August 29.—Suddenly told we were all to go to Pretoria by train, railway being just open, it seems. I am disgusted with the slowness of my foot, and at being separated from the Battery. It goes tomorrow back to Pynaar’s River, and then joins a flying column of some sort.
August 30.—I write lying luxuriously on a real spring-mattress bed, between real sheets, having just had my fill of real bread and real butter, besides every comfort, in a large marquee tent, with a wooden floor, belonging to the Imperial Yeomanry Hospital, Pretoria. I landed in this haven at four o’clock this morning, after a nightmare of a journey from Warm Baths. We left there about 2.30 P.M. yesterday, after long delays, and then a sudden rush. Williams came over to say good-bye, and the Captain, Lieutenant Bailey and Dr. Thorne; also other fellows with letters, and four of our empty cartridges as presents for officers of the Irish Hospital in Pretoria. We were put into a truck already full of miscellaneous baggage, and wedged ourselves into crannies. It was rather a lively scene, as the General was going down by the same train, and also Baden-Powell on his way home to England. The latter first had a farewell muster of his men, and we heard their cheers. Then he came up to the officers’ carriage with the General. I had not seen him before, and was chiefly struck by his walk, which had a sort of boyish devil-may-care swing in it, while in dress he looked like an ordinary trooper, a homely-looking service jersey showing below his tunic. As the train steamed out we passed his troops, drawn up in three sides of a square facing inwards, in their shirt-sleeves. They sent up cheer after cheer, waving their hats to Baden-Powell standing on the gangway. Then the train glided past camps and piles of stores, till the last little outpost with its wood fire was past, and on into the lonely bush. It was dark soon, and I lay on my back among sacks, rifles, kit-bags, etc., looking at the stars, and wondering how long this new move would keep me from the front. We stopped many times, and at Hamman’s Kraal took aboard some companies of infantry. At intervals down the line we passed little posts of a few men, sentries moving up and down, and a figure or two poring over a pot on a fire. About midnight, after a rather uneasy slumber, I woke in Pretoria. Raining. With the patient, sheep-like passivity that the private soldier learns, we dragged ourselves and our kit from place to place according to successive orders. A friendly corporal carried my kit-sack, and being very slow on my feet, we finally got lost, and found ourselves sitting forlornly on our belongings in the middle of an empty, silent square outside the station (just where we bivouacked a fortnight ago). However, the corporal made a reconnaissance, while I smoked philosophical cigarettes. He found the rest in a house near by, and soon we were sitting on the floor of a room, in a dense crowd, drinking hot milk, and in our right minds; sick or wounded men of many regiments talking, sleeping, smoking, sighing, and all waiting passively. A benevolent little Scotch officer, with a shrewd, inscrutable face, and smoking endless cigarettes, moved quietly about, counting us reflectively, as though we were a valuable flock of sheep. We sat here till about 2.30 A.M., when several waggons drove up, into which we crowded, among a jumble of kit and things. We drove about three miles, and were turned out at last on a road-side, where lanterns and some red-shawled phantoms were glimmering about. We sat in rows for some time, while officers took our names, and sorted us into medical and surgical classes. Then a friendly orderly shouldered my kit and led me into this tent. Here I stripped off everything, packed all my kit in a bundle, washed, put on a clean suit of pyjamas, and at about 4 A.M. was lying in this delicious bed, dead-beat, but blissfully comfortable. Oddly, I couldn’t sleep, but lay in a dreamy trance, smoking cigarettes, with a beatific redcaped vision hovering about in the half light. Dawn and the morning stir came, with fat soft slices of fresh bread and butter and tea. I have been reading and writing all day with every comfort. The utter relaxation of mind and limb is a strange sensation, after roughing it on the veldt and being tied eternally to two horses.
There are twelve beds in this tent, and many regiments are represented among the patients; there is an Imperial Light Horse man, who has been in most of the big fights, a mercurial Argyll and Sutherland Highlander, with a witty and voluble tongue; men of the Wilts, Berks, and Yorks regiments, and in the next bed a trooper of the 18th Hussars, who was captured at Talana Hill in the first fight of the war, had spent seven months at Waterval in the barbed-wire cage which we saw, and two since at the front. It was under his bed that the escape-tunnel was started. He gave me an enthusiastic account of the one “crowded hour of glorious life” his squadron had had before they were captured. They got fairly home with the steel among a party of Boers in the hills at the back of Dundee, and had a grand time; but soon after found themselves surrounded, and after a desperate fight against heavy odds the survivors had to surrender.
