A DOCTOR'S DIARY IN DAMARALAND
May 1.---Otjimbingwe, the old capital, is just a straggling village on the right bank of the Swakup. A Noah's ark church much in evidence, a store, an hotel, a windmill, a police camp, and a few houses, all looking bright and clean in the morning sun, constitute the place. The sight of the windmill actually at work, and horses grazing, cheered us greatly. So we stopped outside the town, cleaned ourselves up a bit, and marched on to the market square in review order. Lots of troops were camping about, but, as they were busy cooking fresh meat, they took very little notice of our imposing entry.
Not knowing where to go or what to do, we halted on the square. The General's ubiquitous Cape cart with its six splendid mules was standing near. The animals had done as much as we had, and probably much more, during the night, yet they looked as fresh as paint. "All a matter of feeding," observed our somewhat jaded conductor. Two or three batteries of field artillery were packed on the square. Their business-like appearance gave one a feeling of security, but I caught the eye of a gunner, and it seemed to say, "You gentlemen of the ambulance are a little bit late, aren't you ?" And so we were, for the doctor of the 3rd Brigade, coming up, told us there had been an action yesterday, and we were to take over the hotel converted for the time being into a hospital. The police barrack, next to the hotel, was also a hospital for the 5th Brigade; and our disappointment at not being in at the finish was mitigated a little by seeing on the barrack stoop the O.C. of a rival ambulance, his waggons and men still far behind, and, although he seemed otherwise engaged, he saw us all right. Seven wounded, four of our men and three of the enemy, were in the hotel in beds or on stretchers. Everybody had been too utterly exhausted to do much for them. The place was in an indescribable state of filth; the Germans must have used the rooms as stables, and the wounded were still in their dirty, torn, and blood-stained uniforms. A tired orderly was sweeping aimlessly, and two German soldiers with very conspicuous Red Cross brassards were pretending to take temperatures. There was nothing for it but to set to work immediately to try to get the place into order. Beds, sheets, and furniture, were commandeered, and by three o'clock we had a respectable hospital of three small wards and an operating-room in working order, and the wounds, which were all of a severe nature, cleaned up and dressed. The whole ambulance worked with a will to accomplish this, and one felt very proud of the men, who, fatigued as they were, did their work manfully.
We were soon to learn that we had others to deal with besides the wounded. As soon as it became known that a hospital was in existence, all sorts of stragglers worried us---men slightly sick, men without horses, men without food, men without heart. The resources of the hotel were commandeered for the hospital, practically only meat, fowls, and milk. Hungry men were to be seen in all directions, leading what animals they might to the slaughter; but I think the authorities soon got these matters in hand, stopping individual buying or looting, and rationing meat in a systematic manner. Goodness knows we were tired enough this night, but rest was only to be intermittent, for, in spite of liberal supplies of morphia, there was much groaning and restlessness among the wounded. A guard, too, turned up to arrest our most assiduous, urbane, and obliging German orderlies, for it had transpired that they were wolves in sheep's clothing, one being a notorious mine-layer. They were unceremoniously routed out, and went off without protest, but were brazen enough to attempt to get away with the dressings, instruments, and drugs, the enemy had left.
May 2.---During the night two of our wounded died, both hopeless cases shot through the body. I am afraid that the Anglican padre attached to our brigade was disappointed that the deceased were members of the Dutch Reformed Church. During the trek he had but little opportunity of practicing his avocation, for we were never long enough in one place for him to organize services. True, a native driver had been killed by a waggon on the way up, and the holding of a burial service over this poor unfortunate had encouraged our padre a little; for to-day he set about and arranged to have church in the afternoon; but it was not to be, for word went round that the brigade was to move on again at 3 p.m. Poor padre ! I fear he will never come up with his congregation again; both he and his horse seem not a little discouraged.
This Sunday was another day of great exertion for the ambulance. Half the men were to move on, and half remain with the hospital; so there was much sorting, packing, and arranging to be done. Here, as at Tsaobis, a lot of equipment had to be left behind, and we who were remaining benefited, but the best horses and mules were to go on.
Water had been the problem on the march; now for us it is to be food. The place supplies water, meat, a little milk, and scanty grazing for the animals. We have three days' rations, and have about sixty mouths to fill in all. We expect relief in a week, but everything is so precarious and uncertain. The brigade trains may overlook us, and pass in the night, or the rations may be wanted more urgently ahead. The horses and mules, if not the men, will certainly have to live on the land.
