At daybreak on the morning of December 15th the Field Hospital was already astir. While it was yet dark the silence of the camp was broken in upon by the rousing of the orderlies, by much slapping upon the sides of silent tents, by much stumbling over darkened tent ropes, and by sudden calls of "Get up, you chaps," "Tumble out," "Chuck yourselves about." "Why don’t you wake a man up?" cries out one peevish voice among the recently roused. "Why don’t you make a noise?" says another in sleepy tones. "Is the whole camp afire and is the Boers on us, or is this your idea of calling a gentleman?" mutters a sarcastic man, as he puts his head out of the fly of his tent.
In a few minutes everyone in the camp is on the move, for there is little needed to complete a toilet beyond the tightening of a belt and the pulling on of a pair of boots. All are in the best of spirits, and the collecting together of goods and chattels and the preparing of a hurried breakfast proceed amidst infinite chatter and many camp pleasantries. We are at last on the move. We are the last to go. This is the day of the long expected battle, and we are to push on to the front. The real fighting is to begin, and there is not a man who is not possessed by the conviction that the Boers will to-day be swept from the Tugela - if they have not already fled - and that General Buller will have a "walk over."
One cannot but be reminded, many times since, that the advance to Ladysmith was always spoken of as a "walk over."
Moreover, everyone is glad to leave Frere - dreary, sweltering Frere. Since the column left it has become a waste of desolation; the very grass has been already worn away, and there is nothing but an expanse of bald earth, scarred with the landmarks of a camp that was, glistening with empty meat and biscuit tins which flash in the sun, and dotted over with a rabble of debris. The picturesque cavalry camp, with its rows of restless horses, is now only indicated by more or less formal lines of dirtier dirt. The avenues and squares of white tents are gone, and in their place is a khaki waste covered with the most melancholy of refuse.
At the outskirts of great towns there is usually, in a place or two, a desert plot of land marked off by disreputable relics of a fence and trodden into barren earth by innumerable untidy feet. If such a plot be diversified with occasional ash heaps, with derelict straw, and with empty tins and bottomless pots and pans, it will represent in miniature the great camp of Frere after the column had moved to the river.
Frere was indeed no longer Frere. It had become suddenly quiet, and the depressed garrison left behind were almost too listless to watch, with suitable jealousy, our preparations for departure.
On this particular morning the sun rose gloriously. Out of the gloom there emerged rapidly the grey heights of the far-off Drachenbergs, and as the light of the dawn fell full upon them, their ashen precipices and pinnacles became rose-coloured and luminous; and the terraces of green which marked the foot of each line of barren cliff seemed so near and so strangely lit that many a man, busy in the work of striking camp, stopped to gaze on these enchanted mountains. The whole range, however, looks chilled and barren - as barren, as solitary, as unearthly as the mountains of the moon.
Before the peaks of the Drachenbergs were well alight the boom of our great guns sounded with startling clearness, and it was evident that the prelude for the battle had begun.
In due course a train of goods wagons backed down to the side of the hospital. The tents and countless panniers, boxes, sacks, and miscellaneous chattels of the hospital were packed upon the trucks. Our instructions were to proceed by train to Colenso, and to there unload and camp. There was apparently no doubt but that the village by the Tugela would immediately be in our hands. Early rumours reached us, indeed, that the Boers had fled, and that no living thing was to be seen on the heights beyond the river. These rumours were soon to be discredited by the incessant roar of cannon, and later by the barking of the "pom-pom" and the minor patter of rifle firing.
Four nurses were to go with the train: the two who had accompanied me from London, Miss McCaul and Miss Tarr, and two army sisters from Netley, Sister Sammut and Sister Martin.
While the train was being loaded the nurses waited at the hotel or store. The hotel, a little unpretending bungalow, represented one of the three or four dwellings which made up the settlement of Frere. It was kept by Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, to whose hospitality we were, on this and other occasions, much indebted. Mr. Wilson and his family were excellent representatives of the many sturdy and loyal colonists who are to be found throughout Natal. When the Boers approached Frere they were compelled to fly to the south, and when they returned to what had once been a home, they found such a wreck of a house as only Boers can effect. Everything had been looted that could be looted, and what could not be removed had been ruthlessly broken up. Even the books in the ample book-case had been torn to pieces. The empty rooms were filled with filth and wreckage, and nothing had escaped the obscene hands of these malicious marauders. Every cupboard had been torn open and, if possible, torn down; every drawer had been rifled of its contents; and on the floor, among fragments of broken chairs and crockery and discarded articles of clothing, would be found a photograph of a child, trampled out of recognition, or some small keepsake which had little value but its associations. The Boers, indeed, do not stop at mere looting, but mark their visits by fiendish malice and by a savage mischievousness which would not be unworthy of an escaped baboon.
The train carrying the hospital and its possessions moved on to Frere Station, where it took up the equipment of officers and men. There was a passenger carriage with one compartment in which were accommodated the nurses and three others. The officers, sergeants, and orderlies rode on the piles of baggage which filled the open trucks.
The day was blazing hot, and thirst proportionate. The heat oppressed one with the sense of something that had weight. Any breeze that moved was heavy with heat.
At last we started for the actual front, full of expectancy and in the best of spirits. The distance to Chieveley is about seven miles across the veldt, across the trestle bridge, and past the wreck of the armoured train. The train moved up the incline to Chieveley very slowly, and as we approached the higher ground it struck us all that the incessant artillery and rifle firing, and the constantly repeated crack of the "pom-pom," were hardly consistent with the much-emphasised "walk-over."
Outside Chieveley Station, the station of which we were to see so much later on, the crawling train stopped, and a galloper came up with a message requesting me to go down to the battlefield at once. At the same time, Major Brazier-Creagh, who was in charge of the hospital train, and who was always as near the front as he could get, came up and told us that things were going badly at Colenso, that we had lost several guns, and that the wounded were coming in in scores.