The Builders of Empire by John McCrae 2 months 3 days ago #75274
THE BUILDERS OF EMPIRE
Lieutenant John D. McCrae
Royal Canadian Artillery
McGill University Magazine
Volume 1 - 1901-1902
The red patch on the map of South Africa has grown, the addition having been purchased at a price; and they who have looked on from the galleries have seen a good fight, have seen punishment given and taken, have seen the best man win, and have no cause to ask that their money een returned to them. To the fight there came a strange mixture of men from all the world, men who had seen much, and men who had seen little,old men of war, and young men, hitherto of peace, men tried and seasoned, and boys, – much jeered at in that they were physical weaklings, – no one of whom, in Jeremy Taylor's quaint phrase, was “unable to die.” A strange thing it is, that Britain can call up from the farthest fields of the Empire, or from the curbstones of the metropolis, men who have nothing in common but the brotherhood of the Union Jack; they live in far varying degrees of society, but they die alike handsomely. To an athletic contest we send our picked teams, but to the struggle where our national honour is concerned and where the laurel is death, we send, not our best eights, or elevens, or fifteens, but your average hundreds and our inglorious thousands.
Table Bay in those days was the haven of the greatest pilgrimage of merchant ships that the world has ever seen; week after week there lay, constantly changing, a hundred or a hundred and fifty steamers, flying the jack, with the funnel colours and the house flags of most of the lines of the world. “Majestic” and “Umbria,””Kildonan Castle” and “Briton,” our own “Canada” and “Bavarian,” lay cheek by jowl with the rusty “tramp” of nondescript colours and devious paths. Here lay roomy-cabined East Indian mail boats, white and graveful, and black freighters of the North Atlantic, their decks thronged with kharkee coloured men, or covered by the unsightly framework of horse stables – each marked by a huge numeral, visible from afar – “Laurentian,” seven thousand miles from Canada; “Southern Cross,” farther from Australia, “City of Rome,” from England; “Hoogli” from India; each hoarse whistle, as they creep in, booming a deep “Here,” to the Empire's roll call. Not less inspiriting is the sight of the groups of strange men, who nod to one another with a curious, but brotherly glance. Tall, lanky Indians, in high turbans, kharkee jackets, and loi-skirts, who look the same at twenty-five and at sixty, who speak no English, but who wear upon their breasts the ribbons of British campaigns, cluster by Western Canadians, Australians, and Tommies of all sorts and conditions. Two hundred thousand tickets for the lottery. Victoria crosses and unmarked graves, scorching months to guard a bridge by a dry river bed, or days and nights by the throttle of a crazy, overworked engine on a road with few signal lights, and many a lifted rail – to die to the high-tension-wire ping of a ,303, to the roaring screech of a 96 pounder, or quietly by pestilence. Two hundred thousand tickets for the lottery.
But a train of rather morbid speculation will be speedily replaced by a distinct sensation of comradeship in the presence of these men; not that you know a single face, but those brass lettered names on their shoulders have been household words to you for years. Of our historic regiments, I even think (as Mr. Fitchett has said of the names of Nelson's ships) there is a sonority of sound and a nobility of association in their names that is almost Homeric. Tommy Atkins may be dusty and untidy, his boots over at the heel, and his puttees hanging in un-lovy rolls, he may have material upon his jacket that suggest rations – but on the left side of his kharkee helmet he has a little square patch that once was scarlet, whereupon is worked in whitw one of the names to conjure with – “The Buffs,” “Seaforths,” Connaught.” You, Tommy of the careless air, can it be that you forget that it was your regiment whose mess table (the glory of the fabled “White Hussars,”) bore, one night, nine dead officers?
And Jock, is it nothing to you that one who fell in “Thin, Red Line,” bequeathed you his regimental number? Even you, yourself, were at Magersfontein. “There goes the man,” said the Florentines, “who was in Hell!” and when I have seen a man of Magersfontein, I have often thought as they. I had the privilege of knowing intimately a young subaltern in a Scottish Regiment, whose modest gentleness indicated a fitness rather for the occupations of peace than or war, and who often spoke frankly of his feeling of physical fear under fire; yet, by careful and insistent questioning I was bale to elicit that, after the first retreat from the Boer fire, on that fatal morning, he had returned to the firing line with twenty-five men, of whom in the late afternoon he brought back three. We are a younger nation than they, and we are apt to talk more of our battles for they are comparatively new things to us; or, it may be, that it is a little graceful affection upon their part, but during a sojourn of two weeks of two weeks in the mess of a regiment that, at Colenso and Pieter's Hill had dropped three hundred and fifty men, I scarcely ever heard the subject mentioned.
