Pretoria is manifestly a city in process of being made, and has probably in store a magnificent future, though at present the shanty and the palace stand "cheek by jowl." Even the main roads leading into the town seemed atrociously bad as judged by English standards, and the paving of the principal streets was of a correspondingly perilous type. Yet the public buildings already referred to were not the only ones that claimed our commendation as signs of a progressive spirit. The Government Printing Works are remarkably handsome and complete; and while for educational purposes there is in Pretoria nothing quite comparable to Grey College at Bloemfontein, the secondary education of the late Republic's metropolis was well housed.
[Sidenote: The State's Model School.]
There is, however, one building provided for that purpose which has acquired an enduring interest of quite another kind, and which I visited, when it became a hospital, with very mingled emotions. The State's Model School, during the early stages of the war, was utilised as a prison for the British officers captured by the Boers. How keenly these brave men felt and secretly resented their ill-fortune they were too proud to tell, but one of the noblest of them had become, through the terrors of a disastrous fight, so piteously demented for a while that he actually wore hanging from his neck a piece of cardboard announcing that it was he who lost the guns at Colenso. Some of them would rather have lost their lives than in such fashion have lost their liberty, and the story which tells how three of them regained that liberty by escaping from this very prison is one of the most thrilling among all the records of the war. Most noted of the three is Winston Churchill, whose own graphic pen has told how he eluded the most vigilant search and finally reached the sea. But the adventures of Captain Haldane and his non-commissioned companion reveal yet more of daring and endurance. Captured at the same time as Churchill, and through the same cause--the disaster on November 13th to the armoured train at Chieveley--these two effected their escape long after the hue and cry on the heels of Churchill had died away. Within what was supposed to be a day or two of the removal of all the officers to a more secure "birdcage" outside the town, those two gentlemen vanished under the floor of their room, through a kind of tiny trap-door that I have often seen, but which was then partly concealed by a bed, and was apparently never noticed by their Boer custodians. In this prison beneath a prison, damp and dark and dismal beyond all describing, and where there was no room to stand erect, these two officers found themselves doomed to dwell, not for days merely, but for weeks. They were of course hunted for high and low, and sought in every conceivable place except the right place. Food was guardedly passed down to them by two or three brother officers who shared their secret, and at last, more dead than alive, they emerged from their dungeon the moment they discovered the building was deserted, and then daringly faced the almost hopeless, yet successful, endeavour to smuggle themselves to far-distant Delagoa Bay. Evidently the element of romance has not yet died out of this prosaic age!
[Sidenote: Rev. Adrian Hoffmeyer.]
Strangely sharing the fate of these British prisoners in this Model School was a godly and gifted minister of the Dutch Reformed Church. A Boer among Boers. He was never told why he was arrested by his brother Boers, and though kept under lock and key for months, he was never introduced to judge or jury. An advocate of peace, he was suspected of British leanings, and so almost before the war commenced rough hands were laid upon him. There was in the Transvaal a reign of terror. Secret service men were everywhere, and no one's reputation was safe, no one's position secure. In this land of newly-discovered gold men were driven to discover that the most golden thing of all was discreet silence on the part of those who differed from "the powers that be." So he who simply sought to avert war was suspected of British sympathies, and to his unutterable surprise presently found himself the fellow prisoner of many a still more unfortunate British officer.
Of those officers, their character and intellectual attainments, he speaks in terms of highest praise. Their enforced leisure they devoted to various artistic and intellectual pursuits, and I have myself seen an admirably elaborate and accurate map of the Republics, covering the whole of a large classroom wall, drawn presumably from joint memory by these officers, who by its aid were able to trace the progress of the war as tidings filtered through to them by an ingenious system of signalling practised by sympathetic friends outside.
By those same officers this Dutchman was invited to become their unofficial chaplain, and he writes of the devotional services consequently arranged as among the chief delights of his life, the favourite hymn he says being the following:--
Holy Father, in Thy mercy
Hear our anxious prayer.
Keep our loved ones, now far absent,
'Neath Thy care.
Jesus, Saviour, let Thy presence
Be their light and pride.
Keep, Oh keep them, in their weakness,
Near Thy side.
Holy Spirit, let Thy teaching
Sanctify their life.
Send Thy grace that they may conquer
In all strife.