September 2.—Getting very hot. Foot slow. The reaction has run its course, and I am getting bored.
September 4.—Monday.—In the evening got a cable from “London,” apparently meant for Henry (my brother), saying “How are you?” and addressed to “Hospital, Pretoria.” Is he really here, sick or wounded? Or is it a mistake for me, my name having been seen in a newspaper and mistaken for his? I have heard nothing from him lately, but gather that his corps, Strathcona’s Horse, is having a good deal to do in the pursuit of Botha, Belfast way.
September 5.—Got the mounted orderly to try and find out about Henry from the other hospitals (there are many here), but, after saying he would, he has never turned up and can’t be found. There are moments when one is exasperated by one’s helplessness as a private soldier, dependent on the good-nature of an orderly for a thing like this.
September 6.—Wednesday.—A man came in yesterday who had been a prisoner of De Wet for seven weeks, having been released at Warm Baths the day I left. He said De Wet had left that force a week before, taking three hundred men, and had gone south for his latest raid. He thought that De Wet himself was a man of fair ability, but that the soul of all his daring enterprises was a foreigner named Theron. This man has a picked body of thirty skilled scouts, riding on picked horses, armed only with revolvers, and ranging seven or eight miles from the main body. De Wet always rode a white horse, and wore a covert coat. By his side rode ex-President Steyn, unarmed. The prisoners were fed as well as the Boers themselves, but that was badly, for they were nearly always short of food, and generally had only Kaffir corn, with occasional meat. One day a prisoner asked a field-cornet when they were going to get something to eat. “I don’t care if you’re a brass band,” he said, “but give us some food.” “Well, I’m very sorry,” was the apologetic reply, “we’ve been trying for a week to get one of your convoys; it will be all right when we get it.” De Wet himself was very pleasant to them, and took good care they got their proper rations. They rode always on waggons, and he spoke feelingly of the horrible monotony of the jolt, jolt, jolt, from morning to night. They nearly always had a British force close on their heels, and no sooner had they out-spanned for a rest than it would be “Inspan—trek.” “Up you get, Khakis; the British are coming!” Then pom-pom-pom, whew-w-w-w, as shells came singing over the rear-guard. At these interesting moments they used to put the prisoners in the extreme rear, so that the British if they saw them, could not fire. He accounted for the superior speed of the Boers by their skill in managing their convoy; every Boer is a born driver (in fact, most of their black drivers had deserted), and they take waggons over ground we should shudder at, leaving the roads if need be, and surmounting impossible ascents. Again they confine their transport to the limits of strict necessity, and are not cumbered with all the waggon-loads of officers’ kit which our generals choose to allow. Their rapidity in inspanning is marvellous; all the cattle may be scattered about grazing, but in five minutes from the word “Trek!” they are inspanned and ready. Their horses, he said, were wretched, and many rode donkeys; how they managed to get about so well he never could understand, but supposed the secret of their success was this body of well-mounted, reliable scouts, who saved all unnecessary travelling to the main body. A very large proportion of the Boer force were foreigners—French, Germans, Dutch, Russians, Norwegians.
