CHAPTER 22. THE HALT AT BLOEMFONTEIN.
On March 13th Lord Roberts occupied the capital of the Orange Free State. On May 1st, more than six weeks later, the advance was resumed. This long delay was absolutely necessary in order to supply the place of the ten thousand horses and mules which are said to have been used up in the severe work of the preceding month. It was not merely that a large number of the cavalry chargers had died or been abandoned, but it was that of those which remained the majority were in a state which made them useless for immediate service. How far this might have been avoided is open to question, for it is notorious that General French's reputation as a horsemaster does not stand so high as his fame as a cavalry leader. But besides the horses there was urgent need of every sort of supply, from boots to hospitals, and the only way by which they could come was by two single-line railways which unite into one single-line railway, with the alternative of passing over a precarious pontoon bridge at Norval's Pont, or truck by truck over the road bridge at Bethulie. To support an army of fifty thousand men under these circumstances, eight hundred miles from a base, is no light matter, and a premature advance which could not be thrust home would be the greatest of misfortunes. The public at home and the army in Africa became restless under the inaction, but it was one more example of the absolute soundness of Lord Roberts's judgment and the quiet resolution with which he adheres to it. He issued a proclamation to the inhabitants of the Free State promising protection to all who should bring in their arms and settle down upon their farms. The most stringent orders were issued against looting or personal violence, but nothing could exceed the gentleness and good humour of the troops. Indeed there seemed more need for an order which should protect them against the extortion of their conquered enemies. It is strange to think that we are separated by only ninety years from the savage soldiery of Badajoz and San Sebastian.
The streets of the little Dutch town formed during this interval a curious object-lesson in the resources of the Empire. All the scattered Anglo-Celtic races had sent their best blood to fight for the common cause. Peace is the great solvent, as war is the powerful unifier. For the British as for the German Empire much virtue had come from the stress and strain of battle. To stand in the market square of Bloemfontein and to see the warrior types around you was to be assured of the future of the race. The middle-sized, square-set, weather-tanned, straw-bearded British regulars crowded the footpaths. There also one might see the hard-faced Canadians, the loose-limbed dashing Australians, fireblooded and keen, the dark New Zealanders, with a Maori touch here and there in their features, the gallant men of Tasmania, the gentlemen troopers of India and Ceylon, and everywhere the wild South African irregulars with their bandoliers and unkempt wiry horses, Rimington's men with the racoon bands, Roberts's Horse with the black plumes, some with pink puggarees, some with birdseye, but all of the same type, hard, rugged, and alert. The man who could look at these splendid soldiers, and, remembering the sacrifices of time, money, and comfort which most of them had made before they found themselves fighting in the heart of Africa, doubt that the spirit of the race burned now as brightly as ever, must be devoid of judgment and sympathy. The real glories of the British race lie in the future, not in the past. The Empire walks, and may still walk, with an uncertain step, but with every year its tread will be firmer, for its weakness is that of waxing youth and not of waning age.
The greatest misfortune of the campaign, one which it was obviously impolitic to insist upon at the time, began with the occupation of Bloemfontein. This was the great outbreak of enteric among the troops. For more than two months the hospitals were choked with sick. One general hospital with five hundred beds held seventeen hundred sick, nearly all enterics. A half field hospital with fifty beds held three hundred and seventy cases. The total number of cases could not have been less than six or seven thousand - and this not of an evanescent and easily treated complaint, but of the most persistent and debilitating of continued fevers, the one too which requires the most assiduous attention and careful nursing. How great was the strain only those who had to meet it can tell. The exertions of the military hospitals and of those others which were fitted out by private benevolence sufficed, after a long struggle, to meet the crisis. At Bloemfontein alone, as many as fifty men died in one day, and more than 1000 new graves in the cemetery testify to the severity of the epidemic. No men in the campaign served their country more truly than the officers and men of the medical service, nor can any one who went through the epidemic forget the bravery and unselfishness of those admirable nursing sisters who set the men around them a higher standard of devotion to duty.