It was to this much respected and much reviled predikant a Pretorian high official said: "We were determined to let it drift to a rupture with England, for then our dream would be realised of a Republic reaching to Table Mountain"; but surely such a song and such a scene in the State's Model School was a thing of which no man dreamed!
[Sidenote: The Waterfall prisoners.]
The private soldiers who like these, their officers, had become prisoners of war, were for greater security removed from their racecourse camp to a huge prison-pen at the Waterfall, some ten or twelve miles up the Pietersburg line. They numbered in all about three thousand eight hundred, and for a while fared badly at their captors' hands. But ultimately a small committee was formed in Pretoria and £5000 subscribed, to be spent in mitigating their lot and ministering in many ways to their comfort. In these ministrations of mercy the Wesleyan minister, whose grateful guest I for a while became, as afterwards of the genial host and hostess at the Silverton Mission Parsonage, took a prominent and much appreciated part as the following letter abundantly proves:--
To the Rev. F. W. MACDONALD, President, Wesleyan Church, London.
PRETORIA, 4th July 1900.
SIR,--As chairman of a committee formed in January last for the purpose of assisting the British prisoners of war, I have been requested to bring officially to your notice the splendid work done by the Rev. H. W. Goodwin. From my position I have been thrown into intimate relationship with Mr Goodwin, and it is a great pleasure to me to testify to his invaluable services. I am not a member of your church, nor are my colleagues, but there is a unanimous desire among the British subjects that were permitted to remain in Pretoria, and who are therefore cognisant of Mr Goodwin's work, to place his record before you. It is our united hope that Mr Goodwin will receive some substantial mark of appreciation from the Church of which he is so fine a representative. I know of none finer in the highest sense in the Church which knows no distinction of forms or creeds.--I have the honour to be, Sir, your obedient servant,
(Sd.) J. LEIGH WOOD.
On my arrival in Pretoria Mr Goodwin was at my request at once appointed as Acting Army Chaplain, and shortly after received the following most gratifying communication:--
PRETORIA, 9th June 1900.
DEAR SIR,--If you could kindly call on Lord Roberts some time to-day or to-morrow, it would give him great pleasure to meet one who has done so much for our prisoners of war.--Yours faithfully,
(Sd.) H. V. CONAN,
The Rev. Goodwin. Lt.-Col., Mil. Sec.
When Mr Goodwin accordingly called nothing could well exceed the warmth of the welcome and of the thanks the field-marshal graciously accorded him.
Among the prisoners at the Waterfall was a well-known Wesleyan sergeant of the 18th Hussars, who rallied around him all such as were of a devout spirit and became the recognised leader of the religious life of the prison camp. I therefore requested him to supply me with a brief statement of what in this respect had been done by the prisoners for the prisoners. He accordingly sent me the following letter:--
PRETORIA, 7th July 1900.
REVEREND AND DEAR SIR,--Long before you asked me to write an account of the Christian work which was carried on from the 22nd of October 1899 to the 6th of June 1900, among the British prisoners of war at the Pretoria Racecourse, and afterwards at Waterfall, it had occurred to me that for the encouragement of other Christian workers particularly, and the members of the Church of Christ generally, some record should be made of the wonderful way in which God blessed us, and it is with the greatest pleasure that I accede to your request.
I was one of the 160 who were taken prisoners after the battle of Talana Hill (Dundee), and a few days after arriving at our destination (Pretoria Racecourse) we heard some of our guard singing psalms and we immediately decided to ask the commandant for a tent for devotional purposes. It was given, and after the first few nights, till we were released by our own forces seven months afterwards, it was filled to overflowing nightly. On our being removed to Waterfall, we enlarged our tent to three times its original size, and later on we begged building material from the commandant, and built a very nice hall with a platform and seating accommodation for over 240. At last this became too small and we went into the open air twice a week, when no less than 500 to 700 congregated to hear the old, old story of Jesus and His love.
When we asked for the small tent we had no idea of the work growing as it did. We used to meet together every night, a simple gathering together of God's children, four in number, which increased to one hundred, with the Lord Himself as teacher. Then our comrades began to attend and we commenced to hold evangelistic services, which were continued to the end.
