'Look, father, the sky is English,' said a little girl as they drove home to Bloemfontein in the glowing sunset.
'English, my dear,' said her father, 'what do you mean?'
'Why,' replied the little one, 'it is all red, white, and blue.'
And in truth, red, white, and blue was everywhere. The inhabitants of Bloemfontein must have exhausted the stock of every shop. They must have ransacked old stores, and patched together material never intended for bunting. Wherever you looked, there were the English colours. No wonder to the imagination of the little one even the sun was greeting the victorious English, and painting the western sky red, white, and blue.
We cannot, of course, suppose that all these people who greeted the victorious British army enthusiastically were really so enthusiastic as they appeared. But 'nothing succeeds like success,' and those who had cursed us yesterday, blessed us to-day.
The Advantages of Bloemfontein.
It is a matter for thankfulness that the town was spared the horrors of a bombardment. It was far too beautiful to destroy. Of late years, as money had poured into the treasury, much had been expended upon public buildings. The Parliament Hall, for instance, had been erected at a cost of L80,000. The Grey College was a building of which any city might be proud. The Post Office was quite up to the average of some large provincial town in this country, and several other imposing buildings proved that the capital of the Orange Free State, though small, was 'no mean city.'
It was literally a town on the veldt. The veldt was around it everywhere. It showed up now and then in the town where it was least expected, as though to assert its independence and remind the dwellers in the city that their fathers were its children.
Wonderfully healthy is this little city. Situated high above sea level, with a climate so bracing and life-giving that the phthisis bacillus can hardly live in it, it seemed to our soldiers, after their long march across the veldt, a veritable City of Refuge. Alas! how soon it was to be turned into a charnel house!
The March to Bloemfontein.
It was to this oasis in the South African desert that Lord Roberts marched his troops after the surrender of Cronje. It had been a terrible march from the Modder River, and its severity was maintained to the end. The difficulty of transport was great, and sickness was beginning to tell upon the troops. The river water, rendered poisonous by the bodies of men and cattle from Cronje's camp, and the horrible filth of his laager, were responsible for what followed. The men for the most part kept up until the march was over. They had determined to reach Bloemfontein at all costs, and many of them in all probability lost their lives through that determination. They ought to have given up long before they did, but struggled on until, rendered weak by their prolonged exertions, they had no strength to fight the disease which had fastened upon them.
The last march of the Guards was one which the Brigade may well remember with pride, as one of the most famous in its annals. They actually marched over forty miles in twenty-two consecutive hours, over ground full of holes of all sorts and sizes, and with barbed wire cut and lying on the ground in all directions. They marched hour after hour in steady silence, broken only by the 'Glory! Hallelujah!' chorus of the Canadians, marched with soleless boots, or with no boots at all, but with putties wrapped round the bare feet. An hour and a half's rest, and then on again! On, ever on! They are so tired, they feel they can march no further, and yet on they go, steadily marching straight forward, a silent, dogged, determined army out there upon the veldt. Lord Roberts had promised the Guards that they should follow him into Bloemfontein, and they intended to be there to do it.
The Work at Bloemfontein.
Bloemfontein reached, Christian work began in real earnest. Every one became 'hard at it' at once. The Rev. E.P. Lowry opened a Soldiers' Home in the schoolroom of the Wesleyan Church, and day by day provided the cheapest tea in the town at three-pence per head, of which many hundreds of the men availed themselves. Here, too, he had meetings night by night. The Rev. James Robertson was also incessantly at work. The large tent of the Soldiers' Christian Association was erected in the camp of the Highland Brigade, and became as usual a centre of splendid Christian effort. Mr. Black tells us that Lord Roberts gave permission for him to accompany him to Bloemfontein, and gave every possible encouragement to the work.
Lord Roberts Visits the Tent.
Mr. Glover writes:--
'The tent of which I now have charge--surrounded by thousands of men of the Highland Brigade, and pitched yesterday on a high plateau about one and a half miles from town--is, I believe, in answer to prayer, on the spot where God would have it be, especially if the numbers attending the first Gospel meeting may be any criterion.
'In the early morning I had plenty of willing helpers. By about nine the tent was completed, by ten I had literature, games, etc., unpacked and arranged, and before eleven--after inspection of Naval Brigade--Lord Roberts honoured me with a visit. This was more than we might have expected, and having shown a keen interest in inspection--Sankey's hymn-books included--he gave me a hearty handshake, saying he was pleased to see it, and it would be a great boon to the men. This visit was a very prompt one. Mr. Black just handed up a request after Naval inspection. Lord Roberts replied, "Certainly," and galloped over with his other officers before our workers could get across.'
