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Chapter XI The Hospital (Continued)

NUMBER ‘N’ General Hospital stood to the west of Bloemfontein, on the rising veldt that stretched away to Kimberley. You came out past the white-columned Raadzaal, through the bushes that fringed the outskirts of the town, kept northward of the great clump of willow trees that had been so cool and shady when we came before—but were bare and leafless now—crossed a deep spruit, and arrived at the wide-spreading city of snowy canvas. On the higher skyline were redoubts and trenches, infantry and artillery camps, and, standing up clean and sharply-cut against the bluest of all blue skies, the gloriously purple, far-off peaks of conical and sugar-loaf kopjes—miles, and miles, and ever so many miles away through the clear, dry, closer-bringing atmosphere.

And if you stood, ere you entered the lines and streets of gleaming tents—stood just on the threshold of the suburbs of that strangely-peopled city—and looked back across the intervening veldt, your eye took in a picture of such sunlit beauty, such clear and


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smiling sweetness of earth, and sky, and distant glowing hills, as you will never in all your ‘afterwards’ remember but with pleasure and delight.

Across a mile or more of bare, brown veldt the buildings of brick, and stone, and iron nestled in their beds of evergreen eucalyptus and leafless oak and elm. Spires, and walls, and gleaming iron roofs studded the deep-green and gold-grey beauty of their lovely setting. The dome above the Raadzaal, the steeple of the Dutch Church, the floating Union Jack over the Presidency, lingered in one's vision beside the rest. At one end the old fort rose above the clustering roofs on its little kopje, at the other there stretched away from us to eastward the long, flat bulk of Naval Hill. Away behind, forty miles away, yet clear and sharply showing in every curve of outline, lay blue Thaba N'chu—the great historic mountain of the brave old Voortrekkers. Down to southward, in the rolling ridges, were the little groups of shining distant tents that marked the outposts in the wide perimeter of possible defence. Between them and us, beside the road that had led in the march from Driefontein, was the great Rest Camp—a bewildering massing together of bell-tents.

If you have gazed long enough across the open to beautiful Bloemfontein, and have drunk in all the loveliness of scene we used to sit and watch through many afternoons for hours unweariedly, it will be worth your while to turn and look at what is close to


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you—the trim orderliness, and clean regularity, and manifest respectability of Number ‘N’.

It is a wonderful place, a kind of new world of weird beings in bright new clothes, and spurred and booted surgeons who never rode a horse—and, above all, it is the kingdom of ‘Mad Jack’.

There were streets and lanes of stately marquee tents—one great group upon the right hand, and another upon the left, and, in between, an open space with galvanised-iron huts for stores, and kitchens, and washing-places. In the background there were acres of bell-tents—tenantless now, but once upon a time (which the orderlies speak of yet shudderingly as ‘the fever time’) full to overflowing.

Each marquee is dressed in its line, correct and level to the quarter of an inch. Every guy-rope is uniform and symmetrical with regard to every other, every peg is driven into the ground at the same angle as every other peg, and all are whitewashed. Along each broad highway are whitened stones, set evenly in rows upon the ground, and, at the corners, little heaps of boulders, also of a glowing whiteness.

There is nothing here that stands out from its surroundings. All is uniformity and monotony of sameness. The patients are dressed with an exact similarity—blue flannel trousers, ill-fitting flannel jackets of the same vivid hue, red neckties, and yellow slippers; and each man blows his nose upon a red cotton handkerchief with a white border. The


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orderlies are all in khaki serge, the officers in uniform, with puttees or leggings, and sometimes spurs. The Nursing Sisters glide from tent to tent, in their neat grey gowns with the red capes about their shoulders, and white muslin headdress—pleasant to behold, and generally pleasant to speak to and be nursed by, and always, one thinks, good, brave gentlewomen.

In our marquee there were five Tommies and the writer. There was a private of the West Riding who had been a colour-sergeant—but was ‘smashed’—suffering from rheumatism, and so bad that he was unable to bear the coldness of sheets upon his bed. Next to him, one of the Scots Guards, badly wounded in the groin. Then a Fourteenth Hussar, who said his heart was weak. It was—but not in the way he sought to impress the doctor with. Beside him lay a little lance-corporal of the Essex Regiment, whose trouble was synovitis of the right knee. Opposite the writer's bed was that of a broken-jawed private of the Oxfordshire Light Infantry. The writer was the only un-English resident, and, being an Australian, was a person of some consequence in the community.