I gathered a few scrappy details about the fight. Otjimbingwe is in the middle of a square, and at the four corners are Tsaobis, Karibib, Okahandya, and Windhuk; but a glance at the map will show that it is nearer to Tsaobis than the other places. When the 3rd and 5th Brigades arrived at this latter place, the Germans at Otjimbingwe signalled to Karibib for help. Karibib replied that, as they themselves were also threatened with an attack, Otjimbingwe must be evacuated. The Germans here never expected that our men would be able to attack them on Friday morning; but our men by a very fine effort pushed on during the night, and at dawn had partly surrounded the place, and would have done so completely had orders been carried out. The attack was quite a surprise. An officer of ours blowing his whistle prematurely is said to have betrayed our presence. The Germans, less than a hundred in number, tried the various exits, but, being fired upon from several directions, finally broke up into small parties. One party, with great gallantry, charged direct at a dismounted commando at a distance of 50 yards, fired a volley, and literally escaped through our men. I hear they mostly got away towards Windhuk, dragging two field guns with them, one party of fourteen only being captured.
It is quite likely that, if our junior officers had remained in the positions assigned to them, all the Germans would have been taken; but troop leaders were constantly trying to better their positions, and consequently there was much overlapping. A fat old German "Colonel" was under fire at 300 yards for a long time, but he seemed quite unperturbed. Finally he mounted his horse and rode slowly away. This sounds strange, but the explanation of such shortcoming is easily found, for the men had been tried up to the limits of human endurance. "There was not a sane man amongst us," was the comment of one officer. Men were to be seen asleep in the saddle or on the road, indifferent to the danger of passing guns and ammunition waggons. One poor tired wretch attempted to shoot himself. Many had peculiar illusions, one of which was so common that it is worthy of mention. It took the form of large and beautiful buildings, often grouped together so as almost to form towns. I experienced the same thing in a minor degree, and think it was due to a tired, overwrought brain mistaking the images of blurred trees in the dusty moonlight for houses. So sure were these seers of visions about what they saw, so irritable and ready to argue about it, that it was wisest not to contradict them. Even two days after the fight, so jumpy and nervous were sentries, seeing Germans everywhere, that wise people kept at home after dusk.
May 3.---The feeding of our patients and our men exercises our wits day and night. The Major bargains every evening with the hotel-keeper and his wife, and the latter is very keen. They are to supply the hospital as far as they can, and are to get a signed requisition form from us each day for things supplied. In addition they are to let us have 60 pounds of meat a day for the men. These people are very subdued and anxious to please. The old man particularly seems to be in a constant state of nerves, and stands before you hat in hand in a very pathetic manner. They have a married daughter with them, who has two little children, a girl of six and a boy younger, funny little square heads and not a bit shy. Their father is either a prisoner or still fighting. The numbers of our troops passing through yesterday quite overwhelmed them all; they stood at the door awhile watching the troops passing, and then, unable to hide their despair any longer, went inside. The two brigades with their guns and ammunition waggons took nearly all the afternoon to pass. Occasionally one would see a Burgher with a sheep or goat upon his saddle, and one man passed struggling with a live goat, his horse consequently very restive. They all looked rested and cheerful again, and the horses were wonderful.
Last evening, at supper, the Major, after two or three ineffectual trials, ventured the mild protest that the tea was not very nice, that it tasted like pepper. I said, "Impossible !" and took a fair drink. It was a terribly pungent concoction, and it came upon me like a flash that I had in the dark given the boy tobacco instead of tea. Apart from the burning sensation we experienced in the throat, the loss of two teaspoonfuls of condensed milk was distressing. Then I remembered that I had mixed some of this supposed tea with our stock of tea, and the depression which followed was not wholly attributable to the effects of nicotine. I waited until to-day before looking at our tea supply, and there, sure enough, was the tea and tobacco mixed. We now spend our spare time trying to pick the tobacco out with a pair of surgical forceps.
The Major is always nosing round for food and interviewing the few inhabitants left. In the middle of a conversation he will suddenly say, "I wonder if I could get any eggs !" I reply, " Considering the nervous strain under which the fowls of this locality must be living, I should think not." However, to-day he managed to get three at a tickey each. We decided to give one to the querulous Lieutenant wounded in the foot, and two, one being broken, to a patient old Burgher with a ghastly wound in the groin. "I have got a little butter," he will say, but how many kilogrammes I can't say.
