The train which brought up No. 4 Field Hospital from Frere was stopped, as I have already said, at Chieveley. The tents and baggage were thrown out, and with as much haste as possible the hospital was pitched on the open ground, close to the station. Before, however, more than a few tents could be put up the wounded began to arrive. They came in all Friday evening, and all Saturday, and all Saturday evening. The field hospitals by the naval hill had soon been filled, and all cases that could be sent on to Chieveley were sent there, while as many as could go at once to the base were taken down by the hospital train.
Saturday was a day of truce, but at sundown on Saturday not only had all the wounded to be cleared out from the field hospitals, but those hospitals themselves had to move, as, with the renewal of hostilities, they would be in a place of danger. Chieveley was therefore soon filled to overflowing.
There were three army surgeons with "No. 4" whose names I have already mentioned. They were reinforced by a small field hospital under the charge of Major Baird and Captain Begbie.
Some of the wounded came up by train, and some by ambulances or by wagons, but a very large proportion, a proportion which included nearly all the serious cases, were carried up on stretchers by hand. No mode of transport is more comfortable than this, or is less fatiguing to the patient, and the splendid organisation of volunteer bearers and of coolie carriers enabled this means of bringing up the wounded to be very largely made use of. Certainly the stretcher-bearers were the means of saving lives, and of sparing those they carried an infinite amount of pain.
As seen at night, the procession up to Chieveley was doleful and mysterious. The long line of silent men moving in clusters, each cluster with a stretcher and a body in its midst. Stealing slowly and cautiously over the veldt in the moonlight, they all made for the two white lights which swung over the hospital by the station.
The coolies carried their stretchers shoulder high, so that the body of the man they bore was lit fitfully by the moon as they passed along with absolutely noiseless feet. The coolies themselves added no little to the uncanny spectacle, for in the shadow beneath the stretcher stalked a double row of thin bare legs, and by the poles of the stretcher were the white or coloured turbans that these men affect; while here and there a sleek black head glistened in the light.
There was but one house at Chieveley - the stationmaster’s house. It had been effectually looted after the Boer fashion, but it would have done well as a resting-place for the four nurses who came up with the hospital. The house, however, had been taken possession of, and the nurses had to contemplate either a night in the open or in the waiting-room at the station. As this latter room had been used as a stable by the Boers, it was not in much request. It served, however, as a place for the depositing of personal baggage and for the preparing of such food as it was possible to prepare - chiefly, indeed, for the making of tea.
The question of where to sleep was soon solved by the necessities of the position. These ill-housed women, as a matter of fact, were hard at work all Friday, all Saturday, and all Saturday night. They seemed oblivious to fatigue, to hunger, or to any need for sleep. Considering that the heat was intense, that the thirst which attended it was distressing and incessant, that water was scarce, and that the work in hand was heavy and trying, it was wonderful that they came out of it all so little the worse in the end.
Their ministrations to the wounded were invaluable and beyond all praise. They did a service during those distressful days which none but nurses could have rendered, and they set to all at Chieveley an example of unselfishness, self-sacrifice, and indefatigable devotion to duty. They brought to many of the wounded and the dying that comfort which men are little able to evolve, or are uncouth in bestowing, and which belongs especially to the tender, undefined and undefinable ministrations of women.
The English soldier is as sensible of attention and as appreciative of sympathy and kindness as any other man who is at the mercy of circumstances, and I can well believe that there are many soldiers - some of them now in England, crippled for life - who will long keep green the memory of the sisters at Chieveley.
Some weeks after Colenso I was at Pietermaritzburg, and was looking up in the hospital wards certain cases which had been attended to in "No. 4." Among them was a paralysed man to whom one of the nurses had been very kind at Chieveley. I found him comfortably bestowed, but he was possessed of a handkerchief the extreme dirtiness of which led me to suggest that, as he was now in a centre of luxury, he should ask for a clean one. To which he replied, "I am not going to give this one up; I am afraid of losing it. The sister who looked after me at Chieveley gave it to me, and here is her name in the corner."
As the truce was over on Saturday, and as the Boers might assume the aggressive and shell Chieveley and its helpless colony, the order was given to break up the hospital and get all the wounded away by train, and to retire with the tents and equipment to Frere. This was done on Sunday morning.
As soon as the wounded had left - and it was no light matter getting them away - it was thought desirable that the women should be at once got out of danger, and so they were bundled down to Frere with little ceremony in a mule wagon. As they had no hospital to go to (for "No. 4" did not arrive until the small hours of the following morning) they took refuge in the hotel at Frere. They had some food with them, albeit it was not of a kind to attract the fastidious, and the four of them slept on the floor of a looted and empty room, which even the kindly heart of Mrs. Wilson could not render other than a dreary resting place. This was their only "night in" in three days.
I had, I am bound to confess, the advantage of them in the matter of ventilation, for I slept in a wagon.