All the world over, nursing their scars,
Sit the poor fighting-men broke in our wars
Sit the poor fighting-men, surly and grim,
Mocking the lilt of the conquerors’ hymn.
Dust of the battle o’erwhelmed them and hid
Fame never found them for aught that they did.
Wounded and spent, to the lazar they drew,
Lining the road where the legions went through.
Sons of the Laurel, that press to your meed
Worthy God’s pity most ye that succeed
Ye that tread triumphing crowned toward the stars,
Pity poor fighting-men broke in our wars!
THE SUN HAD FADED the Red Cross on her panels almost to brick colour; had warped her woodwork and blistered her paint. For three months she had jackalled behind the army – now at Belmont, now at Magersfontein, now at Rensburg, and in that time had carried over thirteen hundred sick and wounded. In her appointments, her doctors, her two Nursing Sisters , and her nineteen orderlies there was neither veneer nor pretence, coquetry of uniforms, nor the suspicion of official side. She was starkly set for the work in hand, her gear worn smooth by use and habit, detailed for certain business only, and to that business most strictly attending.
Since she started from no known platform I came aboard early, and while we lay silent as a ship in port, the big stock-pot purring in the kitchen, the bottles clicking in the pharmacy as the doctor counted them over, I felt that peace had never been in our generation – that Number Three Hospital Train – iodoform-scented, washed, scrubbed, and scoured – had plied since the beginning of time.
Know now that hospital trains have the right of way over all traffic, and since their crews feed aboard them, need only stop to water and change engines. We slipped out of Cape Town into the twilight at a steady twenty-five mile an hour on our six-hundred-mile journey North. Some day you in England will realise what it means to handle armies and their supplies over this distance on a single three-foot-six line. The war has been a war of shunting and side-tracking, of telegraphs and time-tables; so we may hope that the railway men, who have worked like devils, will not be overlooked when the decorations fall ripe.
Because the line runs through Cape Colony, and because Cape Colony is – we have the highest authority for it – loyally trying to be ‘neutral’, every bridge, every culvert, every point at which the line may be cut or blown up is guarded by a little detachment of armed men. These are drawn chiefly from local corps, such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Volunteer Rifles. They do not like the work; they love still less the ‘loyalty’ which has made the fatigue necessary.
Said a dust-spotted, begrimed Sergeant of the ‘Duke’s’ as Number Three, double-headed, panted up the Hex River pass into the Karroo, ‘We’ve been here since November. I don’t mind telling you we’re pretty sick of it. We haven’t had a look-in at the Front yet. We sit here and patrol the line. Lovely work!’
The setting of the picture hardly varied a hair’s breadth. A single track, lifting and dancing in the heat, the brown, hairless hills dusted with split stones, the sleek mirages, the knots of khaki figures, the dingy tents, repeated themselves as though we were running in circles. Here was a water-tank. Number Three drank of it, sucking thirstily; here a speckle of tin houses and a refreshment-room, which we had no need to enter; here a new-laid siding. Number Three flung them all behind her; but for the men with rifles, the red-eyed, bristlebearded, disgusted track-watchers there was no escape.
Suddenly we overhauled a train-load of horses, Bhownagar’s and Jamnagar’s gifts to the war; stolid saises and a sowar or two in charge.
‘Whence dost thou come?’
‘From Bombay, with a Sahib.’ (The man looked like a Hyderabadi, but he had taken off most of his clothes.
‘Dost thou know the name of this land?’
‘Dost thou know whither thou goest?’
‘I do not know.’
‘What, then, dost thou do?’
‘I go with my Sahib.’
Great is the East, serene and immutable! We left them feeding and watering as the order was.
A few miles farther on – forty or fifty are of no account in this huge place – were guns, infantry, and buck-wagons, rumbling towards De Aar, and, I think, New South Wales Lancers. Then, a Victorian contingent camped by the wayside, happier than the ‘Duke’s’ because they were nearer the Front, but wrathful in that certain Canadians still farther up the line had had the audacity to make a camp called Maple Leaf. They wanted news of the Burma Military Police, long men on little fat ponies like clockwork mice, recently landed, and vanished. Corps have a knack of disappearing bodily in this country. Of the Burmans I knew nothing, but could furnish information more or less accurate of some Malay Light Horse lately seen in Cape Town, and of some Yeomanry details.
‘Ah,’ said Australia, with a rifle, by the water-tank, ‘wait till you see our Queensland bushmen. My word! They’re something.’
