On Friday, January 12th, Sir Redvers Buller left Frere, and on the following day we took our second departure from that place. The movement was to be to Springfield, some eighteen miles across the veldt. No. 4 Field Hospital was now to leave the railway and trust to transport by oxen and mules. The hospital was equipped to accommodate a minimum of three hundred beds, and was made up of sixty tents and ten marquees. The rank and file of the R.A.M.C. numbered eighty-eight non-commissioned officers and men; the staff was represented by three army surgeons, nine civil surgeons, the two army sisters who had worked at Colenso, and my remaining nurse, Miss McCaul. The other nurse, Miss Tarr, who came out with me, was at Maritzburg, desperately ill with dysentery. She nearly lost her life, and was scarcely convalescent when the time came for us to return to England. Her unexpected recovery was largely due to the skill of the doctor who looked after her (Dr. Rochfort Brown, of the Assembly Hospital), and to the extraordinary kindness of a lady who was waiting at Pietermaritzburg to join her husband, then locked up with his regiment in Ladysmith.
The three nurses kept with the hospital, and did as good work at Spearman’s Farm, after Spion Kop and Vaal Krantz, and at Chieveley, after Pieters, as they did on the occasion of Colenso. They had no easy time, for from the day we began at Frere until the lull after Ladysmith we pitched the hospital no less than six times; viz., twice at Frere, twice at Chieveley, once at Spearman’s, and once at Springfield.
Our train was composed of sixteen ox wagons, each with sixteen oxen, so that the number of oxen employed was over 260. There were besides five ambulances, each drawn by ten mules. The transport provided me consisted of a small covered wagon, a Scotch cart, sixteen mules, a conductor on horseback, four Kaffir "boys," a groom, and my own horse and manservant.
On the occasion of our leaving Frere on January 13, we were roused at 3 A.M., while it was yet quite dark, and while the Southern Cross was still ablaze in the sky. All the tents were struck by the ungenial hour of 4 A.M. Packing up and the circumstances of removal were conducted with difficulty and no little confusion. The ox teams were lying about, and only a precarious light was furnished by the lanterns we carried. It required no exceptional carelessness to allow a wanderer in the camp to fall, in the course of a few minutes, over a prostrate ox, a rolled-up tent, a pannier, a pile of cooking-pots, or a derelict saddle. When the dawn came an agreeable sense of order was restored, and we started on the march at 5 A.M.
There was a splendid sunrise, and the day proved a glorious one, although it was painfully hot. The road was a mere track across the veldt, which had been worn smooth in some places and cut into ruts in others by the hundreds of wagons and the great array of guns which had already passed over it.
"No. 4" formed a long convoy by the time the last wagon had rumbled out of Frere. The pace was very slow, for the ox moves with ponderous lethargy. The surgeons rode by the side of the train, the sergeants and the orderlies walked as they listed, and the nurses rode in ambulances, to the great shaking of their bodies. With us were a hundred coolies, who were attached to the hospital for camp work. They were a dismal crowd as they stalked along, with their thin, bare legs and their picturesque tatters of clothing, with all their earthly possessions in bundles on their heads, and with apparently a vow of funereal silence in their hearts.
The heat soon became intense, and the march blank and monotonous. There was ever the same shadeless veldt, the same unending brown road, relieved by nothing but an occasional dead horse or mule; the same creeping, creaking, wallowing wagons, the never-absent perspiring Kaffirs, the everlasting cloud of dust, and over all the blazing sun that neither hat nor helmet could provide shelter from.
At 7.30 A.M. we reached a spot on the veldt known as Pretorius’ Farm. It was marked by what was called, with reckless imagery, a stream, but which was represented by a wide and squalid gutter filled with stagnant water which would have done no discredit to that of the lower Thames. Here we outspanned, and here we breakfasted.
These breakfasts under the dome of heaven are not to be looked back upon with rapture. Picnicking is an excellent relaxation in England, but a picnic without shade, without cooling drinks, without pasties and salads and jellies and pies, without white tablecloths and bright knives, without even shelter from incessant dust, lacks much. Tinned provisions are, no doubt, excellent and nourishing, but oh, the weariness of them! And oh, the squalor of the single tin mug, which never loses the taste of what it last had in it! And oh, the meanness of the one tin plate which does duty for every meal, and every phase of it! Perhaps of all unappetising adjuncts to a breakfast the tin of preserved milk, which has been opened two days and is already becoming disgustingly familiar, is the most aggressive. The hot climate and the indefatigable ant and the fly do little to make the items of a meal attractive.
What does not rapidly decompose promptly dries up. On one occasion a roasted fowl was brought up reverently to Frere in a tin box, but when it came to be eaten it had dried into a sort of papier mâchê roast fowl, and was like the viands which are thrown at the police at pantomimes. We brought many varieties of preserved food with us, and of much of it the question could not fail to arise as to whether it had ever been worth preserving.
Many had experience, too, of the inventive art of the shopkeeper, as shown in the evolution of canteens and pocket table knives. The canteen, when unstrapped, tends to fall into a hundred parts, and can never be put together again. It is a prominent or generic feature of most canteens that the kettle should look as little like a kettle as possible, and that everything should pack into a frying-pan. The pocket picnicking knife contains a knife, a fork, a spoon, and a corkscrew. The fork runs into everything and prevents the knife from being carried in the pocket. The spoon and fork are jointed for more convenient stowing, and at crises in a meal they are apt to bend weakly in the middle and then to incontinently shut up.
The outspanning and the inspanning at Pretorius’ Farm occupied over two hours, and then the march was resumed. A better country was reached as we neared the river, and it was a pleasant sight to see the tumbling stream of the Lesser Tugela, and to find in one valley the pretence of a garden and a house among trees. This was at Springfield, which place we reached at 2.30 P.M. The march of some eighteen miles had therefore been effected in two treks.
At Springfield the camping ground was the least dreary of any the hospital had experience of, and the proximity of the Lesser Tugela made bathing possible.
After a few days at Springfield we moved on to Spearman’s Farm, where we camped by the hill called Mount Alice.
The return from Spearman’s after Spion Kop and Vaal Krantz was even more monotonous than the going forth. The first journey was to Springfield, which was reached at sundown, and where we bivouacked for the night. Springfield was left at dawn, and the next night was spent in a bivouac at Frere. On the following day, before the sun was well up, we took the last stage of the march and reached Chieveley. Here all enjoyed once more the luxury of having tents overhead, for during the crawling journey over the veldt we slept in wagons, on wagons, or under wagons.