When we got to Waterfall we started a Bible-class and a prayer meeting, held alternately. The work was helped a great deal by other Christian brothers, without whose services, co-operation, fellowship and sympathy the work could hardly have been continued for any length of time. But, after all, speaking after the manner of men, our dear friend and pastor, the Rev. H. W. Goodwin, was the one who really enabled us to carry on the work. As the transport and commissariat are to any army, so Mr Goodwin was to us.
On our application, the Boer Government consented to allow the ministers of the various churches in Pretoria to visit us once a month for the purpose of conducting divine service. Of course such a privilege as this was greatly appreciated by the men, and one cannot help wondering why such restrictions were placed upon the ministers.
We had many cherished plans and bright hopes with regard to the war, and when we were captured we found it hard to recognise the ordering of the Lord in our new conditions and unaccustomed circumstances; but we were taught some grand lessons, and we soon found that even imprisonment has its compensations; and we have to confess that His Presence makes the prison a palace. I have heard many thank God for bringing them to Waterfall gaol.
During the months we spent together we realised that God was blessing us in a most remarkable manner, and we may truly say that our fellowship was with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. Many backsliders were taught the folly of remaining away from the Father, and many were turned from darkness unto light. To Him be the glory.
On hearing of the near approach of our deliverers, and knowing that soon we should all part, we had a farewell meeting and many promised to write to me.
I received a number of letters ere we actually parted, but with the injunction "not to be opened till separated," and from these I intend making a few extracts which lead me like the Psalmist to say "Because Thou hast been my help therefore in the shadow of Thy wings will I rejoice."
Of the extracts to which the sergeant refers it is impossible to give here more than a few brief samples; but even these may suffice to prove that our soldiers are by no means all, or mostly, sons of Belial, as their recent slanderers would have us believe.
A Bombardier of the 10th Mountain Battery writes--"I was brought to God on the 4th of February. I had often stood outside the tent and listened to the services, and one evening I went into the after-meeting and came away without Christ; but God was striving with me, and a few nights afterwards I realised that I was a hell-deserving sinner, and I cried unto God and He heard me; and that night I came away with Christ."
A Sergeant-major of Roberts' Horse says--"I am indeed grateful to God for the loving-kindness He has bestowed on me since my coming here as a prisoner of war. The meetings have been a great success and of the most orderly character."
A Sergeant of the Royal Irish Rifles adds--"Thanks be unto God, He opened my eyes on the night of the 21st of January 1900; and He has kept me ever since."
A Corporal of the Wilts, after telling of his capture at Rensberg, and his arrival at Waterfall, goes on to say--"I heard about the Gospel Tent from one of the Boer sentries, and I cannot express the happy feelings that passed through me when I saw the Christian band gathered together with one accord."
A Private of the Glosters relates the story of his own conversion, and then proceeds to say he shall never forget the meetings which were conducted by the Rev. H. W. Goodwin, especially the one in which he administered to them the blessed Sacrament. It was a Pentecostal time, and it pleased the Lord to add unto them eight souls that same night, and six the night following.
[Sidenote: A Soldier's Hymn.]
As the day of release drew near with all its inevitable excitement and unrest, certain British officers, themselves prisoners, were requested by the Boers to reside among these men at the Waterfall to ensure to the very last the maintenance of discipline; and the sanction of the Baptist minister who once conducted their parade service was sought by them for the singing of the following most touchingly appropriate hymn:--
Lord a nation humbly kneeling
For her soldiers cries to Thee;
Strong in faith and hope, appealing
That triumphant they may be.
'Neath Thy keeping,
Lead our troops to victory.
Of our sins we make confession,
Wealth and arrogance and pride;
But our hosts, against oppression,
March with Freedom's flowing tide.
Father, speed them,
Keep them, lead them,
God of armies, be their guide.
Man of Sorrows! Thou hast sounded
Every depth of human grief.
By Thy wounds, Oh, heal our wounded.
Give the fever's fire relief.
Hear us crying
For our dying,
Of consolers be Thou chief.
Take the souls that die for duty
In Thy tender pierced hand;
Crown the faulty lives with beauty,
Offered for their Fatherland.
With the living
May they in Thy kingdom stand.
And if Victory should crown us,
May we take it as from Thee
As Thy nation deign to own us;
Merciful and strong and free.
To Thee raising,
Ever Thine may England be!
Say their critics what they may, soldiers who compose such songs, and pen such testimonies, and conduct such services among themselves, seem scarcely the sort to "let hell loose in South Africa!"
