The battle of Colenso was fought on Friday, December 15th, and on Saturday, the 16th, an armistice was declared for the burying of the dead. Very early on Saturday morning, while it was yet moonlight, the hospital train backed down from Chieveley and came to a stand as near the field hospitals as possible. As soon as it was daylight (and at this time of the summer the sun rose before five) the loading of the train commenced.
The filling up of a hospital train is no easy business, and affords a somewhat depressing sight.
The worst cases are dealt with first, and a long line of stretchers soon began to pour from the hospital tents to the railway. The stretchers are put down on the railroad close to the wheels of the train. On this particular morning it so happened that the carriages threw a shadow on the side of the line towards the hospital, so that the stretchers, if near the metals, were in the shade.
Many of the wounded had had no sleep, and many were developing some degree of fever. A few had become delirious, and were difficult to control. With the stretcher parties would come a certain number of such of the wounded as could walk, and very soon a not inconsiderable crowd was gathered in the shade of the train.
But what a crowd! The same sunburnt men with blistered faces, but now even a more motley gathering than filled the field hospitals the day before - a gathering made piteously picturesque by khaki rags, blue bandages, casual splints, arm slings, eye bandages, slit-up trousers, and dressings of all kinds. Here they came crowding to the train, some limping, some hopping, some helped along between two stronger comrades, some staggering on alone. A man with a damaged arm assisting a man with a bullet through his leg. A man stopping on the way to be sick, cheered up by another with a bandaged eye.
An untidy, sorrowful crowd, with unbuttoned tunics and slovenly legs, with unlaced boots, with blood on their khaki jackets and on their blue shirts and on their stiffening dressings. The gentle hand of the nurse had not as yet busied itself with this unkempt and unwashed throng. There had been no time for washing nor for changing of garments, and if the surgeon has had to cut the coat and the shirt into rags, the wearer must wear the rags or nothing; and as for washing, it is a sin to wash when water is priceless.
The greater number of those who come to the railway line are carried there on stretchers, but all who are well enough to take any interest in the journey are eager not to miss a place in the train.
The business of getting the "lying down" cases into the carriages is considerable, and everybody lends a hand, the surgeons being the most active of any. The berths in the train are placed one above the other, and the room for manipulating stretchers is small. The equipment of the train was very complete, and every luxury was at hand, from hot soup to iced "lemon-squash," and even to champagne. Many generous ladies in the Colony had seen that the train should want for nothing, and Major Brazier-Creagh took as much pride in his travelling hospital as if he had built it himself.
Innumerable instances came under my notice of the unselfishness of the soldier, and of his solicitude for his friends in distress. It was by the side of this hospital train that occurred an episode I have recorded elsewhere, and which may well be described again. An orderly was bringing some water to a wounded man lying on the ground near me. He was shot through the abdomen, and he could hardly speak owing to the dryness of his mouth, but he said: "Take it to my pal first, he is worse hit than me." This generous lad died next morning, but his pal got through and is doing well.
Another poor fellow, who was much troubled with vomiting, and who was indeed dying, said, as he was being hoisted into the train, "Put me in the lower berth, because I keep throwing up." How many people troubled merely with sea-sickness would be as thoughtful as he was? He died not long before we reached Chieveley.
Lieutenant Roberts, whom I had visited at intervals, went up by this train, and was placed in No. 4 Field Hospital at Chieveley. Here a bedstead, with a comfortable mattress and white sheets, was waiting ready for him.
As the train moved off it was sad to note that a few who had been brought down to the rail in the hope of a place being found for them, had to be left behind, and had to be carried back to the tents to await some other means of transport.