December 12th, 1899.
The week has been a dull one, which in relation to the siege implies that the passing days have not borne what we have now come to regard as their full quota of shells and bullets. We here are somewhat sceptical of the lapses of the bombardment since tactics which the Boers have already adopted have led us to believe that intervals of some hours' duration be planned deliberately so that when shelling should be renewed, it may please Providence, ever on the side of the Boers, to have the streets thronged with people. Upon one or two occasions we have been lulled into a fancied security by the cessation of shell fire; but with the lamentable occurrences of last week, we are disinclined to be again caught napping. Accordingly, although there has been a week of extraordinary desistence upon the part of the enemy, those who were about were careful enough to take their airing within a short distance of their bomb-proof shelters. In a fashion, this gave to the environments of the town and the town itself, the appearance of a rabbit warren, where at sunset the little animals may be seen bunched about the entrance to their retreats. A few ladies enjoyed the novelty of tea al fresco, with possibly, a keener appreciation for their propinquity to some bomb-proof, than for the light refreshment in which they were indulging.
Thus it came that I was visiting the hospital, chatting with the physicians upon the stoep of the building. Beneath the shelter of the verandah lay the forms of many who had been wounded, and who now were sufficiently recovered to sit outside; here and there a man limped painfully with the aid of crutches, to talk to a comrade who, with his arm in a sling, was not altogether inappreciative of the fact that he had been wounded in a recent sniping affray against the enemy's position in the brickfields. As we sat upon the stoep with our legs dangling to the ground, behind us in the building there was the complement of battle: the wounded, the nurses, and the doctors; but in front of us there was the expansion of the veldt, green and peaceful. The heat haze lay upon it, simmering in an endless stretch of floating vapour. There was every appearance of the provincial and rural simplicity which goes to make up the daily life of those who live upon the veldt. There were homesteads which, but a few months ago, had been the centre of some small and flourishing agrestic community, but were now charred and blackened, epitomising the destruction which the Boers deal out to unoffending people; in the place of the herds which formerly had grazed upon the scene, there were the white covers of the Boer laagers; there were the lines of the Boer horses, there were the mobs of cattle, of sheep, of goats, which, raided from the countryside, had been collected in the rear of the enemy's encampments. Upon the skyline, from the steps of the hospital, the emplacement of "Big Ben" could be seen outlined quite distinctly in the bright sunlight. The position of the gun was known by the glint of the sun as it played upon the burnished metal.
Presently, as we talked, there came the boom of cannon, and the enemy had turned upon the stadt their quick-firing Krupps. Instinctively, since the habits which rule the enemy are well known to us, a wounded man called out to us that was the five o'clock gun, and for the moment we were uncertain as to whether the peace of the afternoon would be further disturbed. But in a little a column of smoke, white and heavy, hung over the position of "Big Ben," and we at once settled down for further shelling during the remainder of the time that daylight lasted. In the distance, out on the furthest limits of the Stadt, there came echoes, echoing back the noise of the explosion when the hundred-pound shell burst amid a collection of native huts. It is so seldom that these greater projectiles miss their victims, that preparations were at once made for any casualties that might have been sent to the hospital. With these measures taken, we waited while the firing grew heavier. It was just one of those moments which we had been anticipating from the fashion which our friend the Boer had already set, and in a little it was proved that whatever had been our expectations they would be fully realised. When the firing began, the scene upon the stoep of the hospital gradually changed; the wounded were carried back to their wards, Surgeon-Major Anderson, the Imperial officer who has been sent out here; Dr. Hayes, who in the virtue of the rank of P.M.O. conferred by Colonel Baden-Powell, has charge of the hospital, and his brother, both local practitioners, waited the course of events upon the steps of the building. For the time firing seemed confined to the artillery and rifles from the Boer trenches in the brickfields, the south-eastern front of the town and the eastern facing of the native location receiving the brunt. By degrees the entire position of the enemy upon that side dropped into line, giving cause and effect to the wisps of smoke which broke into the air about the advanced trenches of the foe. In about half an hour from the time the first shell exploded over the stadt, a stretcher-party appeared coming from the town and began to descend into the trench which led to the hospital. As they crossed the recreation ground, a large white flag which was carried in advance of the party, heralding to the Boers the passing of wounded, attracted the attention of the enemy and was promptly fired upon. It is these wilful acts which make it difficult to consider the Boer in any way removed from a savage combatant, and although the flag-bearer waved repeatedly to the enemy's trenches, the fire from that direction did not diminish. With no little heroism the stretcher-party, which was under Sergeant-Major Dowling, a resident physician in Cape Town, who volunteered his services for the campaign, and who has charge of the subsidiary hospital in the native location, made their way across the zone of fire to the doors of the hospital. Then in a moment all that had been peaceful and serene before, became impressed with the horrible effects and the fearful injuries which are derived from war.