[Sidenote: A big supper party.]
Of the prisoners of war thus long detained in durance vile nearly a thousand were decoyed into a special train the night before the Guards' Brigade reached Pretoria. These deluded captives in their simplicity supposed they were being taken into the town to be there set at liberty; but instead of that they were hurried by, and, with the panic-stricken Boers, away and yet away, into their remotest eastern fastnesses, there presumably to be retained as long as possible as a sort of guarantee that the vastly larger number of Boers we held prisoners should be still generously treated by us. They might also prove useful in many ways if terms of peace came to be negotiated. So vanished for months their visions of speedy freedom!
The rest who still remained within the prison fence, and were, of course, still unarmed, three days later were cruelly and treacherously shelled by a Boer commando on a distant hill. The Boer guards detailed for duty at the prison had deserted their posts, and under the cover of the white flag, gone into Pretoria to surrender. Our men, therefore, who were practically free, awaiting orders, when thus unceremoniously shelled, at once stampeded; and late on Thursday night about nine hundred of them, footsore and famished, arrived at Mr Goodwin's house seeking shelter. He was apparently the only friend they knew in Pretoria, and to have a friend yet not to use him is, of course, absurd! So to his door they came in crowds, dragging with them the Boer Maxim gun, by which they had so long been overawed. While tea and coffee for all this host were being hurriedly prepared by their slightly embarrassed host, I sought permission from a staff officer to house the men for the night in our Wesleyan schoolrooms, and in the huge Caledonian Hall adjoining, which was at once commandeered for the purpose. I also requested that a supply of rations might at utmost speed be provided for them. Accordingly, not long before midnight a waggon arrived bringing by some fortunate misreading of my information, provisions, not for nine hundred hungry men, but for the whole three thousand prisoners whom we were supposed to have welcomed as our guests. It may seem incredible, but men who at that late hour had fallen fast asleep upon the floor, at the sound of that waggon's wheels suddenly awoke; and still more wonderful to tell, when morning came those nine hundred men, of the rations for three thousand, had left untouched only a few paltry boxes of biscuits. A hospital patient recently recovered from fever once said to me, "I haven't an appetite for two, sir; I have an appetite for ten!" And these released prisoners had evidently for that particular occasion borrowed the appetite of that particular patient!
[Sidenote: The Soldiers' Home.]
The Caledonian Hall above referred to is a specially commodious building, and could not have been more admirably adapted for use as a Soldiers' Home if expressly erected for that purpose. It was accordingly commandeered by the military governor to be so used, and for months it was the most popular establishment in town or camp. At Johannesburg a Wesleyan and an Anglican Home were opened, both rendering excellent service; but as this was run on undenominational lines, it was left without a rival. It is a most powerful sign of the times that our military chiefs now unhesitatingly interest themselves in the moral and spiritual welfare of the men under their command. Some time before this Boer war commenced, on April 28, 1898, there was issued by the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army a memorandum which would have done no discredit to the Religious Tract Society if published as one of their multitudinous leaflets. A copy was supplied presumably to every soldier sent to Africa; and the first few sentences which refer to what may happily be regarded as steadily diminishing evils, read as follows:--
It will be the duty of company officers to point out to the men under their control, and particularly to young soldiers, the
disastrous effect of giving way
to habits of intemperance and immorality. The excessive use of intoxicating liquors unfits the soldier for active work, blunts his intelligence, and is a fruitful source of military crime. The man who leads a vicious life
enfeebles his constitution
and exposes himself to the risk of contracting a disease of a kind which has of late made terrible ravages in the British army. Many men spend a great deal of the short time of their service in the military hospitals, the wards of which are crowded with patients, a large number of whom are permanently disfigured and incapacitated from earning a livelihood in or out of the army. Men tainted with this disease are
useless while in the army
and a burden to their friends after they have left it. Even those who do not altogether break down are unfit for service in the field, and would certainly be a source of weakness to their regiments, and a discredit to their comrades if employed in war.
[Illustration: From a photograph by Mr Jones, Pretoria
Soldiers' Home at Pretoria.]
As one of the most effectual ways of combating these evils, and of providing an answer to the oft-repeated prayer, "Lead us not into temptation," Soldiers' Homes are now being so freely multiplied, that the Wesleyan Church has itself established over thirty, at a total cost of more than £50,000.