May 4.---To-day the 2nd Brigade arrived. They have had a terribly hard journey from Riet, practically up the bed of the Swakup the whole way. They certainly had better water that way than we had, but the going was very hard, and mines worried them considerably. Three men were killed by them. In one instance two men were blown to pieces, and a third is said to have been found at the top of a high tree, with not a scratch on him. Another mine blew up a water-cart and its driver on the ground over which an artillery column had already passed.
May 5.---To-day the ambulance attached to the 5th Brigade moved away from the police barrack, leaving only their motors behind, having no petrol for them. Of course they asked us to take over their patients, which we did, though not with a very good grace, as they were leaving no rations for them. Judging from their weary and dejected appearance, I don't think they were taking very much with them, either; but they made no complaints, and did not ask us to help them, for it seems to be an unwritten law that each unit bears its privations silently and alone. Indeed, when you ask an officer of another corps to a meal, his distaste for food and lack of appetite is positively alarming.
As soon as they had gone, we swooped down upon the barrack like a lot of vultures, going through everything; but we found only drugs, dressings, bedding, etc. No food, of course, the carcass of a sheep that I had admired so much on a previous visit having disappeared to the last bone. The building is a large rambling place, and has terraced gardens, pretty and well arranged, with palms and trees, stretching down to the river. In these gardens our cook found the remains of some cabbages, just outside leaves and roots, but very acceptable. In the yard were two maxims left by the Germans. They were large things with limbers, and not mounted on tripods as ours are. Everybody who passed by helped himself to some of the cartridges or a movable part, so that before long, as weapons, they had ceased to exist.
The 2nd Brigade are a great worry to us, for their weaklings, their sick, and their lazy, try to get some or any benefit from the hospital. The Major is most polite to them: nothing would give him more pleasure than to take their sick in---but they must have at least four days' rations. As they have not four minutes' rations, the plan is very effectual. A burly quartermaster-sergeant, who was really ill, said he would rather die on the veldt than starve in hospital.
Him we took in, on learning his occupation, and fed him on the fat of the land thinking of future benefits. We hoped we had seen the last of this brigade when they moved on this evening to a place called Uitdraai, where the grazing and water were said to be better.
May 6.---I went down to the town to-day. The place is deserted, for the only people of ours there are a sergeant and three men of Engineers. I went through the large store. This store, which had been of considerable size, belonged to a rich old man who lived on the premises with his married sons and daughters. Behind the store were the dwelling-quarters, and, judging from the amount of clothing, furniture, beds, toys, and utensils, scattered about, a large number of people must have lived there. I was told the old man had fourteen children and numberless grandchildren, but, hearing the "English" would send all women and children to Cape Town, the whole clan had cleared off to Grootfontein.
A very polite old German, who was only on a visit from Europe, and unable to return on account of the war, came to the hospital in the afternoon. He said he had lost everything while away from the house, even his return ticket home. It comforted him little to learn that a return ticket to Europe by the Woermann Line was not likely to be available for some time to come.
An old Rhenish missioner is a daily visitor at the hospital. He has a most venerable appearance, and is most courteous and mild. In fact, the behaviour and manner of all the old German people I have seen leaves nothing to be desired, and I have heard one of them say that he did not know what modern Germany and Germans were coming to. The aggressive, bumptious manner so general among the younger men seems to be a growth of the present generation.
When the 2nd Brigade turned up a few days ago, they were so short of everything that there was no keeping them out of the houses, though there is little enough here; for no supplies have come in since the war began, nine months ago, and the German soldiers had also removed all they could. It seems to me that it will be necessary to feed not only our own troops, but also what Germans remain here, to say nothing of the natives.
For a whole week we have had no news from anywhere, for no people are passing up at all now, and to-day our last communication with the outside world was severed, a branch of the Field Telegraph Service having packed up their wireless apparatus and departed, like the rest, northward.
The 2nd Brigade are still only seven miles away. They are out of touch with headquarters, and don't seem to know where to go. One of their officers was here to-day looking for cattle. He seemed quite worn out, and said the brigade was without food. The Major let him have five of the ten oxen he had commandeered.
We, too, are feeling the pinch a little, and, as our unit are mostly boys with healthy appetites, it is hard to get them to exercise restraint. Some of them have small private supplies of food. We would like to call these in, but fear such action would lead to further depression or panic. We cannot understand why the transport has failed us so utterly, and are haunted with the idea that possibly supplies are being forwarded by another route.