'There has been a very heavy demand on writing material by the many men, who have had scarcely any opportunity to write for two or three weeks. I hardly know what I shall do for paper, as I have only one packet left, and could not get a line through by wire yesterday; I hope, however, you received my wire to-day. There is room here for a dozen--or even twenty--tents now. We had over 40,000 men before yesterday, when the whole of the Seventh Division arrived.
'Our first three meetings have been marked by a very hallowed influence. To-night the tent was packed to overflowing, and our joy at the close was beyond expression, when twenty dear fellows took a stand for Christ. The weather is very wet to-night, the men have no tents, and I gave them the opportunity to remain under the shelter of our tent. As I write (10.30 p.m.), I suppose there are 120 to 150 here.'
Later on our old friend, Mr. Stewart, took charge of the tent, and Mr. Hinde assisted him. Mr. Percy Huskisson also spoke at some of the meetings, and they had glorious times. The Rev. R. Deane Oliver, a devoted Church of England chaplain from Aldershot, took the meeting on one occasion, and no fewer than eighteen stood up for prayer.
[Footnote 11: News from the Front, May, 1900.]
Sunday Services in Bloemfontein.
The Sabbath services held in the camps and town were full of blessing. In the Wesleyan Church khaki was everywhere, crowding not only every available seat, but the Communion and the pulpit stairs, and even the pulpit itself.
Mr. Lowry writes:--
'There must have been not less than 700 soldiers actually with us that morning. In the afternoon a delightful Bible-class and testimony meeting was held, at which about forty were present, and at its close, thanks to the kindness of Mr. and Mrs. Franklin, a capital tea, though not a fruit tea of the Aldershot type, was provided for all. The evening service, conducted by Mr. Franklin, was well attended by the military, and as the clock struck nine, those that remained to the after-meeting bethought us of Sergt.-Major Moss and his men, and made ourselves one with them by singing at the self-same moment their unfailing song, "God be with you till we meet again."'
The Rev. Stuart and Mrs. Franklin, to whom Mr. Lowry refers, were the resident Wesleyan minister and his wife. They rendered conspicuous service to our soldiers, and in fact thought no sacrifice too great to make on their behalf.
But not long was there a pause in the battle. The troops had to be moved further and further out. The chaplains went with them. The onward march to Pretoria commenced, and only an army of occupation was left behind in Bloemfontein.
[Footnote 12: Methodist Times, May 3, 1900.]
Glimpses of Good Work from Soldiers' Letters.
We, however, stay with them in Bloemfontein for a short time, that we may read a few of the Christian soldiers' letters received from that town, and get some further glimpses of the good work carried on there.
Corporal Lundy writes:--
'Through all the trying marches and battles in which I have been engaged I have found time to read a portion of God's Word. I have found my Heavenly Father a personal Friend in this campaign. We have been on short rations for about a month: just enough to keep one together.
'The prisoners we have in the fort are always singing psalms and hymns, but they do not seem to be quite right; there is something lacking.'
Corporal Simpson says:--
'I am still enjoying the best of health bodily, and so happy in soul that I could not express myself. Storm clouds gather and trials come, but still it's Jesus. When bullets are flying around my head and hunger is pricking me sorely, I can lift up my head with praise. 'When I saw the little English children at Bloemfontein running about so gay, many of them so like my own lambs, my heart seemed as if it would break.'
Another soldier writes:--
'I want to tell you of the great Christian work that is going on in this great camp. There are four or five very large tents, which are full every night, and hundreds are turned away. There are men there who would laugh at the Soldiers' Home in England and scorn to be seen in the company of Christians. Many such men have been brought to know Christ through this great and awful war. Mr. Lowry often speaks to us. He is a grand worker, and we love him. We have been under the Saviour's care and keeping all the time. We are very anxious to get back home, and shall welcome peace with one great shout of joy.'
Another gives us a further glimpse of Christian work:--
'Going along I saw three marquees, on one of which there was written "Soldiers' Home." I peeped in and saw Pearce, of the Gloucesters. I marched up to him and told him who I was. Four of them knew me, and we had a good old talk of the home land. They had just finished a good old Bible reading, and tea came in. I sat down for tea with them. At about 6 p.m. we were in the large marquee putting things ready, and about 6.30 it was full of soldiers, perhaps about 600. Then we had the dear old Sankey hymns.'
