I little fancied when I sat at my ease in my tent in the British camp that my next epistle would be written from a hospital as a prisoner, but such is the case, and, after all, I am far more inclined to be thankful than to growl at my luck. Let me tell the story, for it is typical of this peculiar country, and still more peculiar war. I had been writing far into the night, and had left the letter ready for post next day. Then, with a clear conscience, I threw myself on my blankets, satisfied that I was ready for what might happen next. Things were going to happen, but though the night was big with fate there was no warning to me in the whispering wind. Some men would have heard all sorts of sounds on such a night, but I am not built that way I suppose. Anyway, I heard nothing until, half an hour before dawn, a voice jarred my ear with the news that "there was something on, and I'd better fly round pretty sharp if I did not mean to miss it."
By the light of my lantern I saddled my horse, and snatched a hasty cup of coffee and a mouthful of biscuit, and as the little band of Tasmanians moved from Rensburg I rode with them. Where they were going, or what their mission, I did not know, but I guessed it was to be no picnic. The quiet, resolute manner of the officers, the hushed voices, the set, stern faces of the young soldiers, none of whom had ever been under fire before, all told me that there was blood in the air, so I asked no questions, and sat tight in my saddle. As the daylight broke over the far-stretching veldt, I saw that two other correspondents were with the party, viz., Reay, of the Melbourne Herald, and Lambie, poor, ill-fated Lambie, of the Melbourne Age. For a couple of hours we trotted along without incident of any kind, then we halted at a farmhouse, the name of which I have forgotten. There we found Captain Cameron encamped with the rest of the Tasmanians, and after a short respite the troops moved outward again, Captain Cameron in command; we had about eighty men, all of whom were mounted.
As we rode off I heard the order given for every man to "sit tight and keep his eyes open." Then our scouts put spurs to their horses and dashed away on either wing, skirting the kopjes and screening the main body, and so for another hour we moved without seeing or hearing anything to cause us trouble. By this time we had got into a kind of huge basin, the kopjes were all round us, but the veldt was some miles in extent. I knew at a glance that if the Boers were in force our little band was in for a bad time, as an enemy hidden in those hills could watch our every movement on the plain, note just where we intended to try and pass through the chain of hills, and attack us with unerring certainty and suddenness. All at once one of our scouts, who had been riding far out on our left flank, came flying in with the news that the enemy was in the kopjes in front of us, and he further added that he thought they intended to surround our party if possible. Captain Cameron ordered the men to split into two parties, one to move towards the kopjes on our right; the other to fall back and protect our retreat, if such a move became necessary. Mr. Lambie and I decided to move on with the advance party, and at a hard gallop we moved away towards a line of kopjes that seemed higher than any of the others in the belt. As we neared those hills it seemed to us that there were no Boers in possession, and that nothing would come of the ride after all, and we drew bridle and started to discuss the situation. At that time we were not far from the edge of some kopjes, which, though lying low, were covered with rocky boulders and low scrub.
We had drifted a few hundred yards behind the advance party, but were a good distance in front of the rearguard, when a number of horsemen made a dash from the kopjes which we were skirting, and the rifles began to speak. There was no time for poetry; it was a case of "sit tight and ride hard," or surrender and be made prisoners. Lambie shouted to me: "Let's make a dash, Hales," and we made it. The Boers were very close to us before we knew anything concerning their presence. Some of them were behind us, and some extended along the edge of the kopjes by which we had to pass to get to the British line in front, all of them were galloping in on us, shooting as they rode, and shouting to us to surrender, and, had we been wise men, we would have thrown up our hands, for it was almost hopeless to try and ride through the rain of lead that whistled around us. It was no wonder we were hit; the wonder to me is that we were not filled with lead, for some of the bullets came so close to me that I think I should know them again if I met them in a shop-window. We were racing by this time, Lambie's big chestnut mare had gained a length on my little veldt pony, and we were not more than a hundred yards away from the Mauser rifles that had closed in on us from the kopjes. A voice called in good English: "Throw up your hands, you d---- fools." But the galloping fever was on us both, and we only crouched lower on our horses' backs, and rode all the harder, for even a barn-yard fowl loves liberty.
All at once I saw my comrade throw his hands up with a spasmodic gesture. He rose in his stirrups, and fairly bounded high out of his saddle, and as he spun round in the air I saw the red blood on the white face, and I knew that death had come to him sudden and sharp. Again the rifles spoke, and the lead was closer to me than ever a friend sticks in time of trouble, and I knew in my heart that the next few strides would settle things. The black pony was galloping gamely under my weight. Would he carry me safely out of that line of fire, or would he fail me? Suddenly something touched me on the right temple; it was not like a blow; it was not a shock; for half a second I was conscious. I knew I was hit; knew that the reins had fallen from my nerveless hands, knew that I was lying down upon my horse's back, with my head hanging below his throat. Then all the world went out in one mad whirl. Earth and heaven seemed to meet as if by magic. My horse seemed to rise with me, not to fall, and then--chaos.
