The graves at Frere were dug by our own men, or rather by a small fatigue party from a regiment near by. Nearly every morning they came, the men with the spades. There were six of them, with a corporal, and they came up jauntily, with their spades on their shoulders and with pipes in their mouths. They were in their shirt-sleeves, and there was much display of belt and of unbuttoned neck. Their helmets were apt to be stuck on their heads in informal attitudes. They were inexpressibly untidy, and they made in their march a loose, shambling suggestion of a procession.
They came past my tent about breakfast time, and every morning I wondered whether the men with the spades would come, since, when they came, I knew that a death had taken place in the night, and wondered who it was.
As in some way symbols of death, as elements in the last services to be rendered to the dead, the men with the spades filled me with great curiosity. They came up cheerily, and when they reached the outskirts of the hospital the corporal would call out to any orderly he saw: "Well, nipper, how many have we got to dig to-day?"
When they had finished they went by my tent on their way back to camp: still the same untidy, shambling lot; still, as a rule, smoking, and still with the appearance of being infectiously cheerful.
I know well enough, however, that there was little cheeriness among these men with the spades. They were dull enough in their inmost hearts. The soldier is much impressed by a burying and by the formalities which surround the dead. And as he knows he must not "give way" he is prone to cover his easily stirred feelings by an attempt at a "devil-may-care" attitude, and by an assumption of rollicking indifference. It is, however, a poorly executed pretence, and it needed no exceptional acumen to see that in reality no small shadow of unhappiness followed the little shuffling procession, in spite of their pipes and their jauntily posed helmets and their laboured jokes.
If a soldier’s grave is to be dug by sympathising hands, let it be dug by the hands of these very men with the spades.