Another grows quite eloquent as he writes:--
'At home I hear there has been much rejoicing, and the reverses have given place to victories. But the victories have been bought by the sacrifice of human souls. The altar has been saturated with the blood of fathers and sons. The bitterness of sorrow has wrung human hearts in the dear old homeland. In the mansion, in the cottage, in city and in village, tidings of death have found a place. But Christ, the Prince of Peace, has given peace to many lads on the battlefield. Words which were apparently sown in the darkness have bloomed in the light. Life eternal has been accepted, and the life of sin has become the life of joy. Behind the veil the Master stands and sees the awful strife. The Divine plan is hidden from view, but our faith can see in the distant years the continent of Africa revealed as a continent of God's people.
'Men have been, and still are, seeking for fame and glory. The things of heaven, the Christ who died, have been forgotten in the struggle for things of the world. Thank God for the many souls who have found Jesus out here. We feel a mighty power within, and we know it is in answer to the prayers of loved ones in the dear old land. A wall of prayer surrounds us and we are safe. I feel that I have let many golden opportunities slip. The harvest is passing and labourers are few.
'The hearts of our Christian lads have been kept true, and God has been glorified.'
So testify these Christian men to the power of our holy religion to save and keep. We thank God that they in their own way have 'kept the flag flying.'
The Enteric Epidemic.
But now began another battle--a battle fiercer and more disastrous to our men than any other in this Boer campaign. Enteric fever had been dogging the steps of our army all the way from Cronje's camp, and it overtook it in full force in Bloemfontein. Very soon the hospitals were full--crowded--overcrowded. A state of things obtained which, whether it be a scandal or not, will be a lasting source of regret to every Englishman, and a dark stain upon the war.
So rapidly did the men fall that accommodation could not possibly be found for them. They lay about anywhere. The space between the bed-cots was full of groaning, struggling, dying humanity. In inches of mud and slush they lay, breathing their lives out all unattended. The supply of doctors, nurses, and orderlies was altogether inadequate. Tents and medicines could not be got to the front, for the railway was required for food supplies, and the army must be fed. It is too early to pass judgment on the arrangements. We record a few facts, vouched for not only by the papers from which we quote, but by scores of men who have come from Bloemfontein, and with whom we have talked.
It is in the remembrance of all that Mr. Burdett-Coutts wrote an article in the Times, and afterwards delivered a speech in the House of Commons, in both of which he told of the terrible sufferings of our men, and severely criticised the hospital arrangements. The men returning from the front, while they one and all declare that everything was done by the hospital authorities which it was possible for those on the spot to do, yet mournfully admit that the terrible accounts are not exaggerated.
Dr. Conan Doyle's Testimony.
The Daily Telegraph published the number of deaths from disease at Bloemfontein during the months of April, May, and the first part of June. They reach the awful total of 949. Dr. Conan Doyle, in a recent letter published in the British Medical Journal, says:--
'I know of no instance of such an epidemic in modern warfare. I have not had access to any official figures, but I believe that in one month there were from 10,000 to 12,000 men down with this, the most debilitating of all diseases. I know that in one month 600 men were laid in the Bloemfontein cemetery. A single day in this one town saw 40 deaths.'
He speaks in the highest terms of the conduct of the sick soldiers.
'They are uniformly patient, docile, and cheerful, with an inextinguishable hope of "getting to Pretoria." There is a gallantry even about their delirium, for their delusion continually is that they have won the Victoria Cross. One patient whom I found the other day rummaging under his pillow informed me that he was looking for "his two Victoria Crosses." Very touching also is their care of each other. The bond which unites two soldier pals is one of the most sacred kind. One man shot in three places was being carried into Mr. Gibbs' ward. I lent an arm to his friend, shot through the leg, who limped behind him. "I want to be next Jim, 'cos I'm looking after him," said he. That he needed looking after himself never seemed to have occurred to him.'
The Hospital Orderlies.
Dr. Conan Doyle, however, reserves his highest praise for the hospital orderly. We venture to quote at length, because of all workers during this campaign none deserve higher praise, and none will receive less reward than the men who have so nobly, so uncomplainingly done the horrible work of nursing--'the sordid and obscene work,' as Dr. Doyle calls it--through this frightful epidemic.
'In some of the general hospitals, orderlies were on duty for thirty-six hours in forty-eight, and what their duties were--how sordid and obscene--let those who have been through such an epidemic tell.
'He is not a picturesque figure, the orderly, as we know him. We have not the trim, well-nourished army man, but we have recruited from the St. John Ambulance men, who are drawn, in this particular instance, from the mill hands of a northern town. They were not very strong to start with, and the poor fellows are ghastly now. There is none of the dash and glory of war about the sallow, tired men in the dingy khaki suits--which, for the sake of the public health, we will hope may never see England again. And yet they are patriots, these men; for many of them have accepted a smaller wage in order to take on these arduous duties, and they are facing danger for twelve hours of the twenty-four, just as real and much more repulsive than the scout who rides up to the strange kopje, or the gunner, who stands to his gun with a pom-pom quacking at him from the hill.