May 7.---Our horses and mules look very poor. We have nothing to give them, and the grazing near the town is very thin, one may say "tramped out." In these parts stock depend upon two things chiefly for food: a fine feathery grass, each plant growing separately, the stalks of which are very brittle; the other food is a low bush with bright yellow leaves and a blue dower. The tops of this bush are very succulent, and some horses prefer it to the grass. Low thorn-trees are fairly numerous, but not thick enough to make riding irksome. In every direction within a radius of three miles of the town everything is eaten down. I don't think our horses are entirely responsible for this, because lately, on account of the war and the unsettled temper of the natives, many German farmers have brought their stock into town for safety.
This evening we received a little news of what was going on outside Otjimbingwe. We were sitting on the stoep after supper, discussing the eternal food question, when two men loomed up out of the darkness, and asked unceremoniously for something to eat. They were very much exhausted, and said they had tasted nothing for forty-eight hours, and that they were trying to make their way to Karibib to join their corps of signallers. They brought the news that General Britz had occupied Karibib without resistance, and that the 5th Brigade had cut the line at Wilhelmstaal, a station on the line between Karibib and Windhuk; and, what was particularly pleasing to us, they said the 2nd Brigade had now moved on towards Groot Barmen and Okahandya.
This 2nd Brigade (Albert's) had been a constant source of anxiety to us, for they were rapidly depleting the town of stock, men coming in at all times to look for cattle, sheep, or goats. After hearing all this good news, we fed the signallers to the best of our ability. In fact, had the news been otherwise I think we would have fed them all the same, they were such fine fellows, full of grit, and regarding their privations lightly. As soon as they had finished their meagre supper, and with a biscuit each in their haversacks, they started off in the direction of Karibib, forty miles away, with nothing but the stars and their instinct to guide them.
May 8.---The wounded are all improving, and are beginning to take a little interest in things outside their own particular miseries. But their accounts of the recent fighting are contradictory and indefinite. It seems fairly clear, however, that only the Pietersburg commando and the B.B.S. took up the positions assigned to them. All the killed and wounded belonged to the Pietersburg commando. In fact, the wounded officer states that they all belonged to his troop, and he says that only from their side, a ridge to the north-west of the village, was the attack made. The Germans admit that they were taken completely by surprise, most of them being in bed when the fighting began. They say they waited with machine guns for us along the Tsaobis road until 3 a.m., and then returned to sleep; but, as usual, Brother Boer did not come along the road, but made the wide encircling movement his heart loveth, which, as I have said, was only partially successful.
Another of the German wounded declared that he was shot at a distance of 5 yards after he had put his hands up; but the man who shot him, and was himself wounded, said it was not the case. Among the German wounded is a nervous, Êsthetic-looking clerk. His story is that he was taken from his office in Swakupmund, and a rifle put into his hands. He knew nothing about soldiering, and before he had fired a shot a bullet through the leg terminated his military career. From what he said, I gathered that the attitude of the regulars to the reservists was not too cordial, and mutual recriminations were rife.
I feel that to-day our spirits have reached a very low ebb, and, to cap all, eleven of our mules are missing to-night. These animals are taken out each day to feed, but as the bush is rather thick, grazing scanty, the drivers lazy, and I fear disaffected on account of their privations, it is not surprising that the mules go astray. Hitherto they have always been found, but to-day the drivers come in early in a very surly mood and report the disaster. I can feel that mutiny is in the air. These drivers are mostly Cape boys with a sprinkling of Kaffirs, and are intelligent and capable. They are engaged by the Government for a fixed period, generally six months, and it is forbidden to officers in charge to administer corporal punishment. Consequently, to enforce obedience among them is not always easy, and to-night one of them flatly refused to kill a sheep. The conductor in charge laid violent hands upon him, and I, having first removed the offender's knife, stepped round the corner not to witness a very necessary breach of regulations. Afterwards, with a little persuasion from the O.C., the man slaughtered the sheep, and the incident had a very salutary effect upon all the boys.
Biscuits and coffee are now at an end, so that henceforth the men will have to live almost entirely on meat until we are relieved. Fortunately, there is a little rock salt on one of the waggons, and only those who have lived any length of time on meat only, without salt, can appreciate the value of this find.
