There were four operation-marquees pitched under the naval ridge on the day of Colenso, one connected with each of the field hospitals. There is little about these marquees or about the work done in the shadow of them that is of other than professional interest. They were crowded, and overcrowded, on December 15th, and the surgeons who worked in them worked until they were almost too tired to stand. Every preparation had been completed hours before the first wounded man arrived, and the equipment of each hospital was ample and excellent. To my thinking, a great surgical emergency, great beyond any expectation, was never more ably met than was this on the day of the first battle.
The marquee is small. It accommodates the operation-table in the centre between the two poles, while along the sides are ranged the field panniers which serve as tables for instruments and dressings.
It is needless to say that the operation-tent is very unlike an operating theatre in a London hospital, but then the open veldt is very unlike the Metropolis. The floor of the tent is much-trodden grass, and, indeed, much-stained grass, for what drips upon it cannot be wiped up. There are no bright brass water-taps, but there is a brave display of buckets and tin basins. Water is precious, more precious than any other necessity, for every drop has to be brought by train from Frere.
There is little room in the tent for others than the surgeon, his assistant, the anæsthetist, and a couple of orderlies. The surgeon is in his shirtsleeves, and his dress is probably completed by riding breeches and a helmet. The trim nurses, with their white caps and aprons, who form the gentlest element in the hospital theatre, are replaced by orderlies, men with burnt sienna complexions and unshaven chins, who are clad in the unpicturesque army shirt, in shorts, putties, and the inevitable helmet or "squasher" hat. They are, however, strong in the matter of belts, which vary from a leather strap or piece of string to an elaborate girdle, worked, no doubt, by the hands of some cherished maiden. From the belt will probably be hanging a big knife or a tin-opener, in place of the nurse’s chatelaine, and from the breeches pocket may be projecting the bowl of a pipe. The orderly in a field hospital - who is for the most part a "good sort" - look’s a little like one of the dramatis personæ of Bret Harte’s tales, and is a curious substitute for the immaculate dresser and the dainty nurse.
Still, appearances do not count for much, and the officers and men of the Royal Army Medical Corps did as sterling good work on December 15th as any body of men could do, and they were certainly not hampered by the lack of a precise professional garb.
The wounded are brought into the marquee one by one. Not all are cases for operation, but all have to be examined, and an examination is more easily carried out on a table than on a stretcher or the bare ground. Moreover, to make the examination painless, an anæsthetic is usually required. I wonder how much chloroform and morphia were used on that day, and on the night and day that followed! The drugs would fill one scale of a balance in the other scale of which would be found the dull weight of pain they were destined to obliterate. The horrors of war are to some small extent to be measured by the lists of the wounded and the dead, but a more graphic representation would be provided by the hideous total of the drops of chloroform and the grains of morphia which have come from the surgeon’s store.
The flies of the operation-marquee are wide open, for the heat is intense, and access must be easy. As it is, there is much mopping of brows and many "pulls" of dirty lukewarm water from precious water-bottles. Unhappily the scenes within the shadow of the canvas cannot be quite hidden from those who are lying in the sun outside waiting their turn. As one man after another is carried in there is sure to be some comrade on the ground who will call out as the stretcher goes by: "Keep yer chivey up, Joe"; "Don’t be down on your luck"; "They will do you a treat"; "Good luck to yer, old cock, you won’t feel nothing."
One instance of the limited capacity of the marquee I may be pardoned for recounting. The amputation of a leg was in progress when the pressure of work was at its height. Beneath the table at the time of the operation was the prostrate figure of a man. He had been shot through the face. His big moustache was clotted with blood, his features were obliterated by dust and blood, his eyes were shut, and his head generally was enveloped in bandages. I thought he was dead, and that in the hurry of events he was merely awaiting removal. The limb after amputation was unfortunately dropped upon this apparently inanimate figure when, to my horror, the head was raised and the eyes were opened to ascertain the nature of the falling body. This poor fellow was attended to as soon as the table was free. I was glad to see him some weeks after in the Assembly Hotel at Pietermaritzburg hearty and well. He was a gallant officer in a Natal regiment, and when I recalled this gruesome incident to him, he owned that, feeble as he was at the time, it gave him a "shake up."