My small experience of the British soldier in the field leads me to think that he does not altogether deserve the title of the "absent-minded." The average soldier has, I think, the most anxious regard for his belongings, and although that anxiety may have been obscured or even dissipated by the boisterous incidents which attend an embarkation for the Cape, still when he reaches camp his mind is much occupied with recollections of the people at home, and with concern for their well-being.
Among the wounded were always those whose first anxiety was as to the effect the news of their injuries would have upon mothers, sweethearts, or wives. And many a message of consolation was confided to the sympathising ears of the Sisters, and many a letter of assurance was laboriously written by those who had the strength to write.
In the matter of letters the soldier takes profound interest. He writes whenever he has the chance, and makes a great deal of fuss about the performance. To most of those in camp the posting of a letter home is an event, and so precious is the pencilled epistle that the writer will hesitate before he commits it to the casual sack which is tied up to the fly of the post office tent, and which appears scarcely formal or official enough to receive the dirt-stained dispatch. For such dispatches, nothing less pretentious than a post office building or an iron letter-box seem fitting.
Many a time have I seen a letter dropped into the sack with such an expression of insecurity, and such evident feeling of hopelessness as to its safe conduct, that the writer of the same has appeared to regret that he had parted with it. A post office official in his shirt sleeves, with a pipe in his mouth and a helmet on the back of his head, seems hardly to be responsible enough for the occasion; and if the letter-writer would venture to express a hope that his elaborately directed letter "would be all right," the post office deity is apt to regard this concern with flippancy. "There’s the sack! Chuck the blooming thing in. It won’t break," was about all the comfort he would get.
The receipt of letters from home also was attended with an eagerness which was hardly fitting in an absent-minded man. The sergeant with the bundle of letters would read out the names on the envelopes in a military voice, ferociously and without feeling, and each man who got a missive grabbed it and marched off with it with the alacrity of a dog who has got a bone. If he could find the shelter of a wagon where the letter could be read unobserved it was well.
The letters dictated to the Sisters in the hospital were apt to be a little formal. It seemed to be thought proper that expression should be curbed, and that the sensibilities of the Sister should be in no way shocked by the revelation of a love passage. One dying man, who was dictating a letter to his mother, thought he would like to send with it a last message to "his girl," and in answer to the Sister’s inquiry as to what she should write, modestly said, "Give her my kind regards."
There need have been no precise decorum in the wording of these last hopeless utterances, for if the sender of the letter "sniffed" a little as he dictated the message, the Sisters cried over them.
When a wounded man came to be stripped it was common to find some precious keepsake or some secret package hung about his neck, and to which he clung with the earnestness of a worshipper to his fetish. One man particularly was much more anxious about a locket that hung on his hairy chest than he was about his wound. He seemed to think that so long as the cheap little trinket was not lost his life mattered little. In the operation tent he was reluctant to take chloroform until a solemn promise had been given that no harm should befall his locket, and that it should not be removed from his neck, I am afraid that the history of the locket ends here, for the loyal man died.
Among the wounded brought in one day from Potgieter’s Drift was a man of scanty clothing, who held something in his closed hand. He had kept this treasure in his hand for some eight hours. He showed it to the Sister. It was a ring. In explanation he said, "My girl gave me this ring, and when I was hit I made up my mind that the Boers should never get it, so I have kept it in my fist, ready to swallow it if I was taken before our stretchers could reach me."