During the campaign men lived for many days entirely upon fresh meat, in some instances as long as three weeks. All the men I saw who had lived so were emaciated and weak, shortness of breath and extreme lassitude being the chief complaints. One man declared that they became too weak to kill the sheep, so they used to wait for the sheep to pass, and then shoot them. We who have salt and the cabbage leaves aforesaid generally boil together the meat, salt, and cabbage, drink the fluid as soup, and eat the residual mush as joint. Soup without salt or vegetables leaves a full-empty feeling almost worse than hunger. The men who are continually moving often have to eat the meat quite fresh. I have seen the still quivering muscle being grilled on skewers of wood, with a resulting indigestible mass, charred outside and raw inside. A much better plan, which is adopted when possible, is to cut the meat into ribbons and partially dry it in the sun. So treated it remains fresh in the men's haversacks for several days, especially if it has been salted a little. This meat is much nicer than the fresh meat, and causes less indigestion and discomfort.
May 9.---This morning I was up before it was light, and went off to look for grazing and the lost mules. Arguing that the boys and what men could be spared from camp would search for them where they had been lost, I decided to break new ground, and made for the mountains in the direction of Karibib. After going six or eight miles I found quite good grass and plenty of the succulent yellow bush, and I also saw one of the large conical ant-heaps which, although not very common, are a feature of these parts. These heaps are nearly always built round a thorn-tree, so that the trunk of the tree is hidden and the branches of the tree stick out on all sides. What can be seen of the tree looks green and flourishing, and usually the apex of the ant-heap exceeds the tree in height. They may be as high as 15 or 20 feet, having a diameter of 10 or 12 feet at the base. They are composed of a very hard grey substance which looks like a mica mud. They are inhabited by a little black ant, though I always found the larger ones deserted, monuments rather than dwellings.
This little ant is also a great road-builder. The roads they make are concave furrows in the sand about an inch wide. From one of the smaller heaps I traced one a distance of over 100 yards. It appeared to go straight to some destination, skirting obstacles often, but always resuming the original direction. Numerous branches were given off from the main road, generally at an angle of about 20 degrees. The ants were to be seen going along, some in one direction, some in the other, but never hesitating, turning round, or leaving the road. One felt sure they must have a General Botha directing and encouraging them in their efforts to cross their miniature desert.
Quite unexpectedly I came upon three white mules grazing quietly in a little hollow. I thought they would make off when they realized my evil designs; but, the halters and chains of servitude being still about their necks, they just looked up, as much as to say, " Why didn't you find us before ?" and walked sedately back to camp in single file. That they were not our own did not detract from the pleasure of the find; for it transpired that they belonged to another ambulance which had moved on nearly a week ago. So that these mules, which looked in very good condition, must have been in the bush all the time without water; for the only water anywhere about is the well in the Swakup River, from which water has to be pumped.
The question as to how wild animals obtain water in many parts of this country is very puzzling; for one finds such creatures as buck, baboons, and birds, in areas where standing water is to be found only during rainy periods, and then only for a short time, for it usually sinks into the porous sandy ground very quickly. Occasionally one finds small pools in the river-beds, but they are few and far between. The atmosphere is so dry that, although the nights are often cold, the fall of dew is very slight, so that this source of moisture can hardly be considered. The only explanation as regards herbivore seems to be that the food they eat contains sufficient water for their needs. As to how the carnivore, such as leopards and jackals, manage I can offer no solution at all. I have seen a jackal looking sleek and well thirty miles or more from the nearest known water, and that was in a deep well. Why he was there at all in the desert I could not imagine, for nothing living was to be seen except a very occasional lizard or beetle.
May 10.---A few Germans here, now that the troops have passed, are beginning to pop their heads out, and one is not a little surprised to see several able-bodied men among them. No doubt their uniforms are snugly hidden away somewhere, for here, as elsewhere, the conscience of the Hun is very elastic. He is soldier to-day, Red Cross man to-morrow, civilian and spy combined the next, whichever serves his purpose best. On more than one occasion I have been asked to release German wounded because they were "civilians." "Surely," said the German matron of a hospital, with affected surprise, when a batch of convalescent wounded prisoners was being sent down," you're not going to send this man and that man with the prisoners , They are only poor civilians."
It was galling, too, to see the large herds of cattle and flocks of sheep appearing as if by magic, which had been hidden away in the mountains when the danger threatened. When our troops had asked for meat, the owners of all these animals had declared they had only a few old cows and goats. Now they have not only the effrontery to bring in their stock, but to ask in a most importunate manner for police protection and compensation. They declare they are in danger of attack from "wild" natives living between here and Windhuk, and make claims for large quantities of stock which they say we or the natives have taken. No doubt the natives have made use of their opportunities, for they are now to be seen with small quantities of stock about their dwellings, whereas under German rule they were practically debarred from the ownership of cattle or sheep. A well-to-do farmer, who had entertained General Botha in his town-house during his stay here, sent the following letter to us, with the request that it might be forwarded to the officer commanding troops at a little place, Potmini, twenty miles away, on the Swakup River, and where his farm was situated.