[Sidenote: Mr and Mrs Osborn Howe.]
Some of those engaged in similar Christian work among the soldiers were gentlemen of ample private means who defrayed all their own expenses. Mr Anderson was thus attached to the Northumberland Fusiliers, and soon became a power for good among them. Mr and Mrs Osborn Howe did a really remarkable work in providing Soldiers' Homes, which followed the men from place to place over almost the entire field covered by our military operations, including Pretoria, and though they received quite a long list of subscriptions their own private resources have for years been freely placed at the Master's service, whether for work among soldiers or civilians.
When late on in the campaign it was intimated by certain officials that Lord Kitchener was not in sympathy with such work and would not grant such facilities for its prosecution as Lord Roberts had done, Mr Osborn Howe received the following reply to a letter of enquiry on that point:--
[Sidenote: A letter from Lord Kitchener.]
I am directed by Lord Kitchener to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of January 3rd. His Lordship much regrets that you should have been led to imagine that his attitude towards your work differs from that of Lord Roberts, and I am to inform you that so far from that being the case, he is very deeply impressed by the value of your work, and hopes that it may long continue and increase.
(Signed) W. H. CONGREVE, Major,
Still more notable in this same connection is the fact that soon after Lord Roberts reached Cape Town to take supreme command, he caused to be issued the following most remarkable letter, which certainly marks a new departure in the usages of modern warfare, and carries us back in thought and spirit to the camps of Cromwell and his psalm-singing Ironsides, or to the times when Scotland's Covenanters were busy guarding for us the religious light and liberty which are to-day our goodliest heritage.
[Sidenote: Also from Lord Roberts.]
ARMY HEADQUARTERS, CAPE TOWN,
DEAR SIR,--I am desired by Lord Roberts to ask you to be so kind as to distribute to all ranks under your command the "Short Prayer for the use of Soldiers in the Field," by the Primate of Ireland, copies of which I now forward. His Lordship earnestly hopes that it may be helpful to all of Her Majesty's soldiers who are now serving in South Africa.
(Signed) NEVILLE CHAMBERLAIN, Colonel,
To the Commanding Officer.
ALMIGHTY FATHER, I have often sinned against Thee. O wash me in the precious blood of the Lamb of God. Fill me with Thy Holy Spirit, that I may lead a new life. Spare me to see again those whom I love at home, or fit me for Thy presence in peace.
Strengthen us to quit ourselves like men in our right and just cause. Keep us faithful unto death, calm in danger, patient in suffering, merciful as well as brave, true to our Queen, our country, and our colours.
If it be Thy will, enable us to win victory for England, and above all grant us the better victory over temptation and sin, over life and death, that we may be more than conquerors through Him who loved us, and laid down His life for us, Jesus our Saviour, the Captain of the Army of God. Amen.
The general who officially invited all his troops to use such a prayer could not fail to prove a warm friend and patron of Soldiers' Homes; and to the Pretoria Home he came, not merely formally to declare it open, but to attend one of the many concerts given there, thus encouraging by his example both the workers and those for whom they worked. A supremely busy and burdened man, that he made a part of his business; and surely he was wise, for one sober soldier is any day worth more than a dozen drunken ones.
The general who thus deliberately encouraged his troops to live devoutly, instead of being deemed by them on that account unsoldierly or fanatic, secured such a place in their confidence and affection as few even of the most magnetic leaders among men ever managed to obtain. The pet name by which they always spoke of him implied no approach to unseemly familiarity, but betokened the same kind of attachment as the veteran hosts of Napoleon the Great intended to express when they admiringly called their dread master "The Little Corporal." He amply justified their confidence in him, and they amply justified his confidence in them; and so on resigning his command in South Africa he spoke of these "my comrades," as he called them, in terms as gratifying as they are uncommon:--
I am very proud that I am able to record, with the most absolute truth, that the conduct of this army from first to last has been exemplary. Not one single case of serious crime has been brought to my notice--indeed, nothing that deserves the name of crime. There has been no necessity for appeals or orders to the men to behave properly. I have trusted implicitly to their own soldierly feeling and good sense, and I have not trusted in vain. They bore themselves like heroes on the battlefield, and like gentlemen on all other occasions.
[Sidenote: A song in praise of De Wet.]