When next I knew I was still on this planet I found myself in the saddle again, riding between two Boers, who were supporting me in the saddle as I swayed from side to side. There was a halt; a man with a kindly face took my head in the hollow of his arm, whilst another poured water down my throat. Then they carried me to a shady spot beneath some shrubbery, and laid me gently down. One man bent over me and washed the blood that had dried on my face, and then carefully bound up my wounded temple. I began to see things more plainly--a blue sky above me; a group of rough, hardy men, all armed with rifles, around me. I saw that I was a prisoner, and when I tried to move I soon knew I was damaged.
The same good-looking young fellow with the curly beard bent over me again. "Feel any better now, old fellow?" I stared hard at the speaker, for he spoke like an Englishman, and a well-educated one, too. "Yes, I'm better. I'm a prisoner, ain't I?" "Yes." "Are you an Englishman?" I asked. He laughed. "Not I," he said, "I'm a Boer born and bred, and I am the man who bowled you over. What on earth made you do such a fool's trick as to try and ride from our rifles at that distance?" "Didn't think I was welcome in these parts." "Don't make a jest of it, man," the Boer said gravely; "rather thank God you are a living man this moment. It was His hand that saved you; nothing else could have done so." He spoke reverently; there was no cant in the sentiment he uttered--his face was too open, too manly, too fearless for hypocrisy. "How long is it since I was knocked over?" "About three hours." "Is my comrade dead?" "Quite dead," the Boer replied; "death came instantly to him. He was shot through the brain." "Poor beggar!" I muttered, "and he'll have to rot on the open veldt, I suppose?"
The Boer leader's face flushed angrily. "Do you take us for savages?" he said. "Rest easy. Your friend will get decent burial. What was his rank?" "War correspondent." "And your own?" "War correspondent also. My papers are in my pocket somewhere." "Sir," said the Boer leader, "you dress exactly like two British officers; you ride out with a fighting party, you try to ride off at a gallop under the very muzzles of our rifles when we tell you to surrender. You can blame no one but yourselves for this day's work." "I blame no man; I played the game, and am paying the penalty." Then they told me how poor Lambie's horse had swerved between myself and them after Lambie had fallen, then they saw me fall forward in the saddle, and they knew I was hit. A few strides later one of them had sent a bullet through my horse's head, and he had rolled on top of me. Yet, with it all, I had escaped with a graze over the right temple and a badly knocked-up shoulder. Truly, as the Boer said, the hand of God must have shielded me.
For a day and a half I lay at that laager whilst our wounded men were brought in, and here I should like to say a word to the people of England. Our men, when wounded, are treated by the Boers with manly gentleness and kind consideration. When we left the laager in an open trolly, we, some half-dozen Australians, and about as many Boers, all wounded, were driven for some hours to a small hospital, the name of which I do not know. It was simply a farmhouse turned into a place for the wounded. On the road thither we called at many farms, and at every one men, women, and children came out to see us. Not one taunting word was uttered in our hearing, not one braggart sentence passed their lips. Men brought us cooling drinks, or moved us into more comfortable positions on the trolly. Women, with gentle fingers, shifted bandages, or washed wounds, or gave us little dainties that come so pleasant in such a time; whilst the little children crowded round us with tears running down their cheeks as they looked upon the bloodstained khaki clothing of the wounded British. Let no man or woman in all the British Empire whose son or husband lies wounded in the hands of the Boers fear for his welfare, for it is a foul slander to say that the Boers do not treat their wounded well. England does not treat her own men better than the Boers treat the wounded British, and I am writing of that which I have seen and know beyond the shadow of a doubt.
From the little farmhouse hospital I was sent on in an ambulance train to the hospital at Springfontein, where all the nurses and medical staff are foreigners, all of them trained and skilful. Even the nurses had a soldierly air about them. Here everything was as clean as human industry could make it, and the hospital was worked like a piece of military mechanism. I only had a day or two here, and then I was sent by train in an ambulance carriage to the capital of the Orange Free State, and here I am in Bloemfontein Hospital. There are a lot of our wounded here, both officers and men, some of whom have been here for months.