The soul of this tent is Jock, an Argyll and Sutherland Highlander. He was wounded at Modder River, and is now nominally suffering from the old wound, but there is nothing really the matter with him; and as soon as the Sister’s back is turned, he turns catherine wheels up the ward on his hands. His great topic is the glory and valour of the Highland Brigade, discoursing on which he becomes in his enthusiasm unintelligibly Scotch. It is the great amusement of the rest of us to get rises out of him on the subject, and furious arguments rage on the merits of various regiments. He is as simple as a child, and really seems to believe that the Highland Brigade has won the war single-handed. He is no hand at argument, and gets crushing controversial defeats from the others, especially some Berks men, but he always takes refuge at last “in the thun rred line,” as his last entrenchment. “Had ye ever a thun rred line?” he asks, and they quail. The matter came to a crisis yesterday, when one of them produced a handbook on British regiments and their histories. The number of “honours” owned by each regiment had been a hotly contested point, and they now sat down and counted them. The Royal Berks had so many—Minden, Waterloo, Salamanca, Vittoria, Sevastopol, etc. In breathless silence those accredited to the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were counted. There were fewer, and Jock was stunned at first. “Ah, but ye ha’ not counted the thun rred line,” he shouted. “Ga’rn, what battle’s that?” they scoffed. “The battle of the thun rred line,” he persisted. Balaclava was on his list, but he didn’t even know it was there that his gallant regiment formed the thin red line. Yet he had his revenge, for, by a laborious calculation, lasting several hours, it was found that the united honours of the Scotch regiments were greater than the united English or Irish.
September 6.—Thursday.—I am allowed to go to a chair outside the tent, a long, luxurious canvas lounge. In the valley below and to the right lies Pretoria, half buried in trees, and looking very pretty. Behind it rises a range of hills, with a couple of forts on the skyline. Across the valley lies quite a town of tents, mostly hospitals. We all of us live in pyjamas; some wear also a long coat of bright blue. Sisters flit about, dressed in light blue, with white aprons and veils, and brilliant scarlet capes, so that there is no lack of vivid colour. A road runs in front of the tent; an occasional orderly gallops past, or a carriage passes with officers.
September 7.—To my delight this afternoon, I heard a voice at my tent door, saying, “Is Childers here?” It turned out to be Bagenal, one of the released Irish Yeomanry, and a friend of Henry’s, who had come from him to look for me. Henry is wounded in the foot, but now “right as rain.” He is in the Convalescent Camp, which is plainly visible from here, about a mile off. It seems that by another lucky coincidence he received letters meant for me, and so knew I was in Pretoria. The whole affair abounds in coincidences, for had I answered the cable home I should have said “foot slight,” or something like it, and he would have said the same. It would have done for either. We are lucky to have found one another, for the Secretary’s inquiries led to nothing.
I have been reading in the Bloemfontein Post a report of the Hospital Commission. I have no experience of General Hospitals, but some of the evidence brings out a point which is heightened by contrast with a hospital like this, and that is the importance of close supervision of orderlies, on whom most of the comfort of a patient depends. To take one instance only; if a man here is ordered port wine, it is given him personally by the Sister. To give orderlies control of wine and spirits is tempting them most un-fairly. On the whole, I should say this hospital was pretty well perfect. The Sisters are kindness itself. The orderlies are well-trained, obliging, and strictly supervised. The Civil Surgeon, Dr. Williams, is both skilful and warm-hearted. There is plenty of everything, and absolute cleanliness and order.
The Strange Story of the Occupation and Surrender of Klerksdorp, as told by a Trooper of the Kimberley Light Horse, taken Prisoner about July 10, by De Wet, released at Warm Baths on August 28, and now in this ward.
Early in June, twenty-one men and four officers of the Kimberley Light Horse rode out thirty miles from Potchefstroom, and summoned the town of Klerksdorp to surrender. It is a town of fair size, predominantly Dutch, of course, but with a minority of English residents. The audacious demand of the Liliputian force was acceded to. They rode in, and the British flag was hoisted. With charming effrontery it was represented that the twenty-one were only the forerunners of an overwhelming force, and that resistance was useless. The Dutch were cowed or acquiescent, and a splendid reception was given to the army of occupation; cheering, flag-waving, and refreshments galore. Their commanding officer mounts the Town Hall steps, and addresses the townspeople, congratulating them on their loyalty, announcing the speedy end of the war, hinting at the hosts of British soon to be expected, and praising the Mayor, a brother of General Cronje, for his wise foresight in submitting; in return for which he said he would try to obtain the release of the General from Lord Roberts. The troop is then escorted by a frantic populace to their camping ground; willing hands off-saddle the horses, while others ply the tired heroes with refreshments. The town is in transports of joy. Days pass. The news spreads, and burghers come in from all sides to deliver up their arms to the Captain. He soon has no fewer than twelve hundred rifles, of which he makes a glorious bonfire, thus disarming at one stroke a number of Boers fifty times greater than his own force. There is no sign of the over-whelming forces of the British, but their early arrival is daily predicted, and the delay explained away. Meanwhile, the twenty-one live in clover, eating and drinking the best of everything, and overwhelmed with offers of marriage from adoring maidens. Luxury threatens to sap their manhood. Guards and patrols are unsteady in their gait; vigilance slackens. A grand concert is given one night, during which the whole army of occupation is inside one room. Two guards are outside, but these are Dutch police. At this moment a handful of determined enemies could have ended the occupation, and rehoisted the Boer flag. Weeks pass, still the British do not come, but the twenty-one hold sway, no doubt by virtue of the moral superiority of the dominant race.