After a few days in Capetown, the battery to which I belonged was moved up country; as the train pulled out of the yards, our exuberant feelings broke forth to the strains of “All I want is a little but off the top!” quoth he. “Gawd! You'll get it! I've been there, and I know!” On the train was a jolly little field officer of the Grenadier Guards, whose “breast full of ribbons”, spoke more than one campaign; his keen enjoyment of the first signs of the ravages of warfare was very amusing. “Oh, I Say! Look at this! This is war – bloody war!” he would shout in almost childlike enthusiasm. In not many weeks, while we sweated through the Karroo desert, to a running accompaniment of heat, sand, hunger and thirst, we perceived that both Tommy and the Major had spoken true things. Brown, scummy water (to be drunk while holding the breath, for obvious reasons), wheat crushed on flat stones, and made into saltless flapjacks (without fat) three months of boiled mutton, boiled two hours after killing – it takes a woman to appreciate that fact; a man does not – heat, sand goat-manure fires – all these and more did the Karroo desert shower upon us.
Yet, though the Karroo suggests horrible thirst and horrible hunger, it brings back many an interesting even pleasant, recollection. The mirage of the African desert we often saw; it is a strange shimmering light, far off toward the horizon, which resembles a huge lake. It is apparently bounded by the desert upon all sides, and must easily have deceived the eye of one who had not an ordnance map to give it the lie. The desert grows no grass; a few feet apart spring the woody, heather like karroo bushes, interspersed with a heavy branched, succulent shrub, of bitter taste, which I have never seen any animal touch, save these, all is sand, over which dart innumerable little brown lizards; where the ground is rocky, a small scorpion is fairly abundant, whose bite, white not fatal to man, is extremely venomous. A few puff-adders, a “black mamba,” and an occasional crocodile fairly complete the reptiles that it was our lot to meet. The last named we never saw until we reached the Crocodile River in the far North-East Transvaal. The puff-adder is, however, more widely met with; and I remember seeing one of our men, one morning, shake a fine out of the blankets in which he had slept. The jackals and hyenas would often howl near the camp at night, but always kept a respectful distance.
Strange to out eyes, too, were the locust storms, shouding everything on the horizon, and even in the broad sunlight casting a very appreciable shade; the low whirr of their wings on every side is an indescribable note. With evening, the desert seems, if possible, more silent than by day; the stars come out with beautiful clearness, but the geography of the southern heavens has fewer landmarks than our own; the Southern Cross, whose fourth star is rather faint, is a very striking constellation; but the “Devil's Inkpot's” or Magellan's Islands, (black gaps in the Milky Way), stand out most distinctly. Long before daylight the camp is astir, and the horses fed, and by the first show of dawn, the battery is “hooked in,” and ready to march. Pipes are lit at the embers of the cook-fire, and another long march into the African sunlight is begun. These hours of the morning, at daybreak, make one glad of life, and a thousand bits of light and shade, of plain or kopje, recall, by glorious contrast, days when one dwelt in cities and knew not if the sun shon by day, or the moon by night. “Isn't it glorious--” said one appreciative Englishman, “to be alive; and – (with gusto) – one's third pipe after breakfast!” Lord Tennyson is said to have declared for his first pipe, but it takes your true sybarite to draw the fine distinctions of the third.