'Let our statistics speak for themselves; and we make no claim to be more long-suffering than our neighbours. We have three on the staff (Mr. Gibbs, Mr. Scharlieb, and myself). Four started, but one left us early in the proceedings. We have had six nurses, five dressers, one wardmaster, one washerman, and eighteen orderlies, or thirty-two in all, who actually came in contact with the sick. Out of the six nurses, one has died and three others have had enteric. Of the five dressers, two have had severe enteric. The wardmaster has spent a fortnight in bed with veldt sores. The washerman has enteric. Of the eighteen orderlies, one is dead, and eight others are down with enteric. So that out of a total of thirty-four we have had seventeen severe casualties--fifty per cent.--in nine weeks. Two are dead, and the rest incapacitated for the campaign, since a man whose heart has been cooked by a temperature over 103 degrees is not likely to do hard work for another three months. If the war lasts nine more weeks, it will be interesting to see how many are left of the original personnel. When the scouts and the Lancers and the other picturesque people ride in procession through London, have a thought for the sallow orderly, who has also given of his best for his country. He is not a fancy man--you do not find them in enteric wards--but for solid work and quiet courage you will not beat him in all that gallant army.'
Dr. Conan Doyle has told the story of the hospital orderly, but who shall tell the story of the doctor and the hospital nurse. In many cases they have laid down their lives for the men, and all have worked with a devotion that has seemed well-nigh super-human. But a medical staff sufficient for two army corps was altogether insufficient to supply the needs of an army of 200,000 and fight an epidemic of terrible severity. They did their best. Some person the country will blame, but to these who so nobly worked and endured the country will say, 'Well done!'
Terrible Incidents during the Epidemic.
Tales of horror crowd upon one; stories of men in delirium, wandering about the camp at night; stories of living men in the agonies of disease, with dead men lying on either side; stories of men themselves hardly able to crawl about, turning out of bed to nurse their comrades because there was no one else to do it.
'Why do you let 'em die?' asked a young soldier by way of a grim joke, pointing to two dead soldiers close to him, while he himself was suffering from enteric. 'Why don't you look after 'em better?'
'What can I do? I know nothing about nursing!' was the sad reply.
Just so! That was the difficulty--there was no one to prevent them dying. How many might have been saved if such had been the case!
It is too early to tell yet in detail the story of Christian work in connection with this epidemic. Many of the chaplains had left for the front before it broke out in its intensity, and we have as yet only fragmentary evidence as to the work done by those left upon the spot. We have not the slightest doubt that one and all did their work with the devotion we should expect from such men. We hear of Christian soldiers who bore splendid witness for Christ in the hospitals, and who were the means of leading their comrades to the Saviour in the midst of their sickness, and for such stories we thank God.
Christian Work in the Fever Hospitals.
We close this chapter with an extract from a letter from the Rev. Robert McClelland, Presbyterian Chaplain 1st battalion Cameron Highlanders, published in St. Andrew, and sent us by the courtesy of the Rev. Dr. Theodore Marshall. It is an eloquent testimony to the value of hospital work, and gives us a glimpse of what was done at Bloemfontein:--
'When we reached Bloemfontein we found a dozen large hospitals all as full as they could hold, and at the cemetery gate it was solemn and painful to see many funerals outside the gate waiting entrance to the house of the dead. I was told that an Episcopal clergyman was told off at the cemetery for the sad but necessary work of Christian interment. You will ask, why this great sickness and mortality? The water, on the whole, is bad (sometimes absolutely vile), and our masses of soldiers are not so careful about what they eat and drink as they should be in a trying climate, scorching sun by day and white frost by night. Dysentery and enteric fever are the worst. Here is the minister's noblest vocation, and we could take a dozen Father Damiens for this grand work. When the fever runs high, or the strength gets wasted and the heart goes down, a pleasant smile, a kind word, a verse of Scripture, a brief prayer, goes a long way to revive the drooping spirits. I record my solemn conviction that hospital work, rightly done, is by far and away the most needful and the most acceptable of the chaplain's work. But, of course, like the doctors at the base, we are all wanting to the front to see the "pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war," while the brave fellows battling with fever, sickness, and wounds in the hospital are fighting the stiffest fight of all. And yet there is work for us on the march and at the front, too. To make yourself a friend and brother, to seek out and comfort the exhausted and ailing, to speak a word in season to the weary, to preach "the glorious Gospel of the blessed God" as opportunity offers--this is a task worthy of the highest powers and greatest gifts. After being nearly four months on the field, I do not regret the great sacrifices made in going there.'