Death from a Mauser bullet is less painful than the drawing of a tooth. Such, at least, appears to be the case, speaking generally from apparent evidence, without having the opportunity of collecting the opinions of those who have actually died. In books we have read of shrieks of expiring agony; but ask those who have been on many battlefields, and they will not tell you they have heard them. As a rule a sudden exclamation, "I'm hit!" "My God!" "Damn it!" They look as if staggering from the blow of a fist rather than that from a tiny pencil of lead--then a sudden paleness, perhaps a grasping of the hands occasionally as if to hold on to something, when the bottom seems to be falling out of all things stable, but generally no sign of aught else than the dulling of death--dulling to sleep--a drunken sleep--drunken death it often seems--very commonplace as a rule. A smile as often as, or oftener than, any sign of pain, but generally no sign of either. Think of this, mourning mothers of England. Don't picture your sons as drowning out of the world racked with the red torture from the bullet's track, but just as dropping off dully to sleep, most probably with no thought of you or home, without anxiety or regret. Merciful Mauser! He suffered much more pain when you brought him long ago to the dentist, and his agony in that horrible chair was infinitely greater than on his bed on the veldt. Merciful Mauser be thanked!
The first man I saw badly hit during the war was a Devon at Elandslaagte, just after they had advanced within rifle-range. He was shot through the head, and it seemed quite useless for the bearers to take the trouble of carrying him off the field; yet they went back looking in vain for a field ambulance. They carried him instead to the cart belonging to a well-known war correspondent. The owner had given the driver strict orders to remain where he was until his return, but the shells were falling around the cart, which, in fact, seemed to be made a mark of by the Boer gunners--perhaps they thought it belonged to one of our generals, whom they may have imagined had taken to driving, like Joubert and some others of theirs. The arrival of the wounded man was a great godsend to the driver, who immediately, with the most humane insistence, offered to drive him to the nearest field hospital. Neither cart nor driver was again seen until long after the battle was over, about nine o'clock in the evening. Strange to say, the man recovered from his wound.
In our first engagements there was rather too much anxiety on the part of a wounded man's comrades to carry him to the rear; but it did not continue for long. The actuating motive is not always kindness and humanity, but a desire to get out of danger. It was soon evident that it was only going from the frying-pan into the fire, as the danger of walking back carrying a wounded man was immensely greater than remaining or advancing more or less on one's stomach. Sometimes it was the unfortunate wounded man who was hit again. Men carrying off a wounded comrade of course render themselves strictly liable to be regarded as combatants.
A still more absurd practice was that of sometimes attempting to carry off the dead during an engagement. An instance of this was seen at Rietfontein. A couple of men of a Volunteer regiment were coming across the open ground below the hill under a pretty brisk fire, when Dr. H----, himself one of the most fearless of men, called out to them, "S---- has been killed down there; better bring him in." They turned back immediately, and one of them, J. Gillespie, got off his horse and lifted the corpse on to the saddle, they holding it in position by hanging on to a leg on either side, and walked back, while the bullets were whistling around them, and knocking up little spurts of dirt on the ground in front of them. It was a most ghastly sight; the head of the corpse bobbed about with the motion of the horse, and the lips of the corpse were drawn back in a horrible grin, as if he were laughing idiotically at them for trying to qualify for a Victoria Cross with a corpse. I really think they deserved it just as much as if he had been alive.
A curious thing happened to a horse of one of the men who were performing this feat. The owner found when he had returned to Ladysmith that his water-bottle, which was attached to his saddle, had been perforated by a bullet. Showing it to another in the evening, they came to the conclusion, from the position of the holes, that it would be impossible for the holes to be made in the position they were without wounding the horse. The next day, on examining the horse, he found a bullet had actually passed through and through him, and yet apparently he seemed none the worse.
There was another but different instance of a horse carrying a corpse at the battle of Lombard's Kop. There was no leering and hideous grinning at us, however, as the rider's head had been blown clean away by a Boer shell. The 5th Lancers were riding out on our right, when a single horse came galloping past them, clattering furiously over the stony veldt. No wonder the men stared; it was a sight to be remembered. The rider was firmly fixed in the deep cavalry saddle; the reins tossed loose with the horse's mane, and both hands were clenched against either side of his breast; and the head was cut off clean at the shoulders. Perhaps in the spasm of that death-tear the rider had gripped his horse's sides with his long-spurred heels; perhaps the horse also was wounded; anyhow, with head down, and wild and terrified eyes, his shoulders foam-bespewed, he tore past as if in horror of the ghastly burden he carried.
How wonderfully expressive are the eyes of these cavalry horses at times! There it seemed sheer horror; but often when wounded they look towards one with a world of pitiful appeal for relief; in their dumbness loud-voicedly reproachful against the horrors of war.
Two men being killed on one horse seems rather a tall order, yet it is perfectly true. It happened at the cavalry charge after Elandslaagte. Some of the Boers stood their ground with great stubbornness till our cavalry were only a few yards away. One middle-aged, bearded fellow stayed just a little too long, and had not time to get to his horse, which was a few yards away. He scrambled up behind a brother Boer who was just mounting, but almost immediately the 5th Lancers were upon them. There was a farrier-corporal, an immensely big, powerful fellow, who singled them out. They were galloping down a slight incline as hard as they could get their horse to travel, but their pursuer was gaining on them at every stride. When he came within striking distance he jammed his spurs into his big horse, who sprang forward like a tiger. Weight of man and horse, impetus of gallop and hill, focused in that bright lance-point held as in a vice. It pierced the left side of the back of the man behind, and the point came out through the right side of the man in front, who, with a convulsive movement, threw up his hands, flinging his rifle in the air. The Lancer could not withdraw his lance as the men swayed and dropped from their horse, but galloped on into the gathering darkness punctured with rifle flashes here and there and flitting forms that might be friend or foe. This poor fellow was killed a few days after at the battle of Rietfontein. How heartily the Boers hated these Lancers! They would have liked so much to have had lances barred as against the rules of war; and it would certainly have made an immense difference if our side had succeeded in getting a few more chances, especially at the commencement of the war, of using the lance.