There was nothing more interesting in all the war than the railroading, which was distinctly novel; through Cape Colony runs the Cape Government Railway, in the Orange River Colony and Orange Free State Railway, and in the Transvaal that iniquitous line known as the “Nederlandsche Zud-Afrikansche Spoorwegen Maatschappi.” The two former are part of the same system, and all are narrow guage single line routes. Up to Pretoria, a thousand odd miles the roads were run by the companie's employees, under the supervision of the Imperial Government Railway staff – and run to a nicety. When Lord Robert's army lat at Bloemfontein, it required two full trains north daily, to feed it, and the line was under orders to send up fifty day's stores as reserve. It was done. If the reader has ever been General Manager of a single track, frequently cut, overworked, under rolling stocked line, he may understand how it was done, but not otherwise. But the true comedy began when the railway (with the name) from Pretoria to Lorenzo Marques was seized, mile by mile, operated from station to station, with the Boers with drawing engines and cars mile by mile as they retreated. The battery to which I belonged was part of the force which first occupied the eastern part of the line, so that we had ample opportunity of seeing the procedure. As every important station was occupied, a few burnt cars, left with only the wheels and the ironwork, and two or three rusted, burnt engines would be found; the latter were invariably “dead,” the driving rods carefully removed and invariably placed in the coal box – why they were not heaved into the nearest river I could never understand. The engines were of Dutch make and resembles “Shunters,” in that they carry the coal in the cab, and the water-tanks on the boiler; and each engine, as it has left the shops, has been damned with the most outrageous name in brass plating upon it's side: “Woutter Mostert,” “Bezuidenhout,” “President Steyn,” (to which some one added in chalk, “Ex-”) and others more or less appropriate; many of them, no doubt, commemorate prominent men in the Republic, who have, let us hope, long since gone to their rest, or to Ceylon. Twenty or thirty trucks, the air-breaks burned, with a “dead” engine or two for variety, are coupled up with an engine at each end; a crew is taken from the ranks, and the whole conglomeration makes eighty or one hundred miles a day back to Pretoria. Such engines, over worked, cranky, ill treated, they have not been in the shops for months, and are not likely to be for months to come. To add to the difficulty, a few miles east of Machadodorp is a grade of 1 in 20 which runs through a tunnel, and is surmounted by means of “cog-wheel” engines, with a third rail in the center of the track. The wily enemy had, of course, cleared out with the cog-wheel engines and until they were captured, weeks later, every train, up and down, had to be split into sections of six cars, and run with the ordinary locomotives. It will be easily understood (especially by the aforsaid ex-general manager) that a congestion of traffic will occur at this point; and since it is said on good authority that “a mounted corps cannot be moved without profanity,” it may also be imagined that a railway – in fact, the degree of blasphemy required to run a railway may be hinted at, but not imagined. No accommodation could be made for passengers; a goods train would be made up, and troops would scramble upon the piles of boxes or bales of fodder, and make the best foothold they might. In empty trucks, (half the size of our freight cars, and open) fourty or fifty men would be stowed; or it might be ten or eleven oxen or horses. A fortunate man might have looted an arm-chair, and could be seen sitting in Rajah like state.
It may be of interest to those who saw the Duke of York on the occasion of his recent visit, to know that, on the latest occasion on which I saw Capt. The Viscount Crichton, on of the stalwart Guardsmen on the staff, he was sitting on the floor of a very dirty coal truck, eating a meal which could be deservedly classed as “humble.” I have even seen a soldier strumming triumphant airs upon a piano, which was being carried down the line. May I digress to relate that, on one occasion, I met a wagon, belonging to an Australian mounted corps, upon which was a melodeon? Taking occasion to remark to the Major, whose booty it was, that it was rather a useless article, and that he could put it to no good ourpose, he seemed rather offended. “Can't we?” said he. “We're going to present it to a mission chapel, by God – !”
To return to the railway, it may be said that finally at the eastern end, thirteen miles of rolling stock was captured which took weeks to forward to Pretoria; and that this amount of material was in addition to much that had been destroyed. At one place I saw that two full trains, engines and cars, had been sent down an inclined switch at speed and pitched headlong over the blind en in order that it might be of no use to the “rooineks”; it is needless to add that it was of no use.
Too much praise cannot be given to the heroism of the brave men who took service on that railway. Were such a train as that to be run out of Bonaventure Station tomorrow, could an engineer be tempted by quadruple pay to do it? Not if he was wise! But Tommy had fired for six months, some years ago, on the L. & N.W., or the Caledonian, and knows a little what the inside of a cab looks like, and prosaically, and not looking at all like a hero, he climbs on the little Dutch locomotive, and for two shillings extra per day, pulls fifteen unbraked and uncoiled cars to the next station, or it may be to glory!
Did space permit, I would like to speak of our personal experiences (not that they were very extended!) with Lord Roberts, Lord Kitchener, and some ofther chiefs who have held so prominent a place in public attention. In the course of a few minuets' chat with Rudyard Kipling at Capetown, we had, at first hand, some of the directness which characterizes his books. “They'll ship you up to De Aar, and you'll sit down in the sand, and find it hell – just hell!” In the Transvaal for some months, we belonged to the division commanded by Lieut. Gen. Ian Hamilton (known to his inferiors by the distinguishing title of “Johnny” Hamilton); he is an ideal soldier, whose clear cut, thoroughbred features speak the man of culture, even the poet, as distinctly as his lame left arm (wounded at Majuba Hill) tells of the man of many campaigns. Even in this war )at Ladysmith) he has been in actual hand to hand fight, in which, Conan Doyle records, he fired his revolver at Commandant What's-his-name, “and missed him.” However a general of division is not chosen for his revolver practice.