Comparatively all the appointments of the marquee were on a scale of unexampled luxury. There was a tarpaulin on the earthen floor by way of carpet. We slept on beds—real iron beds with spring mattresses and sheets—think of it—sheets! There were counterpanes, too, and pillows with pillow-cases, and


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they were changed as soon as ever they began to get dirty; and we had night-shirts, and day shirts, and all manner of fine things. There were little bedside tables for each man, and there was a bigger table by the door of the tent with a looking-glass on it, and plates, and knives and forks, and enamelled bowls to drink from. And we had an orderly to attend on us—(only he didn't, he got us to attend on him)—and we were quite suddenly become as millionnaires and princes, who have everything they want and a good deal they don't want—which we had too.

But a bed—a real bed—just think of it! You may laugh if you like, you who read this enthusiastic boastfulness of beds, but just you sleep upon the bare ground under the stars, wet and dry, every night for seven months, and when you get into a bed again—a real, soft, comfortable bed—you will never want to leave it. The good Captain B——, who visited ours and two other marquees, felt the writer's ankle, and put it into plaster-of-Paris, and sent him to bed for three weeks, and the writer knew himself that, if it had been for three years, he would have borne it cheerfully. My goodness! but it was fine. The luxury of it!

And so, for those restful weeks one was in bed, and there were opportunities afforded Tommy Cornstalk of studying Tommy Atkins at close quarters, such as he had not had before—and the little Sister, and Mad Jack, and Keen the Orderly, and the Boy


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Chaplain, who served out funny little prayer-books with swords, and guns, and lances printed on their covers—and all the other variously interesting types of humanity who moved about the hospital.

It was a curiously interesting experience. It would be just as interesting to an inmate of a pauper asylum or a gaol. One found new types of men, of whose existence one had merely read before. There were tales of strange lives and of a different world to the one we knew of in Australia. There was the quaintest profanity in language, the most singular and notable slang to be met with outside the chronicles of Mulvaney and his allies. There were anecdotes of life in barrack-room such as we would not repeat to a Chinaman; there were stories of garrison towns that would shock Beelzebub. Robbery and rape were homely topics amongst those delightful army types. Getting drunk was never such a glorified feat as one heard it spoken of in Number ‘N’. One has lived and worked with all manner of outcast men to whom obscenity was wit and blasphemy the salt of conversation, but never has one, or never will again, perhaps, encounter such strange gifts of foul-mouthed loquacity as one lived through in that five weeks at Bloemfontein.

And yet—one never will meet again five kindlier souls, or more generous, or better disposed, or more unselfishly ready to assist a helpless comrade. One may never forget the quiet little helping ways they


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had, whilst one lay in bed unable to assist oneself. The red-headed Guardsman, who was the foulest souled of all, swept the floor about one's bed in the mornings, or walked painfully to the reading tent and brought back books, out of sheer good-heartedness. The little Dublin guttersnipe who graced the Essex mended one's trousers, and refused so much as half a fig of black tobacco by way of repayment for his trouble. And they were all just as kind and helpful to one another. Sampson, who talked with difficulty by reason of his bandaged jaw, moved silently about the tent doing perpetual little jobs of tidiness. They were the tidiest men in the world. But most soldiers of the regular army are that. Imagine the same class in a shearer's hut!

The day commenced with the arrival of Keen from his quarters. Keen was a Cockney-Scotchman—at least, that is how West Riding described him. He was always desirous of buying things from you, which he would sell to some one else at a higher figure. “Yah! blinded, bloomin' Sheeny—vat you dinks!”—he of the Guards would remark by way of ‘riling’ him. The Hussar sold him a coloured blanket—the cheap sort you may purchase anywhere for a few shillings, and the design upon which was a most startling combination of all the cardinal colours. Keen traded it to the little Sister as having come from Cronje's laager. The amount of stuff which Cronje must have had stored in that laager was simply enormous. You


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certainly never buy any Boer curios or relics except upon the understanding that it was salvaged from Paardeberg. It cannot be genuine otherwise.

Shortly after the coming of Keen, a man brings the day's allowance of bread—a very liberal one here. Nobody gets up much before breakfast-time. A bucket of water and basin are the means of toilets. The buckets are beautifully clean and polished in Number ‘N’.

One pot of jam was given to us each day, and one ounce of butter for every man. Besides these delicacies there were, as ‘extras,’ a tin of cocoa paste, two pineapples, twelve oranges, four bottles of stout, and two ounces of whisky in common amongst the tentful. The broken jaw and the ‘rheumatism,’ also, had special diets of their own.

Immediately after breakfast those who were able to move about assisted Keen in sweeping out the tent, making the beds, and generally cleaning and polishing all the plates and utensils in use, so that everything might be neat and ‘shipshape’ against the coming of the Doctor at ten o'clock. If the weather were fine, the canvas sides of the marquee were looped up all round, so that the air might circulate freely and keep the atmosphere of the tent fresh and sweet.