The natives, numbers of whom were looking on at this battle, were greatly delighted with the cavalry charge. It seemed to take their fancy even more than did the artillery. "Great fight, baas--plenty much blood, plenty much blood," one of them described it. He said he was crouching down behind a sheltering rock while the Boers were running away past him, and then "the men with the assegais" came galloping after them. A Boer without his horse came running along, and, pulling him out, took his place behind the stone. A soldier galloped along and called out, "Hallo, Johnny, what are you doing here? You'll get hurt." Then, catching sight of the Boer, he stuck him down through the back as he passed. "Ah, baas, great fight--plenty much blood."
Wounds or death by Mauser bullets, or even by the thrust of a lance, are not to be compared, from the point of view of their pain-inflicting possibilities, with what may be done in that way by the fragment of a shell. That's the thing that hurts. Shell fire, speaking generally, is the "Bogy of Battle" to those not accustomed to it. The main purpose it accomplishes is to "establish a funk." When the actual damage done by shell fire after a battle is counted up and the number of shells fired, the results are most surprising. A poet in the Ladysmith Lyre wrote--
"One thing is certain in this town of lies:
If Long Tom hits you on the head you dies."
You do--unquestionably; but perhaps it is worse still to get a piece of a shell somewhere else. What frightful wounds they make sometimes! what mangled butchery in their track! See some poor fellow stretched on the operating-table, stripped for the patching or trimming which half-helpless surgery can supply. Apart from head and hands, which are sure to be khaki-colour with dirt caked in with sweat, the average Tommy usually presents a fine specimen of the human form divine--what is there finer in the world than the body of a well-shaped, muscular man? I always prefer the figure of the fighting gladiator to that of the Apollo Belvedere--and then, when shell fragments tear this body, it looks like some unspeakably unhallowed sacrilege. The horribly unlucky way these fragments seem to go in--an uncouth and butchering way instead of the gentlemanly puncture of the Mauser. One afternoon a young fellow galloped past me in the main street of Ladysmith. He had just got opposite the Town Hall hospital, when a shell from Bulwana burst right under his horse. When the cloud of dust and smoke cleared away, we found the horse lying on the road completely disembowelled, and the poor fellow flung on to the footpath, with a long piece of shell sticking in his side. As he was taken into the hospital he said, "This means two more Dutchmen killed." But the wound was obviously fatal; there was no use even in removing the piece of shell. The clergyman came to him and spoke to him for some time, and told him that there was no hope of recovery for him. He seemed to get tired of his ministrations, and asked them to "send down for my chum." When this chum arrived he was unable to speak, but just pressed his hand and smiled, and went off into his death-sleep.
A boy, who could not have been more than seventeen or eighteen, was lying on the side of the hill with his head on a flat stone. He had been hit by a piece of shell, and both his legs were broken and mangled above the knee. He was done for, and his life was only a matter of lasting some minutes. Another man, wounded somewhere internally, was lying beside him. There was no sign of pain on the boy's face; his eyes were closed. He just seemed very tired. Opening his eyes, he looked downwards intently at his legs, which were lying at an oblique angle with his body, from where they had been hit. It looked as if his trousers were the only attachment. As he gazed intently, a troubled look came over his face, and his wounded comrade beside him was watching him and saw it. The tired eyes closed again wearily, and then the wounded man alongside him, cursing with variegated and rich vocabulary, bent, or half rolled over, and caught first one boot and then the other, and lifted each leg straight down, swearing under his breath the while. Then he lay back, swearing at the blankety blank young blanker, and still watching him. Soon the tired eyes opened again, and instinctively looked down at his legs. They seemed to open wider as he looked; then he smiled faintly, thinking he had been mistaken about them before, and lay back, and the eyes did not open any more. The fellow beside him chuckled and said to himself, "Well, I'm damned!" but possibly the Recording Angel has put down a mark that may help to prevent it.
Times are changed from ages past; there is no longer the mighty "shock of arms," the pomp and panoply of glorious war. Men fall to the shrill whisper of a bullet, the sound of which has not time to reach their ears, fired by an invisible foe. Their death is merely the quod erat demonstrandum of a mathematical and mechanical proposition. But with bow and arrow, spear or battle-axe, Mauser or Lee-Metford, the heart behind the weapon is just the same now as then. Probably faint hearts fail now as then, just as much--shrink to a panic that falls on them suddenly as cold mist on mountain-top; and the stout hearts wait and endure, and perhaps do more of the waiting, and have to sweat and swear and endure this waiting longer now than then before the intoxicating delight of active battle finds vent for their hearts' desire, when, under names like "duty," a monarch's voice in their souls cries "Havoc," and lets slip the old dogs of savagery lying low in every man's nature, until the veldt of this new land is manured, like the juicy battlefields of old, "with carrion men groaning for burial."