My wagon and mules were already at Chieveley when the train reached that place, and I was able to start for the scene of action without a moment’s delay.
From Chieveley the grass-covered veldt slopes evenly to the Tugela and to Colenso village, which lies upon its southern bank. This slope, some few miles from Chieveley, is broken by a long ridge, upon which the 4.7 naval guns were placed. From this ridge the whole battlefield could be viewed.
Under the shelter of the ridge, and close to the great guns, four little field hospitals were pitched, and here I made my first acquaintance with the circumstances of war. Each field hospital would be represented by a small central marquee, which formed an operating and dressing station, and a number of bell tents around it, which would accommodate in all about one hundred patients.
When I arrived the ambulances were already coming in - the dreary ambulances, each one with a load of suffering, misery, and death! Each wagon was drawn by ten mules and driven by a Kaffir, and over the dusty hood of each the red cross flag waved in the shimmering heat. They came along slowly, rocking and groaning over the uneven veldt like staggering men, and each drew up at one or other of the little hospitals under the ridge. Every ambulance carried a certain number of wounded men who were well enough to sit up, and a smaller number who were lying on stretchers - the "sitting up" and "lying down" cases, as they were respectively called. Those who could move themselves were soon helped down from the wagon by willing hands, while the stretchers were taken out by relays of trained bearers.
What a spectacle it was! These were the very khaki-clad soldiers who had, not so long ago, left Waterloo, spick and span, amid a hurricane of cheers, and now they were coming back to camp silent and listless, and scarcely recognisable as men. They were burnt a brown red by the sun, their faces were covered with dust and sweat, and were in many cases blistered by the heat; their hands were begrimed; some were without tunics, and the blue army shirts they wore were stiff with blood. Some had helmets and some were bare-headed. All seemed dazed, weary, and depressed.
Their wounds were of all kinds, and many had been shot in more places than one. Here was a man nursing a shattered arm in the blood-stained rags of a torn-up sleeve. There was another with his head bandaged up and his face painted with black streaks of dried blood, holding a crushed helmet beneath his arm like a collapsible opera hat.
Some still gripped their rifles or dragged their bandoliers along as they limped to the tents. Many were wandering about aimlessly. All were parched with thirst, for the heat was extreme. Here a man with a bandaged, bootless foot would be hopping along with the aid of his gun, while another with his eyes covered up would be clinging to the tunic of a comrade who could see his way to the tents. One or two of those who were lying on the ground were vomiting, while near by a poor fellow, who had been shot through the lung, was coughing up blood.
All around the operation-marquee men were sitting and lying on the ground, waiting for their turn at the surgeon’s hands; while here would be a great heap of dusty rifles, and there a pile of discarded accoutrements, tunics and boots, and elsewhere a medley of boxes, panniers, canteen tins, cooking pots, and miscellaneous baggage. A few helmets were lying about which had probably dropped off the stretchers, or had been removed from the dead, for some of them were blood-stained and crushed out of shape, or riddled with holes.
The saddest cases among the wounded were those on the stretchers, and the stretchers were lying on the ground everywhere, and on each was a soldier who had been "hard hit." Some of those on the stretchers were already dead, and some kindly hand had drawn a jacket over the poor, dust-stained face. One or two were delirious, and had rolled off their stretchers on to the ground; others were strangely silent, and at most were trying to shade their eyes from the blinding sun. One man, who was paralysed below the waist from a shot in the spine, was repeatedly raising up his head in order to look with persisting wonder and curiosity at limbs which he could not move and in which he could not feel. Here and there groups of dusty men, who had been but slightly wounded, were sitting on the ground together, too tired and too depressed even to talk, or at most muttering a word or two now and then in a whisper.
Overworked orderlies were busy everywhere. Some were heating water or soup over the camp fires; others were hurrying round to each wounded man with water and bread. The majority were occupied in helping the injured to the tents or were concerned in attempting to relieve those who seemed in most distress.
The surgeons in their shirt-sleeves were working for their lives. Some were busy in the operation-marquee, while others were going from man to man among the crowd upon the ground, giving morphia, adjusting limbs, and hurrying each of the wounded into the shelter of a tent with as much speed as possible. Yet, although the whole ground seemed covered with stricken men, the dismal ambulances were still crawling in, and far over the veldt the red cross flag of other wagons could be seen moving slowly up to the naval ridge.
Would this procession of wagons never end!
Besides the ambulances there was the Volunteer Bearer Company, organised by Colonel Gallwey, C.B. The men of this Company were now tramping in in a long, melancholy line made up of little groups of six slowly moving figures carrying a stretcher between them, and on each stretcher was a khaki mass that rocked as the stretcher rocked, and that represented a British soldier badly wounded, possibly dying, possibly dead.
Above the hubbub of the swarming hospitals was still to be heard the boom of the accursed guns.
In the rear the whistle and puff of a train at Chieveley sounded curiously out of place, and about the outskirts of the hospital some outspanned oxen were grazing as unconcernedly as if they were wandering in a meadow in England. Over all was the blazing sun and the blinding sky.
Late in the afternoon a thunderstorm passed overhead, and when the rain came down the wounded, who were lying on the grass, were covered over with the waterproof ground-sheets which were used in the tents. This did little to mitigate the grimness of the occasion. There was, indeed, something very uncanny in the covered-up figures, in the array of tarpaulins glistening with rain, and beneath which some of the wounded lay motionless, while others moved uneasily.
No pen, however, can fitly describe this scene at the foot of the ridge. Here was a picture of the horrors of war, and however accustomed an onlooker may have been to the scenes among which a surgeon moves, few could have wished other than that the circumstances of this day would be blotted out of all memory. I could not fail to be reminded over and over again of the remark made by many who were leaving England when I left to the effect that they hoped they would reach the Cape "in time for the fun." Well, we were in time, but if this was "fun" it was humour of a kind too ghastly for contemplation.
If of this dismal scene there was much to be forgotten, there was at least one feature which can never be forgot, and that was the heroism with which the soldier met his "ill luck." The best and the worst of a man, so far as courage and unselfishness are concerned, come out when he is hard hit, and without doubt each one of the wounded at Colenso "took his licking like a man." Bravery in the heat and tumult of battle is grand enough, but here in the dip behind the gun hill, and within the unromantic lines of a field hospital, was a display of grim pluck, which showed itself only in tightened faces, clenched teeth, and firmly knit fingers. Among the stricken crowd who had reached the shelter of the hospital there was many a groan, but never a word of complaint, never a sign of whining, nor a token of fear. Some were a little disposed to curse, and a few to be jocular, but they all faced what had to be like men.
They were not only uncomplaining and unselfish, but grateful and reasonable. There was no grumbling (no "grousing," as Tommy calls it), no carping criticism. As one man said, pointing to the over-worked surgeons in the operation-tent, "They will do the best they can for the blooming lot of us, and that’s good enough for me."