"The order of General Botha is---to protect every private property, to do not kill any angora goat, wool sheeps, or other animal of Potmini, and to do not prevent the animals of Mr. C. [himself], who presently is at Otjimbingwe, do his work on this place. On the 30th of April at Otjimbingwe the General has had the kindness to promise me that my private property at Potmini shall be protected. I afterwards heard from officers that perhaps before the General come to Potmini plenty of my cattles already were slaughtered. Directly after taking of Otjimbingwe I have offered all my castles to General Myburg, because at the first the soldiers had no victuals enough. I only have invited not to consume my last cows, Australian wool sheeps, and the three hundred best angora goats there with I can breed again. Beautiful angora goats, merinos, and ostriches, are very scarce in this country, and must be imported again from South Africa. I beg the General to engage that the slaughtered animals be compensated, and the rest of the animals can return again from Potmini to the little water Hasis in the next neighbouring, where in this bad year is a little more food. I should be very grateful if the General would permit me to go myself with a patrol to Potmini to prevent more loss of cattles, date palms and other trees, by the going away of my Damaras. Mr. C."
He was allowed to send a native girl over to Potmini with this epistle, and we took the opportunity of sending a message as well, informing the officer in charge of the precarious state of the hospital. She returned in two days with the report that all the stock had disappeared from the farm. "I am a poor man !" wailed Mr. C. "What shall I do now ?" What he did was to sit down and write a long rigmarole to the Minister of Defence putting in a claim of £1,600 for alleged losses. As for us, we received the laconic note: "There are no troops at Potmini. Have informed Swakupmund of your position !" For any help Swakupmund can send us, he might as well have informed Timbuktu.
To-day some enemy subjects were found in possession of two shot-guns and two sporting Mausers, although all firearms were supposed to have been handed in when the place was taken. We are very anxious to get hold of a shot-gun, or even a rifle, so that we may vary our menu a little. Boiled mutton and cabbage stalks are getting a little monotonous, and the latter are showing signs of coming to an end.
To-night the welcome news is circulated that a brigade train is three miles away; but our joy is tempered with apprehension, for, not belonging to our brigade, they may be unwilling or unable to give us anything. It seems very curious and difficult to realize that we strong and healthy men are suddenly shut off from the common necessaries of life and all communication with the outside world. So far we have joked about being hungry, but the Major leaves no stone unturned in his efforts to keep the place going. Yesterday he exchanged a sheep for 18 pounds of mealie-meal and 5 pounds of rice. To-day he has been negotiating for a little milk for the men, but without success, for it would mean the patients and children going short. So far the wounded have lacked nothing, but the preparing and carrying in of their savoury meals must be a considerable strain upon our hungry orderlies.
May 11.---The brigade train of the 2nd Brigade has arrived. The Major, through the good offices of our patient the quartermaster-sergeant, managed to get two sacks of mealie-meal and a box of biscuits out of them, and this has heartened our boys more than a great victory would have done, although it only means one biscuit each a day and a little mealie-meal porridge. The inhabitants made attempts to buy rice, coffee, sugar, and mealie-meal; but, of course, they could not have any, for twenty half-loaded waggons seemed to be little enough for the 2,500 starving men waiting for them. It is to be hoped that this transport will come up with their brigade, for nobody here can tell them in which direction the troops have moved. We also heard with some concern that our own supplies have been diverted from this route, and are being sent direct to Karibib; but the certain knowledge that General Britz has occupied this place more than compensates us for this bad news.
The brigade train had experienced a most gruelling time dragging the waggons up the sandy bed of the Swakup for nearly a hundred miles. Whoever is to blame for failures in the Q.M.G.'s department, it is certainly not the men who are in charge of the waggons or motor-lorries. One and all have worked like heroes, day and night, with little expectation of kudos or reward. If I were a sculptor, I would design a great monument of men and animals of the transport, with a mule chafed and scarred at the top, and put it in front of the Government Buildings in Windhuk.