The stretcher was taken to the operating-room, where nurses had already begun to arrange the table, to prepare the carbolic lotion, to lay out the lint and bandages, the dressing dishes, sponges, and a fine array of instruments; then when the stretcher had been placed beside the table, willing and gentle hands lifted the inanimate form by the corners of the brown and blood-stained mackintosh sheet in which the body had been enshrouded. Dr. Hayes snicked the strings which had caught the ends of the sheet about the injured, and as he threw back the flaps Surgeon-Major Anderson gently separated the clothing where, matted with blood, it had congealed into a sticky mass about the injuries. The doctors and the surgeon, bending with callous diffidence about the inert and prostrate form, then proceeded rapidly with their examination. Through the western windows of the room there came the ruddy rays of the sun as it sank to its rest. The light caught the bottles on the shelves, flickered for a moment upon the silvery brightness of the instruments, and played about the hair of the nurses, who, passing to and fro across the window, were as much interested in their work as in the nature of the patient's injuries. In a corner of the room Sergeant-Major Dr. Dowling explained to Surgeon-Major Anderson that the patient, who was a native woman of some repute, had been washing clothes upon the banks of the Molopo, when a flight of one-pound steel-pointed Maxim shells burst about her. The pelvis and the femur had been shattered completely, besides internal wounds of a most fatal character in the abdominal regions. The left foot was also pulverised, the extraordinary part being that any one, after suffering such severe injuries and sustaining so great a shock to the system, should yet be living. The examination completed, Dr. Hayes, turning to the head nurse, said that it was impossible to do anything which would save the woman's life, inquiring, as Surgeon-Major Anderson dissolved a grain of morphia in a wine-glass, if any one knew the name of the native. As the nurse was about to reply, the patient, moaning feebly, expressed in excellent English, that her name was Martha. Then it appeared that she was recognised as being the wife of a Fingo in the location, one who before marriage had been a member of the oldest profession which the world has ever known, but since lawful wedlock had consummated her union, she had passed, after the manner of her tribe, a life of great austerity. The air of the operating-room was becoming oppressive, the moaning of the patient merging with the heavy scent of the iodoform and the lighter evaporation of the carbolic liniment began gradually to dominate the nerves. To the casual observer such as myself, the scene was striking. The insensitiveness of those assembled in the operating-room, in reality the outcome of great experience in a particular profession, enforced a calmness of feature and of feeling with which I was far from being actually animated. The mechanical industry of the surgeons, the automatic regularity with which the hospital orderly waved his fly whisk above the head of the dying woman, imparted a coldness to the scene which one could not help observing. In a fashion, all that human skill could do had been accomplished, since had the foot been amputated at the ankle, or the thigh removed at the hip, the labour would have been unnecessary, the extra shock to the system serving only to accelerate the end. Very gently they sponged the mouth and nose of the woman and cooled her brow, very gently they administered morphia and sips of brandy, but one by one the doctors, rinsing their hands and lowering their shirt-sleeves, put on their jackets. At the door of the operating-room Dr. Hayes and Surgeon-Major Anderson paused to impart a few brief instructions to the nurses. They were not to forget, said the P.M.O., to remove the tourniquet from the pelvis when the end had come; Surgeon-Major Anderson adding to this an order to continue waving the fly whisk so long as there existed the necessity.
And the incident had closed.