On the afternoon of Thursday, February 8th, the news came to the hospital at Spearman’s that the army was once more to retire, and signs were already abroad to show that the retreat had commenced. At the same time an order arrived to the effect that all the wounded were to be moved at sunrise on the following day to Frere. Our stay at Spearman’s - extended now to three weeks - had therefore come to an end.
Among those left in the hospital were 150 patients whose condition was more or less serious. They had been kept under care as long as possible in order to avoid or postpone the danger of the long journey to the base. It was determined that these 150 men should be carried down to Frere on stretchers and by hand. And this was done, and well done, by the much-ridiculed corps of "body-snatchers."
It was no light undertaking, for the distance was twenty-five miles, and the road was dusty and not of the best. Every step had to be tramped under a glaring sun, and the heat of that day was great. Allowing twelve men to a stretcher, 1,800 men would be required. This number was forthcoming at sunrise, and they accomplished the march in the day, reaching Frere at sundown. This was a splendid piece of work.
It is not hard to surmise what would have happened to many of those who were the most ill if their journey to Frere had been by the ox-wagon, or by the still less easy ambulance. As it was, the whole convoy went down with comfort, and only one man died on the way, and he had indeed just reached his journey’s end when his life ebbed away.
Long before sunrise on the morning of the departure from Spearman’s the hospital was astir; and while it was yet dark lights could be seen in most of the tents, and lanterns carried by orderlies or coolies were moving here and there among the grey lines. The two white lights which hung from the flag-pole in front of the hospital were still shining. By the time the shadows had vanished and the light of the dawn fell upon "No. 4," it was in a state of untidy turmoil. Everyone was on the alert to "see them off."
In the marquees the last dressings were being carried out by candle-light. Clothes were being got together; helpless men were being dressed; blankets were being rolled up, and such comforts as the hospital could provide were being packed for the wounded to take with them on their journey. Cherished possessions were being dragged out from under pillows, to be safely disposed in a haversack or a boot. The grey light fell upon orderlies in their shirt sleeves bustling from tent to tent; upon piles of provision cases and of forage which were being turned out; upon heaps of stretchers; upon the rolled-up kit of the Army Medical Corps men; upon melancholy coolies who had been up all night, and were still crawling about, and were still in their night attire. This night outfit would consist, probably, of a turban, a mealie sack round the neck, and a decayed army mackintosh on the body; or of a turban, a frock-coat, which might at one time have graced Bond Street, and bare legs. Here and there in the indistinct light would be seen the white apron and trim dress of a nurse, who still carried the lantern she had had with her since the small hours of the morning. All were anxious to be up in time to "see them off."
In due course, and even yet before the sun could be seen, the Volunteer Ambulance Corps began to form up outside the camp. They were nearly two thousand strong, and they were a wild-looking company. There was, however, more uniformity in their clothing now, because they had been supplied with khaki tunics, and with occasional khaki trousers. Some wore putties, some gaiters, and some had tucked their trousers inside their socks. A few had cut their trousers off about the knee and were distinguished by bare legs. A gaiter on one leg and a puttie on the other was not considered to be in any way démodé. Their hats were still very varied, but many had possessed themselves of helmets which had been picked up on the field. Uniformity and smartness could, however, not be expected if one man wore a helmet and the next a tam-o’-shanter, the third a bowler hat, and the fourth a "squasher" or a headpiece of his own designing. They had red-cross brassards on their left arms, but these had become merely fluttering bits of colouring.
This weird corps carried their possessions with them, and it was evident that in transporting their impedimenta they had appreciated the value of the division of labour. Many had military water-bottles, which they had probably picked up. Others carried their water in glass bottles, which dangled from their waists. Hanging about their bodies by strings or straps would be various useful domestic articles. Attached to one man would be a bundle of firewood, to another a saucepan, to a third a kettle and a lantern. Here a man would have in the place of a sabre-tache a biscuit tin suspended by a cord, or a hatchet and a tin-opener, or a spare pair of boots, which swung bravely as he marched. A popular vade mecum was an empty jam tin (much blackened by the smoke of the camp fire) with a wire handle, and evidence that it represented a cooking-pot. Belts, knives, sticks, overcoats, rolled-up mackintoshes, and a general tint of sunburn and dirt completed the uniform of this strange company.