May 12.---It is becoming abundantly clear that we cannot maintain a hospital here much longer unless we get stores. We would very much like an explanation from the army medical staff as to why we are left here to live or die, without orders or assistance. If we had sufficient petrol, we would risk mines and chance of capture, and motor our patients over to Karibib; but without petrol and oil our four motor ambulances stand there useless, grim witnesses of their own limitations. However, by putting what little petrol and oil remains in all the cars into one, the driver "thinks" he will be able to do the forty miles between here and Karibib; and, the Major taking his courage in both hands, they set off on what no doubt is a perilous journey: for the road is said to be mined, and as yet no vehicles have been that way. All day long I hear explosions, and see bits of Major, mechanic, and motor, flying skywards in my imagination. It is nine at night before we see, with feelings of great relief, the lights of the returning car, and presently hear it grinding its way through the river-bed and so home. "Nobody knows anything about anything," is all I can get out of the tired Major. However, they got some rations and promises of more. General Botha, they say, has formally entered Windhuk to-day without resistance.
While the Major was away I interviewed the garrison commandant, a sergeant of EngineersÑ in charge of a squad of three disaffected privates, the sole protectors of the town. He said they were put here to grind mealies; but as there were none to grind, as the supply of food was finished, and as his horses were daily becoming weaker, it was his intention to evacuate the town.
The idea of being without protection is very alarming to the German inhabitants. Already they declare that their native servants have refused to work; and if they are left alone, they expect that the "semi-wild" natives who live in the mountains to the east, and who exist upon game and roots, will raid them. Here, as elsewhere, the German farmer and villager are living in constant dread of natives, both Hottentot and Herero; and if an evil conscience makes people afraid, they have every reason to be so. Before the Herero rebellion in 1904, Otjimbingwe seems to have been a centre of these people. The town itself suffered in the rebellion, buildings being fired and a few people killed. The brother of our present landlord was killed outside his own door, and his house gutted, as photographs in the possession of the family show. But the Germans here are reticent as to what has become of the natives in these parts, for although a large Herero reserve is shown on the map, none are to be seen except a few herds and servant-girls, all very subdued and tame, and given to the singing of German hymns. Ugly rumour has it that most of them were driven into the desert to die of hunger or thirst.
The climate here at this time of the year is on the whole pleasant. The atmosphere is very dry, and all the time we have been here I have seen neither cloud nor dew. Just before dawn each day a northeast wind begins to blow with great regularity. It gets stronger towards afternoon, and ceases at sunset. The days, especially the afternoons, are hot, the thermometer in the shade generally registering over 100 degrees. As soon as the sun goes down it becomes chilly, and before dawn the temperature may be down to freezing-point; so that there is a diurnal variation of 70 degrees, which is, I should think, rather exceptional.
Moon and stars are very bright in these parts, and both the Great Bear and the Southern Cross are visible. For the sunrises and sunsets alone the country is worth a visit. So still is the atmosphere at these times that one can often distinguish all the spectral colours, from the violet at the zenith to the red on the horizon.
To-day I explored the bed of the Omusemu River, which joins the right bank of the Swakup at Otjimbingwe, cutting the town into two parts. As this so-called river is typical of a great number of watercourses in Damaraland, I will describe it briefly. The first thing one notices is the absence of surface water. Only very occasionally do these rivers come down, and then only for a short while. Two factors are responsible for this---the porous nature of the soil, and the comparatively slight rainfall; but they all have steady streams of underground water, often very abundant and good, and this at no very great depth, generally anything from 10 to 50 feet. The Omusemu varies in width from 200 to 600 yards; indeed, in many places its limits are very indefinite, so low are the banks.
But the most striking thing about it is the luxuriant vegetation. Away from the river there are only a few stunted thorn-trees and a little sparse grass. As soon as you get to the bank of the river this is all changed. Gigantic acacias larger than the biggest oak, and of the same spreading habit, which denotes strength of limb, fringe the banks at intervals, or grow, in family groups and sometimes singly, in the bed of the river. Thorn-trees of smaller varieties abound on the numerous islands, and there is very thick undergrowth in places. Several varieties of grass grow freely and to a considerable height. All this goes to create a very beautiful and park-like appearance. Viewed from a distant hill, a river like this is a very conspicuous feature of the landscape, a broad belt of verdure winding through a comparative desert, to be lost to sight in the distant mountains.
May 16.---A Cape cart arrived from Karibib to-day, bringing some stores and petrol. We also received orders to evacuate our hospital to Karibib, and to proceed to Windhuk via Groot Barmen without delay. With a little squeezing it would be possible to get all the wounded into the four cars, including the prisoners, one or two of whom were now almost well. As we had no escort, there was a possibility of the prisoners trying to escape, especially as they were never tired of telling us how they were looking forward to their visit to Cape Town. To prevent this contingency, orders were issued that they were to go clothed in pyjamas and overcoats, boots and water-bottles being withheld.