I have made it my business to get about amongst the private soldiers, to question them concerning the treatment they have received since the moment the Mauser rifles tumbled them over, and I say emphatically that in every solitary instance, without one single exception, our countrymen declare that they have been grandly treated. Not by the hospital nurses only, not by the officials alone, but by the very men whom they were fighting. Our "Tommies" are not the men to waste praise on any men unless it is well deserved, but this is just about how "Tommy" sums up the situation:
"The Boer is a rough-looking beggar in the field, 'e don't wear no uniform, 'nd 'e don't know enough about soldiers' drill to keep himself warm, but 'e can fight in 'is own bloomin' style, which ain't our style. If 'e'd come out on the veldt, 'nd fight us our way, we'd lick 'im every time, but when it comes to fightin' in the kopjes, why, the Boer is a dandy, 'nd if the rest of Europe don't think so, only let 'em have a try at 'im 'nd see. But when 'e has shot you he acts like a blessed Christian, 'nd bears no malice. 'E's like a bloomin' South Sea cocoanut, not much to look at outside, but white 'nd sweet inside when yer know 'im, 'nd it's when you're wounded 'nd a prisoner that you get a chance to know 'im, see." And "Tommy" is about correct in his judgment.
The Boers have made most excellent provision for the treatment of wounded after battle. All that science can do is done. Their medical men fight as hard to save a British life or a British limb as medical men in England would battle to save life or limb of a private person. At the Bloemfontein Hospital everything is as near perfection, from a medical and surgical point, as any sane man can hope to see. It is an extensive institution. One end is set apart for the Boer wounded, the other for the British. No difference is made between the two in regard to accommodation--food, medical attendance, nursing, or visiting. Ministers of religion come and go daily--almost hourly--at both ends. Our men, when able to walk, are allowed to roam around the grounds, but, of course, are not allowed to go beyond the gates, being prisoners of war. Concerning our matron (Miss M.M. Young) and nurses, all I can say is that they are gentlewomen of the highest type, of whom any nation in the world might well be proud.
I have met one or two old friends since I came here, notably Lieutenant Bowling, of the Australian Horse, who is now able to get about, and is cheerful and jolly. Lieutenant Bowling has his right thumb shot off, and had a terribly close call for his life, a Mauser bullet going into his head alongside his right eye, and coming out just in front of the right ear. His friends need not be anxious concerning him; he is quite out of danger, and he and I have killed a few tedious hours blowing tobacco smoke skywards, and chatting about life in far off Australia. Another familiar face was that of an English private, named Charles Laxen, of the Northumberlands, who was wounded at Stormberg. I am told that he displayed excellent pluck before he was laid out, firstly by a piece of shell on the side of the head, and, later, by a Mauser bullet through the left knee. He is getting along O.K., but will never see service as a soldier again on account of the wounded leg.
I had written to the President of the Orange Free State, asking him to grant me my liberty on the ground that I was a non-combatant. Yesterday Mr. Steyn courteously sent his private secretary and carriage to the hospital with an intimation that I should be granted an interview. I was accordingly driven down to what I believe was the Stadt House. In Australia we should term it the Town Hall. The President met me, and treated me very courteously, and, after chatting over my capture and the death of my friend, he informed me that I might have my liberty as soon as I considered myself sufficiently recovered to travel. He offered me a pass viâ Lourenço Marques, but I pointed out that if I were sent that way I should be so far away from my work as to be practically useless to my paper. The President explained to me that it was not his wish nor the desire of his colleagues to hamper me in any way in regard to my work. "What we want more than anything else," remarked the President, "is that the world shall know the truth, and nothing but the truth, in reference to this most unhappy war, and we will not needlessly place obstruction in your way in your search for facts; if we can by any means place you in the British lines we will do so. If we find it impossible to do that you must understand that there is some potent reason for it." So I let that question drop, feeling satisfied that everything that a sensible man has a right to ask would be done on my behalf.
President Steyn is a man of a notable type. He is a big man physically, tall and broad, a man of immense strength, but very gentle in his manner, as so many exceptionally strong men are. He has a typical Dutch face, calm, strong, and passionless. A man not easily swayed by outside agencies; one of those persons who think long and earnestly before embarking upon a venture, but, when once started, no human agency would turn him back from the line of conduct he had mapped out for himself. He is no ignorant back-block politician, but a refined, cultured gentleman, who knows the full strength of the British Empire; and, knowing it, he has defied it in all its might, and will follow his convictions to the bitter end, no matter what that end may be. He introduced me to a couple of gentlemen whose names are very dear to the Free Staters, viz., Messrs. Fraser and Fischer, and whilst the interview lasted nothing was talked of but the war, and it struck me very forcibly that not one of those men had any hatred in their hearts towards the British people. "This," said the President, "is not a war between us and the British people on any question of principle; it is a war forced upon us by a band of capitalistic adventurers, who have hoodwinked the British public and dragged them into an unholy, an unjust struggle with a people whose only desire was to live at peace with all men. We do not hate your nation; we do not hate your soldiers, though they fight against us; but we do hate and despise the men who have brought a cruel war upon us for their own evil ends, whilst they try to cloak their designs in a mantle of righteousness and liberty." I may not have given the exact words of the President, as I am writing from memory, but I think I have given his exact sentiments; and, if I am any judge of human nature, the love of his country is the love of his life.