It was from Frere Camp that the army under General Buller started for the Tugela River, and the Hospital pitched its tents in that camp on the evening of Monday, December 11th, 1899. We went up from Pietermaritzburg by train. The contents were soon emptied out on the line, some little way outside Frere Station, and close to the railway the Hospital was put up. That night we all slept under canvas - many for the first time - and all were well pleased that we had at last arrived at the front.
Frere is merely a station on the line of rail which traverses Natal, and as it consists only of some three or four houses and a few trees it can hardly be dignified by the name of hamlet. Frere is simply a speck - a corrugated iron oasis - on the vast undulating plains of the veldt. These plains roll away to the horizon, and are broken only by kopjes and dongas and the everlasting ant-hills.
On the way towards Ladysmith are a few kopjes of large size, from any one of which the line of the Tugela can be seen, with the hills beyond, occupied by the Boer entrenchments, and over them again the hills which dominate Ladysmith. On the way towards Estcourt winds a brown road, along which an endless train of ox-wagons rumble and are lost in the wilderness of the camp.
The river which is reputed to "run" through Frere has long since ceased to run. The water is retained by certain dams, and the pools thus formed are uninviting. The water is the colour of pea-soup, and when in a glass is semi-opaque and of a faint brownish colour. The facetious soldier, as he drinks it, calls it "khaki and water."
In the lowest pool, immediately above the iron railway bridge which has been blown up by the Boers, Tommy Atkins bathes with gusto in what is seemingly a light-coloured mud. Here also he washes his socks and his shirts.
The centre of the camp is the railway station, and that of Frere is the smallest and most unpretending that any hamlet could pretend to. It is, however, crowded out of all reason, and its platform of hard earth is covered with boxes and baggage and sacks and saddles in as much disorder as if they had been thrown in panic from a burning train. Between the little goods shed and the little booking-office are several stands of rifles. A sentry, proud apparently in his covering of dust, is parading one end of the platform, while at the other end a motley crowd of perspiring soldiers are filling water-bottles at the tank which supplies the engine. In the waiting-room a tumbled mass of men are asleep on the floor, while on a bench in front of it two men-of-war’s men are discussing an English paper six weeks old.
Outside the station are ramparts of provision boxes and cases of ammunition, and iron water cisterns and mealie bags, and to the fragments of a railing which surrounds the station horses, of all kinds and in all stages of weariness, are tied.
A ragged time-table on the wall, dealing with the train service to Pretoria, and with the precise hour of the arrival of the trains there, seems but a sorry jest. The stationmaster’s house has been looted, and the little garden in front of it has been trampled out of being, save for two or three red geraniums which still bloom amidst the dirt. This house is, for the time, the general’s headquarters, and before it waves the Union Jack.
When we reached the camp it was stated that 30,000 men were under canvas. A camp of this size must of necessity present an endless scene of bustle and movement. Nothing seemed at rest but the interminable array of white tents and the rows of baggage wagons. Cavalry would be moving in one direction and infantry in another. Here a mounted patrol would be riding out or a couple of scouts coming in. There would be a long line of Kaffirs carrying bales and boxes to a temporary depot, and here a troop of eager horses hurrying to the river to drink. Gallopers would be seen in all directions, and everywhere would be struggling teams of oxen or of mules enveloped in clouds of dust and urged on by sweating men and strange oaths, and by the shrill yells of the Kaffir drivers, whose dust-dried throats gave out noises like the shrieks of parrots.
There was no shade of any kind, and the camp during the day lay dry, dusty, parched and restless under a blazing sun, but at night there was a cool wind and cheery camp fires, and a darkness which blotted out the dusty roads, the dried-up river, the dismal piles of stores, and the general picture of a camp in a desert of baked earth.
Every night a search-light was at work sending dispatches to Ladysmith, and almost every morning could be heard the Boer guns thundering over that unhappy place.
The British soldier looked very smart in his khaki suit when embarking at Southampton, but at Frere he showed the effects of wear, and his tunic, his belt, his pouches, his boots and his face, had all toned down to one uniform tint of dirt colour. He was of the earth earthy. He was unshaven. His clothes had that abject look of want of "fit" that is common to clothes which have been slept in, which have been more than once soaked through, and which have more than once dried upon the body of the owner.