South African War (continued)
( Originally Published 1924 )
REMAINED only two days in Capetown, during which I fed well and slept a great deal, after which I picked up rapidly and began to visit the hospitals at Woodstock, Wynberg and Rondebosch. At this latter place I found four Canadian nurses, Misses Pope, Forbes, Russell and Affleck, who were doing fine work and winning golden opinions,
I left Capetown for Bloemfontein on April 15th, and arrived there after three days and three nights in the train. The Government owns the railway and provides very comfortable sleeping cars. It was weary work travelling, for it was extremely hot and the dust was troublesome. " Dust Devils" get up and nothing can prevent their entrance. They are whirling cones of dust which one meets on the Karoo. If these sand storms are very bad, one must lie down and cover one's head, or be nearly smothered.
On my way to Bloemfontein the train halted at Norval's Pont, where a high steel bridge, which had been blown up by the Boers, crossed the Orange River. A temporary line and bridge had been constructed by the Royal Engineers under the instructions of Lieut.-Colonel Percy Girouard (now Sir Percy, K.C.M.G.). The bridge was being built by the men working day and night, light being furnished by an electric plant which Girouanti's foresight had provided. Ours was the first train to cross the temporary structure.
I will digress here to say a word about the remarkable achievements of this eminent Canadian engineer.
Percy Girouard, a son of the late Hon. Justice Girouard of the Supreme Court of Canada, graduated from the Royal Military College, Kingston, in 1886. Ile went to work for the C.P.R. for two years, when lie was offered and accepted a commission in the Royal Engineers. Two years later, notwithstanding his youth, he was appointed traffic manager of the Woolwich Arsenal Railway, where he made a great hit in his management and in the reduction of the cost of operation of the railway. In 1896 he was sent to Egypt on the railway staff. By the death and removal of senior officers he rose to the command of the department. Ile devised with success many ingenious plans for the building of the desert railway, not the least important of which was boring for water in the desert. Before the railway was begun he furnished a complete statement of all requirements. Owing to his foresight and good management the railway cost L200,000 less than estimated and was completed sooner than was anticipated. He was then appointed Director General of Egyptian Government Railways.
Soon after the outbreak of the South African War he was called to London to advise in railway matters. After much opposition he ordered duplicates of all bridges likely to be blown up by the enemy and had them shipped to South Africa.
When the bridges were blown up, he had all the necessary material to reconstruct them at hand, Norval's Pont being an example. One of his successes was the construction of deviations on the principle of the switch back. He was created a K.C.M.G. and full Colonel at thirty-four years of age.
A large army was encamped about Bloemfontein. Lord Roberts was in residence at Government House, where his wife and two daughters subsequently joined him, in which were the offices of General Headquarters, Lord Kitchener and his staff occupied one wing, Lord Roberts' staff another. Lord Roberts and his family were very hospitable and I had the honor of being frequently invited to dine with them. Lady Roberts drove around to the hospitals every day and I gave her carte blanche to draw whatever she required for the sick from the Red Cross stores.
In the course of a few days I came into conflict with Lord Kitchener. We had a fine hospital train running to and fro between Capetown and Bloemfontein. It went down loaded with sick and wounded and brought up stores for the hospitals. His Lordship wanted to use it to bring up ammunition, at which I made a strong protest, and as he remained obdurate I appealed to the G.O.C., Lord Roberts, who supported me in my objections. It would have been a distinct violation of the Convention of Geneva.
At this time the town was one vast hospital, there being over 5,000 cases of enteric in the town and under canvas. With the stores supplied by the British and Canadian Red Cross Societies, I was able to do much to relieve the discomfort of the sufferers. Many sick lay on the bare floors, some had one blanket, others none, others only an overcoat. There was no invalid food, stimulants were scarce, personal comforts, nil.
I low would you like, gentle reader, to be ill with typhoid fever and lie on your kitchen floor without a blanket or mattress and eat bully beef? Was it any wonder the men died like flies? We often buried thirty in a day. Long pits were dug and the dead, wrapped only in blankets, were buried every evening. The odor was so overpowering that the chaplains had to shorten the burial service. During the war there were 57,000 cases of enteric, of whom 9,000 died. In the Great War this scourge of armies was almost abolished by the preventive use of anti-typhoid serum.
I had ticks made and filled with straw, furnished blankets, sheets, pillow-cases, cutlery, spoons, shirts, underclothing, socks, bed pans, ward tables, towels, bath sponges, fans, mosquito netting, feeding cups, meat essence, tinned chicken, chocolate, condensed milk, cigarettes, arrowroot, barley, corn starch, tea, canned vegetables, soap, soup basins with covers, easy chairs, screens for the dying, and a great variety of comforts for the sick, not least of which were fresh eggs from Madeira, and wine and spirits in large quantities. The articles enumerated were used by Imperial and Colonial soldiers alike. I spent my day riding from hospital to hospital, when I was not in the office. We had a great storehouse filled with invalid stores managed by Sergeant Craig, Royal Canadian Regiment, which were supplied to the hospitals on indent from the officers commanding. In those days the Government supplied the barest necessaries for the sick; what was not in store they did without. Had the Red Cross not come to the rescue the plight of the sick, bad as it Was, would have been much worse.