There is a charm in working in a large division – that is, to the novice – begotten of a hundred picturesque scenes, whether it be the panorama like effects of thousands of troops, and miles of transport, or the cooking fires, that by night, blink and flare on the hills, like a huge mushroom city. The charm, to the old soldier, is that the marches are shorter than in a “flying column,” and the rations are apt to be more regular. “There is one thing I can do”, said General Hamilton, “I can publish a daily paper!” The newspaper consisted of a stylographic copy of divisional orders, which would be distributed, one copy to each corps, shortly after the halt each evening. It contained information on the movements of the enemy, orders for the following day, any outer world news that had been filtered through the wire or helio, and a word, it might be, of commendation or comment upon some movement; often, too, the cable news would contain the betting odds on some sporting event, side by side with the facts of world-wide importance, all ground exceedingly small. When General Hamilton's force in its “Kabul to Kandahar” march through the mountains to Lydenburg, had relieved General Buller from his tight corner above Machadodorp, and we at last stood upon a kind of Transvaal Pishag, I can well recall the thrill of pride we felt as General Buller's heliograph, winking across the dusk was translated, “I congratulate you upon your grand advance!” – a fact that which was duly chronicled in the “evening paper.” Items or more prac tical interest, however, are occasionally see. “On and after the 15th inst., the biscuit ration will be reduced one-third.”
Than the pinch of poverty is felt, and tempers grow short in direct ratio – but it is to no purpose than one should dwell upon his particular knowledge of the terrible side of war. No day passes that mortality does not stare the campaigner in the face, if only by the feet that project from the passing ambulances, by the dead horse that obtrudes his stiff legs upon the near horizon, or the homely bullock that lies in the middle of the road, cast off where he fell, to await his death. Empire consists not only in Courts and Parliaments, in brotherly speech of nations across seas, in diplomatic oaths of alliance, but in poor cattle that drag their heavy wagons in pathetic silence until they die in the yoke, and gallant horses that bear the labour and heat of the day, in a struggle that was none of their making, for glory that cannot appeal to them, until they, too, get honourable discharge from the service of the king. The marks of the Empire are everywhere; on the base of that cartridge you picked up a moment since, on the sides of those boxes of hard-tack, on the broken wheel by the roadside, or on the hoof of that skeleton that lies offensively in our path. In the field there are a thousand things that speak of the cost of war, the cost in lives, human and other, the cost in treasure; but there is an echo, even at home, in the rows of boyish faces, that appear week after week, in the illustrated magazines, with the inscription “killed at –,” or “died of wounds,” – in sickening regularity, that speak of gaps in the stately homes of England, and, by inference, of other gaps, tenfold, in her cottages.
One day, as we rode into Bloemfontein, we met at the churchyard gate the funeral of Lord Kensington, a Captain in the Life Guards, – the coffin draped with the Jack, a firing party, half a regiment, the band playing the “Dead March,” – and, beside it, (halted to allow its precedence) the burying party of a Tommy, thirteen rank and file, the body sewn up in his blanket; this is the last class distinction that would be made, and in a few moments, there would be but two soldiers, dead in a common cause. The same evening, I attended service in the Cathedral; everything seemed exactly as it would be at home, save for the kharkee-coated men who filled the church not entirely “valiant dust that builds on dust”; there was a strange appropriateness that one of the hymns should be
“Conquering kings their titles take
From the foes they captive make,”
for, stretching over the hill from the south wall in long dark rows, lay two thousand graves, where men slept that King Death had led captive, who were done with kingdoms and republics men whose message goes to the Empire, by the voice of a new colony that they have won by blood, – “O stranger, go thou and tell our people that we are lying here, having obeyed their words.”
by John McCrae
Lt. Colonel John D. McCrae
John McCrae, soldier, physician, poet (born 30 November 1872 in Guelph, ON; died 28 January 1918 in Wimereux, France). A noted pathologist and army physician, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae was also a poet; he wrote “In Flanders Fields” — one of the most famous poems of the First World War.
During the summer of 1899, McCrae worked at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, with Sir William Osler, who was already a world-renowned physician. Later that year, McCrae was granted a fellowship at McGill University in Montréal. But he postponed the work for a year and travelled back to Guelph, where he enlisted in a local battery.
For a year, McCrae and D Battery of the Royal Canadian Field Artillery took part in battles in the South African War (1899–1902). He was quickly promoted to captain, then to major. In one incident, McCrae nearly drowned while crossing a stream on horseback. He returned to Canada in January 1901, where he gave a public lecture about the employment of artillery during the war.
From: The Canadian Encyclopedia
Military Historical Society
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