Then he expressed a private and unprintable opinion about those arrogant Canucks up the line, which opinion, twisted the other way, I got back again from a Canadian, an Eastern Province man, a few hours later.
Strictly in confidence, I may tell you that the Colonial Corps are riding just the least little bit in the world jealous. They have each the honour of a new country to uphold, and it is neck and neck between them. So I sat joyously on the rear platform while Number Three ran the links of Empire through my hands. English of the Midlands, Cockney, Scots, Irish, Welsh, Queenslander, Victorian, and Canadian, one after another, we picked them up and dropped them with a flying word.
There was nothing wrong with that chain, and by the same token, it seemed to have got hold of something at last, for a truckload of Boer prisoners slid by in charge of what looked like a few disreputable bearded veldt-cornets.
‘Ho!’ said an orderly critically. ‘And where did you pick them up?’
‘Round Paardeberg. There’s more to follow. Most of these is Transvaalers.’
‘That’s all right,’ said the orderly.
The Army, you see, is collecting Transvaalers, and has come a long way for samples. ‘An’ which might be prisoner and which is guard?’ Said the veldt-cornet with a battered helmet, ‘I’m a sergeant of Northamptons in charge.’
‘Oh, you are, are you? Then what are you doin’ with Labby’s friends? Take ’em along. Mr. Labouchere won’t be pleased at you.’
But the Sergeant was mightily pleased, save that his prisoners had not washed for some time. He said so. Then we drew to the home of lies, which is De Aar – a junction, the pivot of many of our manoeuvres and a telegraph centre.
It smelt like Umballa platform in the hot weather, and they kept a hell there of fifty half-naked telegraph operators, sweating under the blazing kerosene lamps, each man with two pairs of hands and some extra ears. Outside was thick darkness, and the shunting of trucks – thousands of trucks: but the steady boom of the racing instruments beat through all other noises like the noise of hiving bees.
There was some need to work, and, at least, one very good reason in the shape of a big saloon that glided past us in the night, a lit window revealing just a chair and a neat empty table. The Sirdar (Lord Kitchener) was on the move; going down to Naauwpoort to arrange surprises, and it is not at all healthy to be idle when Kitchener passes by. Therefore, and before this war is over, you will hear all sorts of baseless tales from a certain type of officer who has been made to work: and you must not believe them.
After De Aar time-tables ceased. We were cut adrift on the Sargasso Sea of accumulated rolling-stock between that place and Orange River. Here the rumours begin. There had been a killing – a big killing – the first satisfactory killing – at Paardeberg, up the Modder. Roberts held Cronje in a ring of fire burning day and night. That was none of our concern. We had some news that many wounded waited for us at Modder – thirty officers, at least, and twice as many men – all more or less bad cases.
Here and there one could catch the name of a dead man, and the Sister’s lips tightened. Was So-and-so alive? Well, he was a week ago someone had seen him. And Such-another? Oh, Such-another had been buried a week back. Could Number Three go ahead? Oh yes; but there was a block at the Modder, and Kimberley was sending down a full train.
Number Three whistled madly. Her business was to get up, load, and get away again. Belmont, with the bullet-holes through the station name-board, interested her not, nor Graspan either. She had been that road too often hot on the heels of the very fight itself. She checked despairingly, fifth in a line of long trains on the red smear of Modder Plain. The old bridge, wrecked by the Boers, was now all but repaired.
At present, Number Three would go over the trestle, but as to when Number Three would get across, authority could not say, and whistling was just waste of steam. Merciful rain had laid the dust which normally lies ten inches thick, and one could look all across the brick-red land.
By this time you probably know more about Modder than I; will have seen a hundred photographs of the naked, coverless plain that tilts to the thin line of trees and the dirty little river; lifting again northwards, as a slow wave of the Atlantic lifts, towards Shooter’s Hill, where the naval gun played. North of this again, a bluish lump in the morning light, rises Magersfontein. At that precise moment – but the camp fills and empties as quickly as the river – most of our men were out with Roberts nearly thirty miles to the westward. Vast empty acreages showed where their accommodation had stood. Men, horses, and wheels had wiped out every trace of herbage, and the diminishing perspective of their patient single files attested how far afield the camp-oxen had to go to graze. Horsemen by twos and threes wandered forth attacking interminable distances in which they were swallowed up. Sidings solid with trucks spurred left and right across the plain, and the trucks on the main line backed up to the very shoulders of the riveters repairing the bridge.