Lord Lytton tells us that in the days of Edward the Confessor the rage for psalm singing was at its height in England so that sacred song excluded almost every other description of vocal music: but though in South Africa a similar trend revealed itself among the troops, their camp fire concerts, and the concerts in the Pretoria Soldiers' Home, were of an exclusively secular type. At one which it was my privilege to attend, Lady Roberts and her daughters were present as well as the general, who generously arranged for a cigar to be given to every man in the densely crowded hall when the concert closed. All the songs were by members of the general's staff, and were excellent; but one, composed presumably by the singer, was topical and sensational in a high degree. It was entitled: "Long as the world goes round"; and one verse assured us concerning "Brother Boer," with only too near an approach to truth,
He'll bury his mauser,
And break all his vows, sir,
Long as the world goes round!
Another verse reminded us of a still more melancholy fact which yet awakened no little mirth. It was in praise of De Wet, who in spite of his blue spectacles, seemed by far the most clear-sighted of all the Boer generals, and who, notwithstanding his illiteracy, was beyond all others well versed in the bewildering ways of the veldt. He apparently had no skill for the conducting of set battles, but for ambushing convoys, for capturing isolated detachments, for wrecking trains, and for himself eluding capture when fairly ringed round with keen pursuers beyond all counting, few could rival him. Like hunted Hereward, he seemed able to escape through a rat hole, and by his persistence in guerilla tactics not only seriously prolonged the war and enormously increased its cost, but also went far to make the desolation of his pet Republic complete. So there Lord Roberts sat and heard this sung by one of his staff:--
Of all the Boers we have come across yet,
None can compare with this Christian De Wet;
For him we seem quite unable to get--
(Though Hildyard and Broadwood,
And our Soudanese Lord should)--
Long as the world goes round!
They should have got him, and they would have got him, if they could; but when Lord Roberts, long months after, set sail for home, he left De Wet still in the saddle. Then Kitchener, our Soudanese Lord, took up the running, and called on the Guards to aid him, but even they proved unequal to the hopeless task. "One pair of heels," they said, "can never overtake two pair of hoofs." Then our picked mounted men monopolised the "tally-ho" to little better purpose. De Wet's guns were captured, his convoys cut off, but him no man caught, and possibly to this very day he is still complacently humming "Tommies may come and Tommies may go, but I trot on for ever."
[Sidenote: Cordua and his Conspiracy.]
The last verse of this sensational song had reference to yet another celebrity, but of a far more unsatisfactory type. All the earlier part of that Thursday I had spent in the second Raadsaal, attending a court-martial on one of our prisoners of war, Lieutenant Hans Cordua, late of the Transvaal State Artillery, who, having surrendered, was suffered to be at large on parole. In my presence he pleaded guilty, first to having broken his parole in violation of his solemn oath; secondly, to having attempted to break through the British lines disguised in British khaki, in order to communicate treasonably with Botha; and thirdly, to having conspired with sundry others to set fire to a certain portion of Pretoria with a view to facilitating a simultaneous attempt to kidnap Lord Roberts and all his staff. Cordua was with difficulty persuaded to withdraw the plea of guilty, so that he might have the benefit of any possible flaw his counsel could detect in the evidence; but in the end the death sentence was pronounced, confirmed, and duly executed in the garden of Pretoria Gaol on August 24th. It was from that court-martial I came to the Soldiers' Home Concert, sat close behind Lord Roberts, and listened to this song:--
Though the Boer some say is a practised thief,
Yet it certainly beggars all belief,
That he slimly should try to steal our Chief.
But no Hollander mobs
Shall kidnap our Bobs
Long as the world goes round!
[Sidenote: Hospital Work in Pretoria.]
Historians tell us that the hospital arrangements in some of our former wars were by no means free from fault. Hence Steevens in his "Crimean Campaign" asserts that while the camp hospitals absolutely lacked not only candles, but medicines, wooden legs were supplied to them from England so freely that there were finally four such legs for every man in hospital. Clearly those wooden legs were consigned by wooden heads. Even in this much better managed war the fever epidemic at Bloemfontein, combined with a month of almost incessant rain, overtaxed for a while, as we have seen, the resources and strength and organizing skill of a most willing and fairly competent medical staff.
