The hospital reached Spearman’s on January 16th, and was pitched at the foot of the hill, upon the summit of which the naval gun was firing. We were, therefore, close to those scenes of fighting which were to occupy the next few weeks, and too close for comfort to the great 4.7 gun, the repeated booming of which often became a trouble to those who were lying ill in the hospital.
The heights that dominated the southern bank of the Tugela were very steep on the side that faced the river, but on the side that looked towards Spearman’s the ground sloped gradually down into a wide plain which, like other stretches of veldt, was dotted with kopjes and slashed with dongas. Anyone who mounted the hill at the back of the hospital would come by easy steps to an abrupt ridge, beyond which opened a boundless panorama.
In the valley below this crest was the winding Tugela, and just across the dip rose the solemn ridge of Spion Kop. Far away in the distance were the purple hills which overshadowed Ladysmith. If the crest were followed to the right the ground rose until at last the summit of the naval hill was reached, and here were the "handy men" and their big gun. From this high eminence a splendid view was obtained of the country we desired once more to possess. The Tugela glistened in the sun like a band of silver, and over the plain and in and out among the kopjes and round the dongas the brown road wound to Ladysmith. The road was deserted, and the few homesteads which came into view showed no signs of life. At the foot of the hill was Potgieter’s Drift, while above the ford was a splashing rapid, and below was the pont which our men had seized with such daring.
The face of the hill towards the river was covered with mimosa trees and with cactus bushes and aloes, and this unexpected wealth of green almost hid the red and grey boulders which clung to the hill-side. Among the rocks were many strange flowers, many unfamiliar plants, and creeping things innumerable. This was a favourite haunt of the chameleon, and I believe it was here that the hospital chameleon was captured.
The quiet of the place, when the guns had ceased, was absolute, and was only broken by the murmur of the numerous doves which occupied the mimosa woods. The whole place seemed a paradise of peace, and there was nothing to suggest that there were some thousands of grimy men beyond the river who were busy with the implements of death. On looking closely one could see brown lines along many of the hillsides, and these said lines were trenches, and before the hubbub began men in their shirt-sleeves could be seen working about them with pickaxes and shovels.
I should imagine that few modern battles have been viewed by the casual onlooker at such near proximity and with such completeness in detail as were the engagements of Spion Kop and Vaal Krantz, when viewed from the high ground above our hospital.
The hospital, though now more than twenty-five miles from the railway, was very well supplied with almost every necessity and with the amplest stores of food. Bread was not to be obtained, or only on occasion, when it would be brought up by an ambulance on its return from Frere. We had with us, however, our flocks and herds, and were thus able to supply the sick and wounded with fresh milk, and the whole hospital with occasional fresh meat. We were a little short of water, and fuel was not over abundant. As a result the washing of clothes, towels and sheets presented the same type of problem as is furnished by the making of bricks without straw. The aspect of a flannel shirt that has been washed by a Kaffir on the remote veldt leaves on the mind the impression that the labour of the man has been in vain.
Our stay at Spearman’s was extended to three weeks, and we dealt with over a thousand wounded during that period, and I am sure that all those who came within our lines would acknowledge that at "No. 4" they found an unexpected degree of comfort and were in every way well "done for."
On the Sunday after our arrival the wounded began to come in. Thirteen only came from the division posted at Potgieter’s Drift, the rest came from Sir Charles Warren’s column. Increasing numbers of wounded came in every day in batches of from fifty to one hundred and fifty. They were all attended to, and were sent on to Frere as soon as possible. All the serious cases, however, were kept in the hospital.