Just before the advent of the Doctor, the little Sister who had charge of the row of marquees in which ours stood came to see that all was right. If it


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wasn't she bullied Keen unmercifully. It was almost ludicrous to see the compact little woman, with the firm chin and tender eyes, ordering about great, hulking men who could have carried her in their pockets, so to speak. She always had her way—which, however, is not unusual with her sex. She, too, was Scotch, but her speech was much prettier than Keen's.

When the Doctor came we all lay in, or upon, our beds with our board-mounted diet-sheets in our hands, and he took a lot of cheerful trouble over each of us, and was civil, and witty, and alert—much more alert than the Hussar desirous of heart-disease supposed. Every one liked Captain B——. He was not a regular R.A.M.C. man, but belonged to some volunteer medical corps in London, and had a good practice privately, Keen said. Keen knew everything.

‘Extras’ were drawn from the Quartermaster's stores at eleven o'clock, and we drank the drinks immediately—by way of diversion—and kept the fruit until the afternoon. The cocoa paste was made use of after dinner and at night, making a couple of bowls apiece, with hot water from the cookhouse, which Oxfordshire procured by reason of possessing a ‘towny’ amongst the cooks. We lived well in our marquee, principally owing to the pushing ways of Keen—who levied commission on all he obtained for us—and the kindness of Captain B——.




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Dinner was mainly ‘roast varied’—which is meat, gravy, vegetables, salt, mustard and pepper, in a little flat tin. The tins were carried from the cookhouse in a hot-water tray, so that they kept warm.

The afternoon was a time of sleep, of lurid conversation, or reading, or draughts, or chess, or dominoes, or cards. At four o'clock little niggers came through the lines selling the Bloemfontein Post, which we always bought. There was little enough of news in it, and its leaders were obviously inspired, but there was occupation and interest in trying to read the Dutch pages, and any news was better than none. Its telegraphic items relative to the war were probably much more reliable than those of the big papers in England and Australia at the time, but they were usually many days old. The Post was the successor of the Friend, which had been a so bitterly anti-English journal before the British occupation, and a so brilliantly edited news-letter for the few weeks immediately after that event, when it was under the control of the war correspondents.

Tea was at four-thirty, and sleep came about nine o'clock. Every day was as the one described. They never varied to a quarter of an hour. You ate the same thing and did the same thing every day as you had done yesterday and the day before, and, after a week of it, the monotony of existence was unspeakable. One seemed to have become a machine. After the activity of life at the front, the lack of exercise


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and change was the most trying experience of all the war. At times it affected men's spirits strangely, and one has heard of cases of melancholia arising from the enforced idleness of hospitals coming in so sudden contrast to a mental state that pulsated with interest and excitement.

One must make further mention of ‘Mad Jack’. To speak of Number ‘N’ and pass that worthy over would be as though one told of the sea and ignored the fact that its fundamental element was water. ‘Mad Jack’ was the fundamental element of Number ‘N’. He had the sending of patients to Capetown, and as most men wished to get to Capetown, if only for a change, most men came into contact with him, and most men wished subsequently that they had rather come in contact with the Evil One himself. It was amusing, but disastrous to your chances of a trip down country, to go before ‘Mad Jack,’ and let him see what your inclinations were.

He was in charge of a large part of the hospital, and held army rank as a Lieutenant-Colonel, and was a most curious and interesting character. Short, wiry, slightly knock-kneed, with legs very much shorter than his long, flat-backed body, and dressed in a khaki uniform that did not fit him well, and with leggings some sizes too large for his calves, he was a strange figure as he stood outside his office-tent making fiery speech to the luckless patient or orderly who might have chanced to incur his wrath. A keen,


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square-jawed, sun-tanned face peered at you through gold glasses, as though he sought to probe your very soul with his choleric gaze. Popular report credited him with having been in the Army Medical Service for more years than most of us could count to our ages. He had been previously in Africa in '81, in India, in Malta—in all, or nearly all, the many places where British soldiers go.

But it was of Ireland of which he seemed to wish you always to bear in mind that he was a son. Should it happen that you were Irish also—Cork for preference—then, indeed, was your bed a bed of roses and your path an easy one. They said that he had done good work down about Colesberg in the early year, and that he had been mentioned in despatches for conspicuous gallantry. And they told all manner of stories about him—his sayings became proverbs, his quaint wit and quainter wrath subjects of laughing talk in the marquees at night. No one who has sojourned in Number ‘N’ can possibly forget ‘Mad Jack’.