Number Three fought her way inch by inch, and was met by a little knot of Army Sisters. In civilisation their uniform is hideous, but out here one sees the use of the square-cut vermilion cape. Everything else is dust coloured, so a man need not ask where a Sister may be. She leaps to the eye across all the camp.
‘And where are our wounded?’ asks Number Three. ‘Still coming in from Paardeberg. They’re being dressed. You’ll get them later. Where are your spare doctors?’ We had come up with six surgeons taken from the big Wynberg and Rondebosch hospitals, where for months they had lived on a promise of work at the Front. They were not R.A.M.C. men, but house surgeons fresh from the Home hospitals, young, enthusiastic, and happy, though their baggage had been cut down to the thirty-five-pound scale, and they had not the ghost of a notion where they were going.
They were uncarted like stags on Modder platform, gazed awhile, met a man in authority, and were swiftly commandeered. Two or three doctors lay dead or wounded across the plains, and there was a hot press for the Medical Service.
Half a mile across the plain, behind the graves of the Highland Brigade, lay the hospital-tents, and thither loaded mule-and ox-wagons were heading. Like Number Three, they had been at the work a weary while. There came no surprise or bewilderment, hardly even any pity to the onlooker, as the big Red Crosses lurched and pitched. This, said the wagons, is the custom with the wounded. Stricken men are gathered as soon as possible by the bearer companies, whose casualty-list is a heavy one. They are dressed for the first time swiftly and efficiently; they are then put into the tilted wagons till they reach the hospital that sends them to the rail. The rail takes the badly wounded to Cape Town and the sea which leads to Netley.
This is the system, said the wagons, and here was the system all naked to the glaring day. Three nights had the wagons been on the road, rained upon, thundered over, and lightened about, jolted and jerked, and jarred; but the long and the short of it was that of eight hundred wounded the wagons had lost not one.
‘Would the hospitals take delivery, please?’ said the wagons, and they drew aside to rest; for their cattle were very, very tired.
As for Number Three? No, it would not be wise to visit Magersfontein. The train might be filled and sent away at any moment.
There was the old official ring about this, and I was not the least surprised that we waited eleven hours time to have gone to Magersfontein and back on all fours. But I am glad I stayed by Number Three. It is early days to make that field of blood a show-place, and one can collect shells on other beaches when peace comes again.
The station was the centre of local society. The Staff, including a German prince, lived across the road in a battered caravanserai with scores of ponies tied to the veranda. The platform was banked with Red Cross cases, badly needed at Kimberley, and with mail bags badly needed by the men who came up, fingered them curiously, and slunk away. Business first, mails later. The telegraph office was a small edition of De Aar, hideously overworked. A knot of Sappers came up from the river, where they had been tamping ballast under new sidings. Other Sappers with ‘R.P.R.’ on their hats followed.
These last were the details of the Railway Pioneers, skilled mechanicians, and the like, of Johannesburg; and under the grime and the khaki one met a host of a certain weird dinner given in the Gold Reef city two years ago.
One gets used to privates with visiting-cards, and it is perfectly natural to discuss bacteriology, West African exploration, and the ethics of publishing, the intricacies of the Bankruptcy Act, and the prospects of the Labour party in South Australia with spurred troopers.
So it was not disconcerting to meet men of the Chitral siege, once prisoners in the hands of Omra Khan, old schoolmates, Indian Staff Corps men doing duty as ‘tail-twisters’ in the Transport, lost acquaintances of ten years ago, side by side with the fellow passenger of three weeks back, unrecognisable to-day under sunburn, hair, and dust.
It was only an undress rehearsal for the Day of Judgment.
A detail of Army Service men en route for Kimberley spread themselves at ease on their baggage, and chaffed a quartermaster-sergeant who had lost his sword but by the regulations was miserably tied to the empty scabbard till he could return the thing to store. A knot of excited Life Guards demanded news of French’s division. ‘Out since Sunday week and no news. We belong to ’em. We were sick. We want to rejoin. Do you know where he is?’
A Colonial suggested that cavalry divisions always suspend operations for the return of one corporal of horse and two dozen troopers.
A Gunner driver in a cart pored over a three-days’ old Cape paper, for there is no news at the Modder. A man with a drawn face came out from nowhere and told a story. His wife had died at home of influenza: was dead and buried. His people could look after the children, thank God! But it hurt – it hurt cruelly. He spoke and vanished.
Half a mile up the line a private of Highlanders was cooking potatoes and semolina together. He was in luck. Had helped ‘swipe’ a Boer wagon overturned by our shell-fire, and picked up the semolina out of the dust.