While in Bloemfontein I had the gratification to he appointed British Sub-Commissioner attached to Lord Roberts' staff. In addition to other work I commandeered a house and established a small hospital for officers. Among our patients was Colonel Otter, who had been wounded in the neck at Yster Nek. Ht was a dangerous wound and came literally within an inch of costing him his life and the country a great loss.
All Canadians rejoice that this distinguished officer still lives and enjoys a ripe old age. He is the first Canadian Militiaman to he made a full General and the first Colonial officer to be created a K.C.B., for which purpose it was necessary to change the regulations to admit him into the Order.
Recreations were scarce in Bloemfontein, an occasional dinner at an officers' mess or at a private house, billiards at the club and riding, constituted the list. I rode sometimes with Lord Roberts' daughters, but more often alone among the kopjes which surround the town. I had a fine horse assigned to my use by Prince Francis of Teck, who was in command of the remounts. It was eventually stolen and I was asked to pay for it, but being able to prove the theft, I escaped payment.
In these rides I was able to observe how curious a land was South Africa? A land so often described, yet indescribable. The high veldt is a vast area of plain studded with natural fortresses called kopjes, which arise abruptly from the plain and are unique, in that the tops have all been shorn off, the geologists tell us, by the grinding of the ice in the glacial period. In other parts it is traversed by great chains of mountains and wide rivers, which to-day are dry and to-morrow are rushing torrents which none may cross without bridges. A land without herbage or trees, except mimosa thorns, yet of a fertile soil, needing only water to render it most prolific, as may be seen in Cape Colony and Natal. Here and there are stunted sage bushes, which furnish a scanty subsistence to Kaffir sheep. In the east of the Free State (Orange River Colony) are great Vleis, or natural meadows, where thousands of cattle are sent to graze. In other localities are areas of tempting-looking green herbage which looks like rich pasturage, but is composed of " spear" grass whose sharp and indigestible leaves kill the cattle who eat it. The atmosphere is extraordinarily clear, so that one can see the details of mountains forty miles away. In summer it is very hot, but the air is so dry that one's perspiration evaporates as soon as formed, hence one does not feel it much. In winter at noon the thermometer will register 75°, while at night ice forms on the water in pails or shallow pools. There is a great fascination about the climate and the country, but owing to the climate it is and always will be a negroes' land. The white man may rule, but he cannot work with his hands.
All South Africa lives on the gold and diamond mines, for the food must be sent up from Natal and Cape Colony, the Transvaal being arid.
The time came at length when Lord Roberts, having made his plan of action, received reinforcements and ample supplies, moved northward on his way to Pretoria. I was invited to accompany him and was also asked to go with Lord Methuen to Fourteen Streams, but H felt that my duties demanded that I should remain in Bloemfontein for some time. By the time the army had crossed the Vaal River, the base hospitals moved up to Kroonstad and I followed them and set up a depot of stores there.
Returning one night to Bloemfontein in the hospital train we were stopped at a little wayside station, when who should enter the carriage but Lord Kitchener and his aide. It appeared that he was coming south in a special train when the Boers got word of it through a spy. He got off at the way station and joined us, but the train in which he was supposed to be in was heavily shelled. I saw it at Bloemfontein in a dilapidated condition. The General endeavored to make himself agreeable, but he was not a merry person and the attempt was not a great success.
On another occasion I came south in an open sheep truck in company with the Principal Medical Officer of the Army in South Africa. Imagine it! While young red-tabbed officers rolled along in saloon carriages, the head of the whole Army Medical Service in South Africa travelled by night with a single blanket in an open sheep truck without springs! This was a demonstration of the attitude of the so-called combatant branches of the service to the Medical Corps. I had many unpleasant proofs of it. A military doctor lived on his pay, a gentleman does not work, ergo the doctor was no gentleman. Junior officers would not salute me, although I IN as a lieutenant-colonel. Those days have passed au ay; the Great War killed this kind of snobbery.
Lord Roberts had entered Pretoria and the Transvaal and the Free State had been formally annexed to the British Empire. Ht was thought that the war w as over. When the matter of a return to Canada was put to the men of the Royal Canadian Regiment they decided that as their term of enlistment was up, they would return home, although some three hundred voted to remain with Colonel Otter. So having arranged for assistant-commissioners, chief among whom was Lieut.-Colonel Lyons Biggar, to take over my duties, I embarked for England.
While in London I was asked to give evidence before a Royal Commission on the conduet of the medical service, against which complaints had been made. The report of the commission led to great improvement in the pay, status, control of hospitals, transport and supplies (which they are now allowed to purchase) by the Royal Army Medical Corps, which put it on a par with the Royal Engineers, Royal Artillery and other technical units, and created an esprit de corps which made itself felt in the Great War.
After Lord Roberts left South Africa in September, the war took on a guerilla charaeter, led by Generals Botha and DeWet. It dragged along and did not end until 1902. On the conclusion of peace Great Britain treated her late enemies with the greatest magnanimity and generosity, to which sentiments the Boers responded cordially. Hence, recently, we had the pleasing spectacle of Boers fighting side by side with the British against the Germans, and General Botha one of the most respected statesmen in the British Empire.
It is noteworthy that this war, which was supposed to be ended by Christmas and could be successfully dealt with by 25,000 men, lasted nearly three years and employed 350,0(X) men. The War Office was warned by General Sir William Butler when it began (he commanded at the Cape in 1899) that it would take a large force to win. He was snubbed and superseded.