A civil surgeon, doing duty at the hospital, had, at his own request, sent a certain man before him whom he (the civil surgeon) had recommended for Capetown.

“Phwat ails ye, me man—phwat ails ye, phwat ails ye? Can ye not sphake—what, what, what!”

“You told me to come and see you, sir, and Mr. S—— sent me up this morning.”




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“Shtand up sthraight, ye scoundthrel—shtand up sthraight in y'r boots! I didn't tell ye anything av the sort—what, what, what!”

“But, sir, I——”

“Shtop y'r ‘buts,’ me man. I tould ye nothing av the koind. Kape shtill, now! Phwat d'ye mane by comin' here thryin' to tell me I said such nonsinse? I niver said it!”

“Well, Colonel D——”

“Now phwat d'ye mane by y'r insubordination? I'll get ye two years, me man. Phwat ails ye, I tell ye? For why do ye not answer me? Is it dumb ye are? Come here—come here into the loight, till I look phwat koind av a man ye are, at all. Why don't ye tell me phwat's the matter wid ye? What, what, what!”

“Well, sir, I've had enteric, and the Doc——”

“Ye've had no such thing at all. Phwat d'ye know about enteric? Who tould ye ye'd had enteric. Ye've not! Ye got a bullet now, didn't ye? What!”

“Yes, sir, but I had enteric after in——”

“ 'Twas a bullet, ye Irishman! Phwat soort of an elephint ye must be not to know the difference betwane a gunshot wound an' faver? D'ye want to go to Kep Town? Now shpake the truth, me man. Do-ye-want-to-go-to-Kep-Town? What, what, what!”

“Yes, sir, I'd like——”

“Well, ye won't! Ye'll not go to Kep Town! Rist


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Camp, Rist Camp, Rist Camp! Mark him ‘Rist Camp,’ sargint. Sure ye're just the bhoyo for th' Rist Camp!”

“But, sir, I'm feeling very weak, and——”

“Wake, is it? Ye fale wake. Ye don't, ye don't, ye know well ye don't! Go along wid ye, me man—isn't it the tickey beer in Kep Town an' the Dutch gurls ye're thinkin' of? What! Look here, me lad, ye were never so well off in yer loife as ye'll be in the Rist Camp. Sure, the Colonel 'll thrate ye loike his own son. Aw, yis, ye'll go to th' Rist Camp. Sure, it's a grand place entirely. Kep Town!—Kep Town!—what, what, what! Now, I'll just tell ye what, me bhoyo—a fortnight in the Rist Camp an' two years in China 'll jist put ye roight. Ye'll be a new man afther it—what, what, what!”

“Oh, damn it!—won't you let me speak?”

“Phwat's that, phwat's that? Who are ye, who are ye? Phwat d'ye mane be comin' here shwearin' an' cur-rsin' loike that? Who are ye, who are ye? Phwat rigimint do ye belong to?”

“Oh, Second New Zealand Contingent.”

“Aw—these dam Colonials! Mark him ‘Kep Town,’ sargint—get out, get out o' me soight! Sure, I get no pace at all wid you Austhralians, an' Canad'yan's, an' New Zealanders! Go on—get away off to y'r marquee! Y're not fit t' thravel! Mark him ‘further tratement,’ sargint. Alright, alright—go away! Go away—out o'—me soight. Aw, yes, yes,


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yes! Ye'll go to Kep Town—anywhare t' get rid av ye!”

The above is only a sample of the style and manner of this quaint creature. He strolled about the Camp, stopping and questioning men on all kinds of astonishing subjects. He was, without doubt, the greatest feature of Number ‘N’. An encounter with ‘Mad Jack’ kept you laughing to yourself for twenty-four hours. No one could ever forget him.

But under the quaint, eccentric manner and the quizzical fury of his denunciation there beat a good heart, and he was, in his own way, a kindly, honest gentleman enough. He may have been a singular curiosity, but he was a rough diamond also.

Sometimes, at night, neighbours would drop into your marquee. And there had come one who was a ‘bleeder’—at any rate that is what he of the Fourteenth said of him. It seemed to be a pet name for a typical low-class Londoner—a slum-dragger, one of the very much ‘submerged tenth’.

There were other Hospitals down the line—there were Wynberg and Woodstock, for example. But has not the voice of the M.P. been raised in the land, and has he not told you all about them from the fulness of his knowledge and vastness of his experience? And when you are told a thing isn't it wise to believe it always—if you want to? There was, too, the wonderfully perfect ambulance train that bore us Capewards,


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but if you wish to become learned as to ambulance trains read “With Number Three”.note

Personally, after the lapse of months, one has dreary memories of life in hospital; but it was very much better than one had expected it to be.

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