A knot of officers had made themselves a rude messhouse in a roofless hut, with a blanket for shade. One of them wished to see a Sister of Number Three – to tell her that So-and-so was dead. A little gathering moved across the dust to look for the graves of the Highland Brigade. Even now the name-boards are split and blistered, and the date carries us back a thousand years. And so it went on, hour after hour, this procession of faces, this tangle of half-caught tales. Towards evening the remnants, as it were, of a battalion moved from the hospital tent in broken squads, one man supporting another.
They were our ‘light’ cases – men denied the merciful cushioning shock of severe wounds – in acute and annoying pain. They would go down to Naauwpoort by the Kimberley train, but first they must be called over.
They reached the platform haltingly; their uniforms were darkened in places by patches as of carelessly spilled varnish, and sometimes their trouser hems were gummy with the same stuff. They sat down by companies in the dust, half a score of regiments mixed. Their officers got them fruit and cigarettes; the more sound filled their companions’ water-bottles. They chaffed greatly in undertones, but they did not say one single word which by any construction could be considered even coarse. They did not complain, they did not growl, they did not curse. They were going to Naauwpoort to get well. In a few days they would return. They had out-marched and out-manoeuvred their enemy – on a couple of biscuits a day, for they had also out-marched their provisions. Their companions were now attending to that enemy, and they were content.
On their departure Number Three waked to life. The wagons were coming from the hospitals. The doors of the cars flew back; orderlies went to their stretchers; the side-boards were ripped out of the bunks; the cook put the last flavouring to the big stock-pot; the Sisters stood to attention, each in her ward – a doctor and a Sister responsible for half a train apiece – and the blessed morphine needles were made ready. They want rest from pain, our wounded. Food and clean sheets will often bring it, but on occasion we must help Nature.
The worn, chipped, and scratched rifles clattered into the arm-racks, the thin dusty kits followed, and after them the loaded stretchers.
‘Fractured thigh,’ said an orderly. ‘Which? Left or right?’ said the Sister.
‘Right,’ said the man, and was slipped on his back accordingly, injured leg outside, where it could be got at easiest.
‘Special,’said the orderly. Here was a clean stomachwound. He could eat milk and slops in a bunk marked to that effect, and the gentemanly Mauser bullet would suffer him to live. Down the car he went, thinking nobly of his soul, and in no way approving of milk-diet. Entered one amputation below the right elbow, very cheery. Full diet for this amputation; but no full diet for yonder lung-shot, who cannot lie down without pain. Were there any sick?
There were no sick, and the doctors thanked Heaven. They would sooner bring down three trains of wounded than one of sick.
Dysentery that milks the heart out of a man and shames him before his kind; rheumatism, which is the seven devils of toothache, in the marrow of your bones; typhoid of the loaded breath and the silly eye, incontinent and consuming; pneumonia that stabs in the back and drives the poor soul, suffocating and bewildered, through the hells of delirium – we are clear of these for this journey, at least. The clean aseptic bullet-kiss and the shell-splinter is all our care.
Quietly and quickly, but above all quietly, come the stretchers.
Fractured shoulder; elbow joint; lung again from left to right, but nothing vital touched; shattered forearm (owner says explosive bullet); two head-cases, but both will live. Eye, head, and neck; upper arm; thigh again; two or three clean shots through the thigh (owners very hungry); shoulder smashed and top of finger shot off (owner much annoyed over this little extra); forearm again, and ‘Please, sir, me bandages are pinchin’ me horrid.’
It isn’t the bandages, but the doctor does not say so. He exhibits the merciful squirt, and the bandages miraculously loosen themselves.
Now come the Officers.
One Colonel, bearded like the heavy swell of the ‘Sixties; another Colonel (the Highlanders must have been catching it); a Major; a bearded Captain (on investigation this turns out to be a Lieutenant, aged twenty-three, when he is shaved); and a sprinkling of subalterns and doctors. In each man’s bed is a bag holding shirt, pyjamas, towel, brush, sponge, soap, and toothbrush. They call it the Good Hope bag, but it was evidently invented by a thoughtful she-angel.
Man after man shakes off or is helped out of the creased, dusty, greasy, blood-stained khaki and nestles into the luxury of clean body-clothes between clean sheets. They have rest; now they must have food, thick soup for choice, if they will only stay awake to drink it; and milk and brandy for the stomach and lung people.
Theoretically, six hundred miles of rail should be bad for wounded men. Practically it does them all the good in the world.