But Pretoria was plagued with no corresponding epidemic, and possessed incomparably ampler supplies, which were drawn on without stint. In addition to the Welsh, the Yeomanry, and other canvas hospitals planted in the suburbs, the splendid Palace of Justice was requisitioned for the use of the Irish hospital, which, like several others, was fitted out and furnished by private munificence. The principal school buildings were also placed at the disposal of the medical authorities, and were promptly made serviceable with whatever requisites the town could supply. To find suitable bedding, however, for so vast a number of patients was a specially difficult task. All the rugs and tablecloths the stores of the town contained were requisitioned for this purpose; green baize and crimson baize, repp curtains and plush, anything, everything remotely suitable, was claimed and cut up to serve as quilts and counterpanes, with the result that the beds looked picturesquely, if not grotesquely, gay. One ward, into which I walked, was playfully called "The Menagerie" by the men that occupied it, for on every bed was a showy rug, and on the face of every rug was woven the figure of some fearsome beast, Bengal tigers and British lions being predominant. It was in appearance a veritable lion's den, where our men dwelt in peace like so many modern Daniels, and found not harm but health and healing there.
[Sidenote: The wear and tear of War.]
In this campaign the loss of life and vigour caused by sickness was enormously larger than that accounted for by bullet wounds and bayonets. At the Orange River, just before the Guards set out on their long march, thirty Grenadier officers stretched their legs under their genial colonel's "mahogany," which consisted of rough planks supported on biscuit boxes. Of those only nine were still with us when we reached Pretoria, and of the nine several had been temporarily disabled by sickness or wounds. The battalion at starting was about a thousand strong, and afterwards received various drafts amounting to about four hundred more; but only eight hundred marched into Pretoria. The Scots Guards, however, were so singularly fortunate as not to lose a single officer during the whole campaign.
The non-combatants in this respect were scarcely less unfortunate than the bulk of their fighting comrades. A band of workers in the service of the Soldiers' Christian Association set out together from London for South Africa. There were six of them, but before the campaign was really half over only one still remained at his post. My faithful friend and helper, whom I left as army scripture reader at Orange River, after some months of devoted work was compelled to hasten home. A similar fate befell my Canadian, my Welsh, and one of my Australian colleagues. The highly esteemed Anglican chaplain to the Guards, who steadily tramped with them all the way to Pretoria and well earned his D.S.O., was forbidden by his medical advisers to proceed any further, and his successor, Canon Knox Little, whose praise as a preacher is in all the churches, found on reaching Koomati Poort that his strength was being overstrained, and so at once returned to the sacred duties of his English Canonry. Thus to many a non-combatant the medical staff was called to minister, and the veldt to provide a grave.
[Sidenote: The Nursing Sisters.]
The presence of skilled lady-nurses in these Hospitals was of immense service, not merely as an aid to healing, but also as a refining and restraining influence among the men. In this direction they habitually achieved what even the appearing of a chaplain did not invariably suffice to accomplish. It was the cheering experience of Florence Nightingale repeated on a yet wider scale. In her army days oaths were greatly in fashion. The expletives of one of even the Crimean generals became the jest of the camp; and when later in his career he took over the Aldershot Command, it was laughingly said "he swore himself in"; which doubtless he did in a double sense. Yet men trained in habits so evil when they came into the Scutari Hospital ceased to swear and forgot to grumble. Said "The Lady with the Lamp," "Never came from one of them any word, or any look, which a gentleman would not have used, and the tears came into my eyes as I think how amid scenes of loathsome disease and death, there rose above it all the innate dignity, gentleness and chivalry of the men."
Now as then there are other ministries than those of the pulpit; and hospitals in which such influences exert themselves, may well prove, in more directions than one, veritable "Houses of Healing."
[Sidenote: A Surprise Packet.]
As illustrating how gratefully these men appreciate any slightest manifestation of interest in their welfare, mention may here be made of what I regard as the crowning surprise of my life. At the close of an open air parade service in Pretoria a sergeant of the Grenadiers stepped forward, and in the name of the non-commissioned officers and men of that battalion presented to me, in token of their goodwill, a silver pencil case and a gold watch. I could but reply that the goodwill of my comrades was to me beyond all price, and that this golden manifestation of it, this gift coming from such a source, I should treasure as a victorious fighting man would treasure a V.C.
[Sidenote: Soldierly Gratitude.]
