Early in the campaign Colonel Gallwey, the P.M.O., organised a volunteer ambulance corps. Two thousand bearers were wanted, and in a few days two thousand were enrolled. Their duties were to carry the wounded off the field, to transport serious cases from the advanced hospitals or dressing stations to the stationary field hospital, and thence, if need be, to the railway. There were to be twelve on a stretcher.
This corps contained examples of all sorts and conditions of men - labourers, mechanics, "gentlemen," dock loafers, seamen, dentists, a chemist or two, a lawyer or two, tram drivers, clerks, miners, and shop assistants. Many were refugees from the Transvaal, and the majority had been thrown out of work of some kind or another by the war. A chance of getting employment had, no doubt, induced many to enlist, while probably the greater number were attracted by a spirit of adventure, by a desire to get to the front and to see something of the pomp and circumstance of war.
They formed a strange company when they mustered at Pietermaritzburg - a section of a street crowd in their everyday clothes, or in such clothes as were selected for roughing it. There was immense variety in the matter of hats. Belts were a feature. The flannel shirt, which was practically de rigueur, was replaced in an instance or two by a jersey. Collars were not worn; neckties were optional. There was no fixed fashion in the matter of boots; they varied from canvas shoes, worthy of a dandy at the seaside, to top boots fit for a buccaneer.
As to the men themselves, they were of all ages, heights, shapes, and sizes - the men of a crowd. Some were sunburned, and some were pale. Some were indifferent, but most were eager. Some were disposed to assume a serious military bearing, while others appeared to regard the venture as a silly joke of which they were beginning to be a little ashamed.
There is no doubt that the corps was in appearance not impressive. They were wild and shabby looking, disordered, unsymmetrical, and bizarre. They were scoffed at; and acquired the not unkindly meant title of the "body-snatchers." Later on the exuberant invention of the soldier dignified them by the titles of the "catch-’em-alive-oh’s" or the "pick-me-ups."
It is needless to say that a good number of unsuitable and undesirable men had found their way into the ranks. These were gradually weeded out, and under the discreet command of Major Wright the corps improved day by day, until the time Spearman’s was reached they formed a very efficient, reliable, and handy body of men. They did splendid service, and one which was keenly appreciated. They were the means of saving many lives and an infinite amount of pain. Their longest tramp, of which I had knowledge, was from Spearman’s to Frere, a distance of twenty-five miles. They showed the usual British indifference under fire, and went without hesitancy wherever they were led. Unfortunately it happened that many of the worthy "body-snatchers" were wounded, and not a few of them were killed.
In the early days of their career the "catch-’em-alive-oh’s" fell upon bad times. They knew little of camp life, and less of the art of getting the most out of it. They had no organisation among themselves, and many were incompetent to shift alone. They began as a mob, and they tried to live as a mob, and the result was that about the time of Colenso they had little comfort but that which is said by the moralist to be derived from labour. In their camp after the battle they had time to settle down. They entered the camp a thriftless crowd, and came out of it a company of handy men.
They were popular with the soldiers. They had the gift of tongues of a kind, and could compete with most in the matter of lurid language. Their incessant hunger and indiscriminate thirst were a matter for admiration. They were good-hearted, and, although they looked wild, they meant well. Many a wounded man has been rocked to sleep on their stretchers, and on more than one dying ear the last sound that fell was the tramp of their untidy feet.