May 17.---We were up at five this morning, and had all the wounded dressed and fed by seven. To stow them comfortably for a long and rough motor journey was not very easy, especially as three of them had leg wounds and were unable to sit up. However, by propping them up with pillows and bags, and by suspending the splints from the frames of the cars with bandages, we got them all arranged to their satisfaction. Just before starting, each man received a good dose of morphia, including the Germans who we suspected might attempt to escape. All were in the best of spirits; even the man who had done nothing but whine and complain for the last three weeks seemed to be buoyed up with hope. In spite of the morphia, and in spite of the fact that we only travelled at the rate of ten miles an hour, the journey left something to be desired from a wounded man's point of view. The cars were much too heavily laden, the road very rough and uneven. Consequently, the frames of the cars came down with a bang on the axles every few yards with great regularity, which was followed with equal regularity by a chorus of groans. It was almost humorous the way the poor beggars sat with a rigid, fixed expression, anticipating every bump, and occasionally, I thought, emitting the groan before the jolt occurred. For the first ten miles or so the road ran north along the bank of the Omusemu, when it crossed a loop of the river where, in a beautiful little dell, a deep well is situated, with its sides protected by masonry, and operated by means of a windlass, chain, and bucket. Turning westward through a poort, we came into fine upland country with plenty of grass, and near to Karibib passed a large farm enclosed with a wire fence, belonging to a wealthy Jew engaged extensively in horse-breeding.
Karibib itself is not an interesting place. Standing almost on the edge of the desert, it is very nearly devoid of trees. A high wind was blowing, and this combined with the movements of numerous troops and waggons caused the place to be almost obscured in a great cloud of dust, through which one could make out a few roofs, and a great mountain on the farther side. This place is important for its railway workshops. Here the two-foot gauge railway from Swakupmund ends, and a three-foot-six gauge railway begins the line for Windhuk, Keetmanshoop, and Luderitzbucht. With their usual thoroughness and attention to detail, our sanguine foes had constructed a large wire cage with sidings into it from both railways, wherein they hoped to, and possibly did, exhibit any of the Union forces who were unfortunate enough to fall into their hands. "Nothing I have seen during the whole campaign," said an officer, "has given me so much pleasure as seeing the ungodly Huns in their own pit; and if I had only had my camera with me the day I saw them in it, my cup of joy would have been full."
We took our patients straight to the hospital. Though the medical authorities knew four days ago that we were coming, the officer in charge of the hospital had not been informed; consequently our arrival was quite unexpected. Still, the hospital authorities did their best, though the patients had not the nice beds they had with us, and the rooms were small and unsuitable. The accommodation, too, was quite inadequate for a large base hospital, and all but the most severe cases had to be content with shake-downs in a large shed adjoining. A general order had appeared forbidding commandeering even for the hospital, and as a result many of our sick and wounded had to lie on the ground, although there were plenty of beds in the town. In fact, not only here, but everywhere, the General was most careful to protect the interests and property of the inhabitants. I had occasion to visit headquarters, for the Rhenish missioner at Otjimbingwe had asked me to take a letter to the General explaining the precarious condition of the inhabitants, who were on the verge of starvation and expecting native raids. The Chief of Staff was most sympathetic, but explained that at present it was quite impossible to police occupied towns. But, with regard to feeding German civilians, arrangements were being made, and he gave me ten days' rations for such people as I could assure him were badly in need of them. And this, too, at a time when the troops in Karibib, General Britz's brigade and an infantry brigade, were on half-rations, if that, and we ourselves could only obtain half-rations for our trek to Windhuk. I think it can safely be said that General Botha's soldiers went short of food without a murmur, in order that the wives and children of men who were in arms against them might be fed.
The general military situation with regard to the Northern Army is now as follows: The infantry are along the line from Walfisch to Karibib, and the Burghers are spread out like a fan, also along the line, but in a semicircle almost from Karibib to Windhuk, the left wing of the 3rd Brigade at the latter place, under Colonel Mentz, being engaged in capturing or dispersing the remains of the enemy east of the line. The Burghers are occupying their time in reorganizing, which means, chiefly, trying to get their horses into better condition preparatory to making another rush. The Germans are watching us in a line parallel to ours, but some distance north, Omaruru being, perhaps, their headquarters and point of concentration.
Doctor's Diary in Damaraland index