But at last their whole edifice of empire tumbles into ruin with the same dramatic suddenness with which it rose. The ubiquitous De Wet marches up and surrounds the town with an overwhelming force; the inevitable surrender is made, and the Boer flag flies again over Klerksdorp after six glorious weeks of British rule by a score or so of audacious troopers.
September 8.—Henry turned up in a carriage and pair, and we spent all the afternoon together. It is a strange place to meet in after seventeen months, he coming from British Columbia, I from London. A fancy strikes me that it is symbolic of the way in which the whole empire has rallied together for a common end on African soil. He is still very lame, though called convalescent, and we are trying to work his transfer over here. The day-sister has very kindly written a letter to the commanding officer at his camp about it. We compared notes, and found we had enough money to luxuriously watch his carriage standing outside at five shillings an hour. It cost a pound, but it was worth it. We had so much to talk about, that we didn’t know where to begin. A band was playing all the afternoon, and a tea-party going on somewhere, to which Miss Roberts came. She came round the tents also and talked to the men. It turns out that Henry and I both came down from the front on the same day from widely different places, for he was wounded at Belfast, under Buller.
September 9.—Jock gave us a complete concert last night, songs, interspersed with the maddest, most whimsical patter, step-dances, ventriloquism, recitations. He kept us in roars for a long time. Blended with the simplicity of a baby, he has the wisdom of the serpent, and has the knack of getting hold of odd delicacies, with which he regales the ward. He is perfectly well, by the way, but when the doctor comes round he assumes a convincing air of semi-convalescence, and refers darkly to his old wound. The doctor is not in the least taken in, but is indulgent, and not too curious. As soon as his back is turned, Jock is executing a reel in the middle of the ward.
The I.L.H. man is very interesting. Like most of his corps, which was recruited from the Rand, he has a position on a mine there, and must be well over forty. He had been through the Zulu war too. His squadron was with Buller all through the terrible struggle from Colenso to Ladysmith, which they were the first to enter. They were shipped off to the Cape and sent up to relieve Mafeking with Mahon. He has been in scores of fights without a scratch, but now has veldt sores. He says Colenso was by far the worst battle, and the last fortnight before the relief of Ladysmith was a terrible strain. But he spoke very highly of the way Buller fed his men. The harder work they did, the better they fared. (The converse is usually the case.) I have heard the same thing from other fellows; there seem to have been very good commissariat arrangements on that side of the country. From first to last all men who served under Buller seemed to have liked and trusted him. Curiously enough, he says that Ladysmith was in far worse case than Mafeking when relieved. The latter could have held out months longer, he thinks, and they all looked well. In Ladysmith you could have blown any of them over with a puff of air, and the defence was nearly broken down.
Judging from this casual intercourse, he represents a type very common among colonial volunteers, but not encouraged by our own military system—I mean that of the independent, intelligent, resourceful unit. If there are many like him in his corps, it accounts amply for the splendid work they have done. He told me that not one of them had been taken prisoner, which, looking at the history of the war, and at the kind of work such a corps has to do, speaks volumes for the standard of ability in all ranks. But what I don’t like, and can’t altogether understand, is the intense and implacable bitterness against the Boers, which all South Africans such as him show. Nothing is too bad for the Boers. “Boiling oil” is far too good. Deportation to Ceylon is pitiful leniency. Any suggestion that the civilized customs of war should be kept up with such an enemy, is scouted. Making all allowances for the natural resentment of those who have known what it is to be an Uitlander, allowing too for “white flag” episodes and so on, I yet fail to understand this excess of animosity, which goes out of its way even to deny any ability to Boer statesmen and soldiers, regardless of the slur such a denial casts on British arms and statesmanship. After all, we have lost ten thousand or more prisoners to the Boers, and, for my part, the fact that I have never heard a complaint of bad treatment (unnecessarily bad, I mean) from an ex-prisoner, tells more strongly than anything with me in forming a friendly impression of the enemy we are fighting. Many a hot argument have we had about Boer and Briton; and I’m afraid he thinks me but a knock-kneed imperialist.