In the first place, they are cleanly and honourably out of it. Not for weeks the sun and the dust, the foul water, and the weary marching; the booted sleep, and the plug-plug of the rifle-butt against the shoulder.
Many of them will be permanently lost. The ship will take them to England; they will find their billets waiting, and they will return to live before the faces of their fathers.
Moreover, these are they who have come out of a winning fight. Cronje’s end is certain. They left the guns pounding the soul out of his laager by the Modder.
It is not as was that terrible journey after Magersfontein, when doctors and Sisters had to sit up with weeping men – men who had been killed in heaps of a sudden one day and damned in heaps by their General the next – men who tried to explain but broke down and turned their faces to the wall and cried miserably and hopelessly.
Number Three’s Staff will remember that Magersfontein trip as long as they live.
This is distinctly a better business. They are going off to sleep, like tired children, already – thirty-one officers and sixty-six men. They will be different people tomorrow. The doctors look at the Sisters and nod joyously. A good train-load; no one will be lost, and that little end car for once need not do duty as a mortuary.
Number Twenty-seven wants something solid to eat. Number Twenty-seven won’t get it. He is shot through the stomach, and it is a miracle that he is not under the Modder dirt. He can have some more milk and brandy….
‘Please, Sister, there’s a Colonel hoppin’ about the alley-way.’
A Sister advances to cut him off. Mere doctors are helpless here. They dare not herd Colonels like ostriches. Besides, he has one sound leg. He says so.
‘But you are to get on to your back and he down,’ is the order.
‘But, Please, Sister, I feel quite fit.’
‘But I say so.’
A wave of her hand eliminates the Colonel. He will hop no more to-night.
A fractured Victorian (shoulder and collar-bone by the look of it) and a child with a slung arm have dodged the eye of authority for a few minutes, and suadente diabolo (but I knew Australians liked tea) are drinking tea in the Staff carriage.
The child is nineteen; he has one month’s service; he does not appreciate a Sister’s drawing comparisons between him and a seventeen-year-old middy, carted off the field at Graspan. It was his first engagement. He was scooping potted meat out of a can when the advance began. Then he was firing. A bullet hit his rifle on the trigger-guard, broke up, and continued through his hand, which is now extensively bandaged. It hurts a little.
‘Of course it does if you let it hang down like that,’ says the Sister; and she deftly loops up the sling while the child blushes adorably.
He argues impersonally on the advantages of retaining the forefinger of the right hand. Not his forefinger by name, but abstract forefinger. One wants it for shooting and writing, don’t you know. Oh, there are a heap of things one can do with it.
Then the colour goes out of his face, and the Sister whirls him into bed.
The Victorian turns pale dun and thinks he will he down.
One finds out later from other men that the child was a most plucky child, and would not take chloroform when they dressed him. His hand is horribly cut up, and his rifle in the rack is smashed across the stock. The nickel-nosed bullet has sunk a quarter of an inch into the steel trigger-guard. It would be unfair to steal that rifle.
The child is asleep. He looks about thirteen. Now the covers are drawn on the lamps; the night watches are set, and we take our last turn down the corridor.
A thunderstorm chases Number Three southward, the lightning spills all over the veldt, and the sun-warped roofs leak. Thirty or forty or fifty thousand men are lying tentless in this downpour, but it must be flooding out Cronje in the bed of the Modder.
Our children are here asleep – deeply and beautifully asleep – all except one man, whose eyes shine like the eyes of a prepared moth.
‘What is the matter?’
I haven’t slept in these’ he picks up the sheet ‘since the third of November. It’s too comfortable to sleep. Oh, Lord, it is comfortable.’ He squirms luxuriously in his bunk.
Through the long night when we stop all voices are lowered. Footsteps halt before us and voices whisper: ‘Have you any New South Wales Lancers, sir, please?’
‘No, we have not. Have we any Oxfords? Yes, a Sergeant, but nobody is coming to wake up this train. Yes, we are full, but they are all doing well. No’ – for the tenth time – ‘there are no dying. They are in bed and asleep, and you must go away.’ All this in tense whispers.
Doctors and Sisters call it an easy night. They are not actually on their feet or fanning a pneumonia case from eleven to six.
Well, they had their reward in the clean rain-washed morning when every runnel of the Karroo was bankfull and the waste-water (some day we shall get big dams with a system to them) spilled away profligately. Our children were hungry – mutinously hungry. Officers fancied this and fancied that. Milk men wanted to know why they were not full-dieters, and full-dieters sent verbal messages by orderlies asking for more – much more.