The kindnesses lavished on our soldiers, as far as circumstances would permit, throughout the whole course of this campaign, by civilian friends at home, in the Colonies, and in the conquered territories, defy all counting and all description. In some cases, indeed, valuable consignments intended for their comfort seem never to have reached their destination, but the knowledge that they were thus thought of and cared for had upon the men an immeasurable influence for good. Later on, even the people of Delagoa Bay sent a handsome Christmas hamper to every blockhouse between the frontier and Barberton, while at the same time the King of Portugal presented a superb white buck, wearing a suitably inscribed silver collar, to the Cornwalls who were doing garrison duty at Koomati Poort. But in Pretoria, where among other considerations my Wesleyan friends regularly provided a Saturday "Pleasant Hour," the soldiers in return invited the whole congregation to a "social," on which they lavished many a pound, and which they made a brilliant success. It was a startling instance of soldierly gratitude; and illustrates excellently the friendly attitude of the military and of the local civilians towards each other.
[Sidenote: The Ladysmith Lyre.]
It sometimes happened among these much enduring men that the greater their misery the greater their mirth. Thus our captured officers, close guarded in the Pretoria Model School, and carefully cut off from all the news of the day, amused themselves by framing parodies on the absurd military intelligence published in the local Boer papers; whereof let the following verse serve as a sample:--
Twelve thousand British were laid low;
One Boer was wounded in the toe.
Such is the news we get to know
About this time there came into my hands a sample copy of The Ladysmith Lyre; but clearly though the last word in its title was perfectly correct as a matter of pronunciation the spelling was obviously inaccurate. It was a merry invention of news during the siege by men who were hemmed in from all other news; and so the grosser the falseness the greater the fun.
* * * * *
In my own particular copy I found the following dialogue between two Irish soldiers:--
First Private--"The captain told me to keep away from the enemy's foire!"
Second Private--"What did you tell the Captain?"
First Private--"I told him the Boers were so busy shelling they hadn't made any foire!"
That is scarcely a brilliant jest; but then it was begotten amid the agonies of the siege.
One of the poems published in this same copy of The Ladysmith Lyre has in it more of melancholy than of mirth. It tells of the hope deferred that maketh the heart sick; and gives us a more vivid idea than anything else yet printed of the secret distress of the men who saved Natal--a distress which we also shared. It is entitled--
"AFTER EDGAR ALLAN POE."
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, Over all the quaint and curious yarns we've heard about the war, Suddenly there came a rumour--(we can always take a few more) Started by some chap who knows more than--the others knew before-- "We shall see the reinforcements in another--month or more!"
Only this and nothing more!
But we're waiting still for Clery, waiting, waiting, sick and weary Of the strange and silly rumours we have often heard before. And we now begin to fancy there's a touch of necromancy, Something almost too uncanny, in the unregenerate Boer--
Only this and nothing more!
Though our hopes are undiminished that the war will soon be finished, We would be a little happier if we knew a little more. If we had a little fuller information about Buller; News about Sir Redvers Buller, and his famous Army Corps; Information of the General and his fighting Army Corps.
Only this and nothing more!
And the midnight shells uncertain, whistling through the night's black curtain, Thrill us, fill us with a touch of horror never felt before. So to still the beating of our hearts, we kept repeating "Some late visitor entreating entrance at the chamber door,
This it is; and nothing more!"
Oh how slow the shells come dropping, sometimes bursting, sometimes stopping, As though themselves were weary of this very languid war. How distinctly we'll remember all the weary dull November; And it seems as if December will have little else in store; And our Christmas dinner will be bully beef and plain stickfast.
Only this and nothing more!
Letham, Letham, tell us truly if there's any news come newly; Not the old fantastic rumours we have often heard before:-- Desolate yet all undaunted! Is the town by Boers still haunted? This is all the news that's wanted--tell us truly we implore-- Is there, is there a relief force? Tell us, tell us, we implore!
Only this and nothing more.
For we're waiting rather weary! Is there such a man as Clery? Shall we ever see our wives and mothers, or our sisters and our brothers? Shall we ever see those others, who went southwards long before? Shall we ever taste fresh butter? Tell us, tell us, we implore!
We are answered--nevermore!
When twenty months later the Scots Guards again found themselves in Pretoria they too began dolorously to enquire, "Shall we ever see our wives and mothers, or our sisters and our brothers?" But meanwhile much occurred of which the following chapters are a brief record.