September 10.—Monday.—To my great delight, Henry turned up as an inmate here, the commanding officer at the convalescent camp having most kindly managed his transference, with some difficulty. The state of his foot didn’t enter into the question at all, but official “etiquette” was in danger of being outraged. The commanding officer was a very good chap, though, and Henry seems to have escaped somehow in the tumult, unpursued. He had to walk over here.
A wounded man from Warm Baths came in to-day, and said they had had two days’ fighting there; camp heavily shelled by Grobelaar.
September 13.—Thursday.—Foot nearly well, but am not allowed to walk, and very jealous of Henry, who has been given a crutch, and makes rapid kangaroo-like progress with it. There are a good many in his case, and we think of getting up a cripples’ race, which Henry would certainly win.
Letters from Williams and Ramsey at the front. It seems Warm Baths is evacuated, and the Brigade has returned to Waterval. Why? However, it’s nearer here, and will give me a chance of rejoining earlier.
A splendid parcel arrived from home. A Jäger coat, chocolate, ginger, plums, cigarettes. Old Daddy opposite revels in the ginger; he is the father of the ward, being forty-seven, a pathetic, time-worn, veldt-worn old reservist, utterly done up by the fatigues of the campaign. He has had a bad operation, and suffers a lot, but he is always “first-rate, couldn’t be more comfortable,” when the Sisters or doctors ask him; “as long as I never cross that there veldt no more,” he adds.
A locust-storm passed over the hospital to-day—a cloud of fluttering insects, with dull red bodies and khaki wings.
September 15.—Saturday.—My foot is well, at any rate for moderate use, and I am to go out on Monday. What I should like, would be to rejoin at once, but unfortunately one has first to go through the intermediate stages of the Convalescent camp, and the Rest camp, where “details” collect, to be forwarded to their regiments. I don’t look forward to being a detail at all. Henry’s foot is much better, and he is to go out on Monday too. He is still rather lame, though. It has been most delightful having him here.
The evenings are deliciously cool, and you can sit outside in pyjamas till 8.30, when you are turned in. We sat out for long last night, talking over plans. A staff officer has twice been in here, and seemed much amused by us two brothers having fore-gathered. I asked him about Paget’s brigade, and he seemed to think they were still at or near Waterval.
September 16.—Sunday.—We went to church in the evening; a tent pleasantly filled up, a Sister at the harmonium, hymns, a few prayers, the Psalms, and a short sermon; a strange parti-coloured congregation we were, in pyjamas, slippers and blue coats, some on crutches; Sisters in their bright uniforms. Chairs were scarce, and Henry and I sat on the floor. It was dark before the end, and in the dim light of two candles at the harmonium we looked a motley throng.
Both bound for the Convalescent camp tomorrow.
September 17.—Monday.—What we actually did to-day, seeing the commandant, regaining our kit, drawing new kit, might have been done in half an hour; but we took from nine till three doing it, most of which time we were standing waiting. However, about three we found ourselves in a covered cart with five others and our kits, bound for the Convalescent camp. We had said good-bye to the Sisters and our mates. Old Daddy, I am glad to say, had “worked it,” as they say, and was radiant, having been marked up for home. No more of “that there veldt” for him. Jock had already been sent out and given a post as hospital orderly, and was now spreading the fame of the Highland Brigade in new fields. We both felt, on the whole, that we had been looked after very well in a very good hospital. The mules jolted us across the valley, and landed us at a big block of tents, and we took places in one; mother earth again. Tea, the milkless variety again, at 4.30, and then we went to Henry’s old tent in the General Hospital, which adjoins this camp, and talked to a friend of his there, a man in the Rifle Brigade, with a bad splintered knee. He was shot about the same time as Henry in a fine charge made by his battalion, which I remember reading about.
