On Wednesday, January 24th, came the terrible affair of Spion Kop. On the previous day some hint of what was expected was foreshadowed in the order that an additional hundred bell tents were to be erected in No. 4 Field Hospital. These tents were obtained from a brigade who were bivouacking, and were all pitched by Wednesday afternoon. They represented accommodation for an additional number of five hundred wounded, and it was, therefore, evident that an important engagement was at hand.
On Thursday the wounded came pouring in, and they came in the whole day and until late at night, until the hospital was full. The number admitted on that day was nearly six hundred. Those who were deposited in the bell tents had to lie on stretchers. All were provided with blankets. In spite of the immense number of the wounded, they were all got under shelter by Thursday night, and had had their more serious injuries attended to, and were made as comfortable as circumstances would admit. Some of the staff went round with water and food, and others with morphia, while a third party made it their business to see that every man was bestowed as comfortably as extemporised pillows or change of posture could make him. The pillows were represented by helmets, or by the happy combination of helmet and boot, or by haversacks or rolled-up tunics.
The volunteer ambulance corps and the coolie bearers did excellent service. The larger number of the wounded were on the top of Spion Kop. The path down was about two miles, was steep, and in places very difficult. The carriage of the wounded down the hill had all to be by hand. From the foot of the hill to the hospital the carriage was by ambulance wagons and in some cases by bearers. All the stretchers had hoods. There was no doubt that the wounded suffered much on account of the tedious transport, but it was rendered as little distressing as possible.
The surgeons who went after the wounded on the top of the hill told us that the sight of the dead and injured was terrible in the extreme, the wounds having been mostly from shell and shrapnel; some men had been blown almost to pieces. The weather on Wednesday was warm, but was not to be compared with the intense heat on the day of the battle of Colenso. The temperature was that of a hot summer’s day in England. Thursday was fortunately cloudy and much cooler.
As to the wounded, there was the usual proportion of minor injuries, but on the whole the wounds were much more severe than those received at Colenso. This is explained by the large number of wounds from shell and shrapnel. The men, however, were much exhausted by the hardships they had undergone. In many instances they had not had their clothes off for a week or ten days. They had slept in the open without great-coats, and had been reduced to the minimum in the matter of rations. The nights were cold, and there was on nearly every night a heavy dew. Fortunately there was little or no rain. The want of sleep and the long waiting upon the hill had told upon them severely. There is no doubt also that the incessant shell fire must have proved a terrible strain. Some of the men, although wounded, were found asleep upon their stretchers when brought in. Many were absolutely exhausted and worn out independently of their wounds.
In spite of all their hardships the wounded men behaved splendidly, as they always have done. They never complained. They were quite touching in their unselfishness and in their anxiety "not to give trouble"; but it was evident enough that they were much depressed at the reverse.
The shell wounds were the most terrible and the most difficult to treat. One man had most of his face shot away, including both eyes. Another had the forearm shot off and two fearful wounds of each thigh dividing the anterior muscles to the bone. In one case a shrapnel had opened a main artery in the forearm, and the man came down safely with a tourniquet on his brachial artery composed of a plug of cake tobacco and the tape of a puttie. I cannot help thinking that this ingenious tourniquet was the work of one of the "handy men."