‘You won’t get any breakfast till they are all fed,’ said to me an orderly with a pyramid of porridge basins. ‘You’d better fill up on Osborne biscuits. You see, ‘arf of ’em ‘aven’t the use of their ‘ands.’
So they stoked them – the ”arf that’adn’t the use of their ‘ands’ – and they re-dressed their bandages, and they washed their little faces and combed their little hair, and then the cry went up for tobacco.
Some of the men had changed past recognition during the night. The lines of pain, the tense drawn expressions were gone. They had rested; their bellies were full; they were smoking. You must remember that a wounded man is not a sick man. He is generally in superb physical condition; he has been off all excess liquor for some months, and so responds readily to stimulants. His blood is clean, and he breathes the best of air. Give him half a chance, and he will clamber up again hand over fist.
Then, all animal needs satisfied, some of them wanted to send word home; and that was a full morning’s job. The usual form ran: ‘Dear Mother, Just a few lines to tell you I was hit at Paardeberg on Feb. 18th, when we fought Cronje. I was hit in such-and-such a place, but please do not worry about me, as I am coming on all right. It was a bit hard in the carts, but I am lying in bed in the train here, and we are all going down to the hospital, and I am quite comfortable, and I shall be all right in a few weeks, so please do not worry about me, because I am all right and doing well.’
Their first thought in every instance was that she should not worry. One man – a Celt, to be sure – launched into some description of the fight (I saw him later at Wynberg covering sheets and sheets) and a few others had business matters to adjust; but for the bulk, the word, the assurance, and the message of love, sufficed. Remember, it was not the Army that you and I know, but the Army of the People, heavily laced with Reservists, family folk, who have kiddies and businesses over the sea. Blacksmiths, gardeners, clubporters, and small shopkeepers were among those represented, and their physique was almost as admirable as their spirit.
One man only of all that train broke down – and small blame to him. He was a badly shotten ‘lunger,’ and there seemed no way to make him easy, sitting or lying. He got out his home-photos – the little tintypes that one carries in the inside pocket and the cruel home-sickness atop of the pain took him and broke him for a minute or two. I think he had come out of some well-ordered country-house, for he returned to the manner of the lodge-porter in his talk.
There were quiet men, deeply concerned for the probable loss of a working arm. There were mildly – oh, so mildly ! – riotous men, who staggered about visiting from bunk to bunk. There were funny men, worth their weight in silver to the ward. There were just men admitting that their enemy up in a tree had sighted more quickly than they, ‘but my section got him with four bullets, and he came down like a pheasant, sir.’ There were silent men breathing quickly, counting each turn of the wheels; and there were doubting Thomases who needed particular information about Wynberg hospital.
I heard a good deal of all sorts, but I did not hear one word of complaint.
So it is in the base hospital. From at least a thousand wounded met at Rondebosch and Wynberg under fairly intimate circumstances, orderlies out of earshot and the talk running free, I did not gather one whimper.
A badly hit man – fracture or stomach – is, of course, glad he is going home – till the steamer comes round. Then he is not so pleased.
A slightly wounded man takes all the ward to witness that so soon as he is mended, wild horses won’t keep him away from his family. Ten days later, he is lying – lying like a skirmish-line under pom-pom fire – to his doctor with intent to rejoin.
The hospitals have their own esprit de corps, and tents are proud to be able to say they are all going back. But our boys counted rest before all things; and Number Three hurried them to it. Our little world on wheels had hardly come to know itself when we were halfway home. A little letter-writing; a small ‘smoker’ between two cool windows where wounded Colonels and subalterns met in pyjamas and talked over good men killed, while the idle rifles clicked in the rack behind; another ravenous meal or two (‘Which will you ‘ave, sir? Steak or rissole?’ ‘Oh, both. I’ve been dreaming of steaks since Jacobsdal!’); another and an easier night, and then the thrice-blessed firs of Wynberg, the waiting hooded ambulances, a good road, and Number 1 and 2 Hospitals just round the corner.
Once more the business of the stretchers, the tally of fractures and perforations; the whispered cautions, and the louder words of good cheer. It is not in the official bond, but Number Three’s Staff a little worn with night-watching, dusty and heavy-eyed – will see the boys up to their beds. They know every one of the cases now, and a word or two in season will be profitable.
In an hour Number Three stands empty and stripped. Blankets, sheets, and bedding must be renewed; a hundred things go to the wash; and they swish and swill the floors.
To-morrow night her work begins again.