Both much depressed to-night; the atmosphere of this camp is like a convict settlement. The food and arrangements are all right, but nobody knows any one else; all are casual details from every possible regiment and volunteer corps in the Empire. Nearly all are “fed up;” nearly all want to get home. A vein of bitter pessimism runs through all conversations; there is a general air of languor and depression. Fatigues are the only occupation. I should go melancholy mad here, if I stayed; but I shall apply to return to the Battery. Even then there is another stage—the Rest camp—to be gone through. We sat up late this night outside the lines, talking of this strange coincidence of our meeting, and trying to plan future ones. He feels the same about this place, but is still too lame to rejoin his corps.
September 18.—We washed in a stream some distance off, and then had breakfast. Then general parade. There must be some two or three hundred of us, and a wretched, slipshod lot we looked. A voice said, “Those who want to rejoin their regiments, two paces to the front.” A few accepted the invitation. I gave in my name, and was told to parade again at two, with kit packed. The next moment we were being split up into fatigue parties. Fatigues are always a nuisance, but I don’t mind them under my own folk, with a definite necessary job to be done. A fatigue under strange masters and with strange mates is very irksome, especially when, as in this case, there is little really to be done, but they don’t want to leave you idle. This was a typical case. I and a dozen others slouched off under a corporal, who showed us to a sergeant, who gave us to a sergeant-major, who pointed to a line of tents (Langman’s Hospital), and bade us clean up the lines. To the ordinary eye there was nothing to clean up, but to the trained eye there were some minute fragments of paper and cigarette ends. Now the great thing in a fatigue of this kind is: (1) To make it last. No good hurrying, as fresh futilities will be devised for you. (2) To appear to be doing something at all costs. (3) To escape unobtrusively at the first opportunity. There are some past-masters in the theory and practice of fatigues who will disregard No. 1, and carry on No. 2 till the golden moment when, with inspired audacity, they achieve No. 3, and vanish from the scene. This requires genius. The less confident ploddingly fulfil Nos. 1 and 2, and don’t attempt No. 3. Well, we loitered up and down, and collected a few handfuls, and when we had eked out the job to the uttermost, stood together in a listless knot and waited. “What shall we do?” we asked the corporal. “Do any —— thing,” he despairingly cried, “but do some —— thing!” By this time the sergeant-major too was at his wits’ end as he looked round his spotless lines. But you can’t easily baffle a sergeant-major. There was a pump, with a big tub by it, to catch the waste, I suppose. The artistic possibilities of these simple objects flashed across him. In his mind’s eye he saw this prosaic tub sublimed into a romantic pool, and girdled by a rockery, in whose mossy crannies errant trickles of water might lose themselves, and perhaps fertilize exotic flora yet unborn. At this moment I espied a wheelbarrow in the distance, and went for it with that purposeful briskness, which may sometimes be used in fatigues of this sort to disguise your real intentions. For it is of the greatest importance in a fatigue to have an implement; it is the out-ward symbol of labour; if observation falls on you, you can wipe your brow and lean on it; you can even use it for a few minutes if necessary. Without some stage property of this sort only a consummate actor can seem to be busy. Well, I got to the barrow just in time. There were two; a Grenadier Guardsman got the other, and amid envious looks we wheeled them off towards a heap of rubble in the offing, “conveniently low.” Then, with a simultaneous sigh of relief, we mechanically produced our pipes and tobacco, found comfortable seats against the pile of rubble, and had a good chat, lazily watching the genesis of the naiad’s grotto in the distance. When we had had a good smoke, and fought our battles over again, we got up and saw signs that the fatigue was guttering out; so we put a few stones in each of the barrows, and, well content, journeyed back to the scene of operations, and laid our stones round the base of the tub, more because we knew nowhere else to lay them than for any other reason, for the sergeant-major had apparently forgotten his grandiose designs in other schemes, and had disappeared. The fatigue party was thinning. The corporal said what may be freely translated as “disappear quietly,” and we made off to our camp, where I found Henry, who had doctor’s leave to be excused fatigues, being lame.