron tank and


  ― 171 ―
a steel safe, and where the mails and winter clothing lay half-burned over acres of veldt.

Honing Spruit was but eighteen miles from Kroonstad, but no train ever travelled in the darkness over that part of the new colony. So we waited beside the little entrenched station, and about eight o'clock were turned out of the trucks into the trenches to assist in repelling an expected Boer attack, which, however, never came off.

At Honing Spruit there was a quaint but doubtful story of a stray Canadian, who, somehow, was somewhere along the line with various other details in a little entrenched post, guarding communications. It was his duty to ride out each morning along a length of line, in order to find out whether all was clear for the trains to proceed. One morning, having sallied forth as usual, at some distance out he espied five industrious beings busily employed in levering up a rail. They were so intent upon the work in hand that they did not perceive their avenging Nemesis, and he was able to approach them within two hundred yards of the scene of their exertions, still unnoticed. At first, he thought of riding back and reporting his discovery in the orthodox way, but being a Canadian, and therefore dowered with a delightful freedom from all the restraining trammels of Red-Book rules, he decided ‘to score off his own bat’. So he dismounted, tied his horse to a telegraph-pole, rested his rifle over an ant-heap, took careful aim, and shot a Boer. As


  ― 172 ―
the startled men sprang to their feet in astonishment he shot another, and, whilst they were hurriedly seeking to mount their horses, he ‘bagged’ a third. The remaining two escaped.

The Canadian strolled over to the three bodies, and found each one of them quite dead. Doubting whether his comrades at the post would believe his unsupported story of having singly engaged five Boers, killing three, and putting the other two to flight, he—what do you think?—he took their scalps!

We reached Kroonstad for breakfast, remained there until nearly noon, and arrived at Brandfort in the evening. On the railway bridge near the latter town, a sentry had recently been ‘sniped’ by some enterprising sportsman, from the bed of the river, on a moonlight night. Accordingly, nowadays, the more representative burghers of Brandfort paraded with the guard on the bridge, and took turns of ‘sentry-go’ in military overcoats. There had been no more ‘sniping’.

Bloemfontein we came to in the ‘wee sma’ hours of the next day, and were immediately taken from our trucks, given a drink of hot milk and bovril, and placed in the bell-tents of the big canvas hospital under the long kopje where were mounted the Naval guns, and which since the British occupation has been known as Naval Hill. And next day, as a further stage of our progress to the coast, we were drafted


  ― 173 ―
off in batches to the various hospitals about the town and its vicinity.

One has written at greater length of hospital experiences than at first intended, but, as they would be incomplete without some account of the five weary weeks at Bloemfontein, we shall speak of the great hospital in the veldt, westward of the town, whither we were sent, in another chapter.

Moreover, the writer had opportunity of seeing, as it were, the Military Hospitals in three very representative stages. First there were the primitive arrangements, typical of the extreme Front, at Pretoria, where you slept in stables and fed like pigs. Then came the Amblers' Club, which was a sort of intermediate stage between inferiority and tolerability. Thirdly, we come to Number ‘N’ General, at Bloemfontein, which, at the time when we were inmates of it, was a good type of the Stationary Hospital, so located that every necessary thing might easily be procured; and which, therefore, had to stand or fall in one's estimation upon its own merits, and could shelter behind no excuse of interrupted communication—for then, and for many months, the lines to Port Elizabeth and Cape Town were both open to traffic, and supplies were coming through regularly, and in sufficiently large quantities to meet all requirements.

previous
next