Before they entered the camp the wounded had been brought out on stretchers. The stretchers were placed on the grass, side by side, in long rows which extended across the breadth of the hospital. The men lying on them were not pleasant to look at. They formed a melancholy array of "bad cases." Each man was covered by a brown blanket, and within the hood of the stretcher were his special belongings, his boots and his haversack, and, with them, such delicacies for the journey as a pot of jam, a chunk of bread, some biscuits, a lump of tinned meat in a newspaper, and bottles (mostly with paper corks) containing water or milk or tea. Those on the stretchers presented bandaged legs and bandaged arms, splints of all kinds, covered-up eyes and bound-up heads, and the general paraphernalia of an accident ward. Some of the faces were very pinched and pale, for pain and loss of blood and exhaustion had caused the sunburn to fade away.
The light of the dawn fell upon this woe-begone line, and dazzled the eyes of many with the unaccustomed glare. Those who were not too ill were in excellent spirits, for this was the first step on the journey homewards. Such were excited, garrulous and jocular, and busy with pipes and tobacco. A few were already weary, and had on their lips the oft-repeated expression that "they were fed up with the war." Many a head was lifted out of the hood to see if any old chum could be recognised along the line, and from those would come such exclamations as: "Why are you here, Tom?" "Where have you been hit?" "Ain’t this a real beanfeast?" "Thought you were stiff." "We’re on the blooming move at last."
Many of the men on the stretchers were delirious, and some were almost unmanageable. One poor fellow was babbling about the harvest and the time they were having. He was evidently in his dream once more among the cornfields of England, and among plenteous beer. Another shook the canvas hood of his stretcher and declared with vehemence that he "would not go in any bally sailing boat, he was going in a steamer, and the colonel would never let his men go in a rotten sailing ship." Whereupon he affirmed that "he was going to chuck it," and proceeded to effect his purpose by rolling off his stretcher.
When the Volunteer Ambulance Corps marched along the line of stretchers they were the subject of much chaff, and many comments such as these burst forth: "You’re being paraded before the General. So buck up!" "Pull up yer socks." "You with the kettle! Do you take yourself for a gipsy van?" "We ain’t buying no hardware to-day - go home." "You know there’s a Government handicap on this job, and half a crown to the man who gets in first, so you had better hurry my stretcher along." And so on; in the dialect of London, of Dublin, of Lancashire, and of Devon, with infinite variety and with apparent good spirits.
There were many anxious cases among this crowd on the stretchers. One, for example, was an Irishman named Kelly, a private in the Lancashire Fusiliers. He was as plucky a soldier as the plucky soil of Ireland has ever produced. His right arm had been smashed on Spion Kop. He had been on the hill two nights; and when the darkness fell had spent his time in crawling about on the ground, holding the sleeve of his shattered arm between his teeth, dragging his rifle with his left hand, and searching the bodies of the dead for any water that may have been left in their water-bottles. He had lost an incredible amount of blood, and when he reached the hospital it was necessary to amputate the whole upper limb, including the shoulder-blade and the collar-bone. He went through this ordeal with infinite courage and with irrepressible good humour. He had been the strong man of his regiment and a great boxer, and, as he casually said, "He should miss his arm."
Kelly’s spirits were never damped, and he joked on all topics whenever he had the strength to joke. He was a little difficult to manage, but was as docile as a lamb in the hands of the Sister who looked after him, and for whom he had a deep veneration. Nothing in the ordinary way upset this gallant Irishman, but just before the convoy started he did for once break down. Two bottles of English beer had found their way into the camp as a precious gift. Kelly was promised these bottles to take with him on his journey. In due course they were deposited in the hood of his stretcher. When his eyes fell upon the delectable vision of English beer he could stand no more, and Kelly wept.
I little thought when I saw Kelly off at Spearman’s that the next time I should say good-bye to him would be in a hansom cab in Pall Mall; but so it was.
When all was ready the stretchers were lifted off the ground in order, and the bearers filed out of the camp and on to the dusty track. The morning was like that of a summer’s day in England, and we watched the long convoy creep along the road until it was nearly out of sight. The perfect quiet of their departure was only broken by the oft-repeated boom of the naval gun on the hill.